Responses & Responsibilities

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James Elkins, in What Photography Is (2011), analyses photographs from 1905 of Lingqi, the Chinese ‘death by a thousand cuts’. (chapter 6, pg 177-220). I will not post the images here. Perhaps in that I am guilty of the kind of censorship that Tori Rose Deghett describes, but I think that is an editorial decision, not a political decision, which is an empathetic one on behalf of for my audience. One could argue that these images, taken closer to the dawn of photography than to the present day, are amongst the most horrific ever made – perhaps denying Sontag’s early views that images of atrocity anaesthetise us over time.

In that sense, I have acute sympathy with news editors, who have to decide on what to publish. I would have no hesitation in publishing Richard Drew’s Falling Man (2001), as an image both of considerable studium and punctum, and public interest. I do not see this as a political image, despite the controversy after it was first published, but an intensely poignant and personal one – of the choices these unfortunate victims had to make, to stay and burn, or to jump and die. Drew has publicly stated he never regretted taking the photograph.

In great detail, Elkins describes the sequence of Lingqi images, and the specifics of every cut made by the executioner. The chapter is not for the faint hearted.

Elkins concludes that the formal analysis of images is:

    1. Taken to be effectively neutral – ‘It does not distort a picture’s meanings, and so it is fairly unproblematic as a starting point’.
    2. Appropriate for elementary pedagogy – ‘It is the stock in trade for ‘art appreciation’ .. encouraging students to articulate what they see’.
    3. Bureaucratic – ‘ Because it is systematic and thorough .. it labels and classifies everything in sight’.
    4. Effectively noninvasive – ‘It does not disturb the artwork’s emotional, aesthetic or intellectual power‘.

Yet it is also …

    1. Cold – ‘It forecloses empathy, suppressing a full and open encounter with the subject of the image’.
    2. Dissective – ‘Visual dissection is strictly analogous to actual dissection’.
    3. Provides the illusion of control – ‘My desire to possess the image, to understand it, is regimented and kept in check by the incremental progresso the analysis’.
    4. Increases the pain of looking at the image – ‘The pain of interpretation is inseparable from the pleasure the image is expected to yield‘.

He argues that photography is more than Barthes’ punctum, more than simply ‘that which has been’. In its essence, photography is not just about capturing what has happened in people’s lives – it isn’t defined by documentary, or family albums, or fine art, or portraiture. Photography can be images of amoeba, or fragments of moon rock, or dust from the wreckage of 9/11 – which we can only see because of photography. And photography includes the billion of social media snapshots that very few people care about.

Photography can also shock, like the Lingqi images. Elkins is offering no censorship, and no pre-conception. He wants us to consider ‘formal’ analysis, but he also asks that we seek the meanings within a photograph. He warns that if we follow a formalistic approach to critique it is a risk that:

I see O’Sullivan’s stones and Edgerton’s atomic explosions the same way I see the delirious face of the man being cut to pieces‘. (James Elkins, 2011: 210)

The photograph in the header is one I took at Tuol Sleng, in 1994, where over 12,000 were photographed, interrogated, tortured, confessed and condemned to brutal execution. On one level, it is a ‘dark tourist‘ snap, similar to thousands made by others, without people or even obvious time-stamping. It is a dispassionate, maybe even tedious documentary record of what is now in a museum – it is a trace of a trace of a trace (to paraphrase David Campany).

We could analyse the image according to Szarkowski’s 5 points, consider whether it has any studium or punctum, or how Barthes’ 6 points apply, and so forth.

However, if we really look at the image, we see the paintings of Vann Nath, depicting the tortures carried out by the Khmer Rouge. He was ‘commissioned’ to paint these in 1979, by the Vietnamese liberators. One can debate the painting style, and I have a suspicion that, for some viewers, his style might detract from the authenticity and the impact.

Compare this with El Greco’s martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.

El Greco. 1610-1614. Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Prado.

El Greco’s work shows off his masterful ability to depict the nude, and clearly casts the saint as heroic. Only when one really looks at the painting do we start to consider what actually happened. The wounds. The pain. The inevitably slow death. But did El Greco change anything, other than painting – was he even trying to?

So, perhaps Vann Nath is doing a better job, as it is hard to debate the ‘direct truthfulness’ of what happened from his work. I have seen these paintings many times over the years, and I have observed how visitors to Tuol Sleng respond. They almost always stop, and ponder. And the placement of these paintings, towards the end of any ‘tour’, adds to their impact.

Here is how the paintings are presented, today. This is an exercise in rephotography, with little change over 25 years, although perhaps my latest photograph has more ‘impact’. It’s still rather literal – and in that sense only marginally improves on the ability to ‘stop’ a viewer, and get them to think. Again, it is an indirect trace of what really happened.

Mick Yates. 2018. Tuol Sleng.

So, stepping back from all of this, I am totally with Susi Linfield, that we need to see images of atrocity. Even Sontag changed her mind on that point. Linfield notes:

 ‘Photojournalists are responsible for the ethics of showing, but we are responsible for the ethics of seeing’ (Susi Linfield, 2010: 60).

Our interpretation is coloured by the aesthetics of an image, whether painting or photograph.  Martha Rosler makes it clear that all images are essentially political, and to impact an audience, to affect some kind of change, we need to consider innovative visual strategies.

