17th October 2013
The reception of photographs by the public has many facets of scrutiny to pass through before finally being accepted as ‘truth’, emotional reaction released to the sight depicted, and finally to raising mind barriers to protect themselves from negative saturation of the ‘spirit’.
This phenomenon of reactions to photographic atrocity was first recorded during the American Civil War when images of the horrendous conditions at the Andersonville Prisoner-of-War Camp, operated by the Confederate States, aroused the indignation of the Northern populace who called for retaliation against the perpetrators. This arousal of public opinion probably led to the trial and subsequent execution of the camp commandant, Capt. Wirtz, on charges of war crimes against the inmates. Whilst his discipline was extremely harsh, it’s hardly surprising considering that at one point he had 33,000 inmates to control in a prison designed for 10,000, and the reasons for the physical condition of the prisoners was the fault of the Confederate governments failure to supply adequate materiel for their proper support. Regardless of the facts, the effect that those images had on the American public, who blindly accepted them as true (consistent with the idea ‘the camera never lies’ of the time), shows the naive attitude toward documentary and photojournalistic photography of the time and highlights the difference of today’s attitude toward these same types of images. Such large-scale atrocities are fortunately rare, although the impact they have on the memory is long-lived and could lead anyone to believe that they occur regularly.
Susan Sontag wrote about her personal encounter with images of the holocaust from the WWII, probably those of George Rodger, who was first into Bergen-Belsen when it was relieved, and her reaction to them. Discussing this matter she finally made a quote, which she later regretted as she had no empirical proof and later withdrew, that these types of images did more harm to relief agency fund-raising than good. It is true however that another quote she made in the same piece of writing has validity, ‘We become inured to terrible events because we become over-familiar with them through photographs’, although this is disputed. What is clear is that her thinking along those lines is an analogue of what is a common belief and could well have come about from the increased sophistication of the reception and acceptance of the ‘truth’ of photographic images. No longer does an overwhelming majority of the populace, in developed nations, accept what is shown them in pictures as being ‘THE truth’. Ever increasing scepticism of journalistic output, which includes photographs, has arisen from the knowledge that not everything that is captured within the frame is all the story, the public are now aware that what is left out of an image can hold as much importance as what’s contained in it. The fact that photographers in the past have not been averse to moving items, bodies and other things to increase the dramatic effect have created scandal, and as a result the credibility for what they’re now shown has decreased in proportion. Along with the modern notion that all images are manipulated in Photoshop to render them more dramatic before publication, and the known ability to create photographic scenes without a camera ever having been used, are without doubt justifiable reasons for the scepticism.
I would argue against a similar effect having been seen by charitable institutions in their appeals, and their need now to use advertising agencies to raise funds because genuine images of tragedy don’t bring in the necessary funds. Compassion Fatigue, as it’s known, is something that is quantified annually by the Disasters Emergency Committee and has found that response to disasters and appeals has not reduced and has in fact grown year-on-year, although response to individual appeals varies markedly. So does this then mean that the images that are being produced to highlight these emergencies are in fact still having the same positive effect they once had in their help with raising funds?
The answer is that they are still necessary in-as-much as they illustrate in a way what words alone cannot about the situation on the ground, but they by themselves don’t generate the compassion necessary to give funds. It therefore raises the question, why is the perception of their importance the opposite? My personal belief is that people don’t become inured to the sight of these constant tragedies, they protect their ‘spirit’ from the constant barrage of negative connotations they give. Without this hardened shell protecting them, the constant onslaught of requests for giving from every charitable cause imaginable, from animal protection and conservation to famine and tragedy relief, would become overwhelming if we responded to them all, and the terrible sights depicted by the images associated with the campaign for your money would become so powerfully destructive to our mental well-being we would become mentally deranged. The human psyche most probably has a coping mechanism built-in which switches in when our individual comfort level for such scenes is exceeded, it isn’t lack of compassion, it’s self-preservation.