Trigger warning: Photos in this post are of war and its effects. They are disturbing.
I’ve been thinking about beautiful photographs of dreadful things for a long time. They make me viscerally uncomfortable. I’ll look at the front page of a newspaper and react positively to a beautifully composed photograph, and then I realize it’s of fighters shooting guerrillas and someone is dying in the corner of the photo and I react with quick anger. Not all of this kind of work is beautifully composed, but I’m reflecting on the work that is. There are many exceptions.
Malian soldiers fight while clashes erupted in the city of Gao on February 21, 2013 and an apparent car bomb struck near a camp. (Frederic Lafargue/AFP/Getty Images)
This is also one of those times where lots of things are true at the same time. The people who take these photos are courageous. Sometimes they are doing important and useful work. Sometimes they are creating dangerous lies.
I saw this photo at an exhibition and didn’t realize the subject until I saw the title. Here the artist is playing with horror and beauty and that’s a different thing – although I am not any more comfortable with it.
Enrique Metinides, “Rescate de un ahogado en Xochimilco con público reflejado en el agua,” (Retrieval of a drowned body from Lake Xochimilco with the public reflected in the water.)
In war photography and its equivalents, the beauty of the composition can distance the viewer from the horror of the images, making them easier to view. Perhaps for some photographers, some distance also makes taking these photos less difficult.
This is from the war in Biafra. I couldn’t find the photo credit.
It is the very rare viewer that wants to experience the reality of theses images. Creating “manageable” images gives the viewer a “taste” of the horror.
And photographers are trained to thoughtfully compose. And work that is too “real” is less likely to be bought and published. So I expect there is both conscious and unconscious self censorship in the genre. (And it is a genre.)
This is not only about photography per se. The censorious reactions to Goya’s painted War Series are a historical example. A few years ago, Botero’s paintings of the tortures of Abu Ghraib were exhibited here at a university library, because no museum would show them.
At this point I’m not sure that my reactions are simply an extension of the ethics of my own work. The work I’m discussing feels to me to be dehumanizing and separating, but I’m not sure that my thoughts are more broadly applicable. I’m still thinking about it.