‘Perhaps a radical documentary can be brought into existence. But the common acceptance of the idea that documentary preceded, supplants, transcends, or cures full, substantive social activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary’. (Martha Rosler, 2004: 196)

On this I agree. One can make a strong case that Dorothea Lange’s work for the Farm Security Administration was propaganda, but one cannot deny Robert Frank’s unique and perceptive view on the American condition. That said, did Frank’s work actually change anything, other than the history of photography – or was it simply an early example of an existing, fledging social movement, well beyond photography?

One can equally debate the aesthetics in James Nachtwey’s work, but I do not think one can argue about the power of his images to make us stop and look, and to consider what has happened and hopefully that we should now do.

James Nachtwey. 1992. Famine in Somalia.

Can photography change things? I am genuinely not sure, but I know it has to try.

Consider the image of Aylan (Alan) Kurdi, by Nilüfer Demir.

Nilüfer Demir. 2015. Aylan Kurdi.

This image shocked the world. Demir said:

‘There was nothing left to do for him. There was nothing left to bring him back to life … I thought, this is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body’  (CNN Interview, 2015).

She felt a personal, ethical responsibility to take that image, and share it with the world. For a while, it seemed like it might change public perception about refugees. But the ongoing social rhetoric seemed to quite quickly cast this image to the past. In other words, the context of the image outweighed its intrinsic power.

By contrast, the so-called Napalm Girl (Kim Phúc), photographed by Nick Ut (1972), instantly showed the horror of war and the impact on civilians of how the war was waged. Ut prefers to call the image Terror of War. It was both a social document, and a journalistic ‘one-off’. The New York Times initially baulked at publishing it, because of the naked child, but relented in the public interest. The image won the Pulitzer Prize (1973). Richard Nixon even apparently ‘wondered if the image was fixed’, as he knew its impact on the public.

Nick Ut. 1972. Terror of War.

This photograph was ‘of its time’. Whilst the US was already ‘Vietnamizing’ the war, withdrawing their own troops, the image was etched in public perception. Arguably it was part of the opinion shift that slowed Congressional support for supporting South Vietnam, and thus enabled North Vietnamese victory. It is often forgotten that the US was still bombing Cambodia, and that only stopped in 1973. For another post perhaps.

To effect change, there are two pathways, as pointed out by Chris Argyris, in Double Loop Learning. The first is to affect the way we think about things, and the second is to affect how we act. The latter is much harder, challenging our deep, underlying assumptions. I do believe photography can challenge our thinking. But I have a suspicion that much more social context and even political pressure is needed to really challenge our deeply held assumptions, and thus the way we act.

In my own work, I am attempting to tell the Unfinished Stories of survivors of the Khmer Rouge Genocide. In a sense, the facts of the Genocide are thus context for and in support of these stories. I am working with aftermath, today’s situation, rather than what happened at the time. Yet, I do want my audience to ‘think again’, or in some cases, think for the first time about what happened.

I do not believe that I can be literal, as the events are long ago, and I am much influenced by Sophie Ristelhueber‘s work, seeking traces of what happened, almost metaphorical images to change perceptions. In so many ways, my creative challenge is the opposite of what I have written about above. I can’t ‘shock’ without being trite, so how can I create allegorical work with the power to ‘stop’ my audience?

I had considering how I might make my earlier traces or negative images stand for all such atrocities, today, and not just Cambodia. But in this regard, David Levi-Strauss might have it right:

‘The photographer operates as a distanced, superior, ‘objective’ witness to war, poverty, labour and exotic cultural practices in other parts of the world. Photographs taken from this position may elicit pity, sorrow or guilt in their viewers but they will never provide information for change’. (2003, pg 45).

Generality is not a solution.

Final comment: W. Eugene Smith said, in the Best of Life (Scherman, 1973: 165):

The belief, the try, a camera and some film – the fragile weapons of my good intentions. With these I fought war‘.

Perhaps that is all that any ‘concerned’ photographer can do. Try.

Time will tell.

ARGYRIS, Chris and SCHÖN, Donald. 1996. Organizational Learning II: Theory Method & Practice. Boston: Addison Wesley.

CAMPANY, David. 2003. Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on Problems of ‘Late Photography’. David Campany website. Available at: (accessed 26/3/2018).

DEGHETT, Tori Rose. 2014. The War Photo No One Would Publish. The Atlantic. Available at: (accessed 17/03/2019).

ELKINS, James. 2011. What Photography Is. New York: Routledge.

GRIGGS, Brandon. 2015. Interview with with Nilüfer Demir. Available at: (accessed 04/02/2018).

LEVI STRAUSS, David. 2003. Between the Eyes. New York: Aperture.

LINFIELD, Susie. 2010. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

RISTELHUEBER, Sophie, MAYER, Marc & LADD, Jeffrey. 2009. Sophie Ristelhueber: Fait (Books on Books).New York: Errata.

ROSLER, Martha. 2004. Decoys and Disruptions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

SCHERMAN, David. 1973. The Best of LIFE. New York: Time Life Books.

SONTAG, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux.

VANN, Nath. 1998. A Cambodian Prison Portrait. Bangkok: White Lotus.

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