Images the catalyst for action but not change

Kim PhucThere are few activities more unsettling than viewing images of deceased or distressed children. That doesn't need to be said.

I will frame it better: There few worse activities than looking at photos of such children which are being displayed as political propaganda.

I'm sorry if that is a triggering statement. Or perhaps I'm not sorry: this is a literal a snapshot of where we are right now; this is what the normalisation of white supremacy and middle-class-ness has done to us. It has made suffering both invisible and a spectacle.

I don't cry easily, but when I saw that image, I lost it. I'm not telling you that so you'll think I am kind or sympathetic.

I cried because that body looked so much like my tiny nephew, and his preciousness and vulnerability, both of theirs, was close to the bone. The man who found the body of Aylan Kurdi said something similar: 'I thought of my own son when I saw him.'

If you are confused about what privilege is, it's not having to connect with the gravity of oppression until you test out a horrific hypothetical on a family member.

By 'us', I am speaking to people who, like me, benefit from both the conditions that colonialism has made possible (affluence; freedom of movement; iPhones; cultural capital), and the conflicts that have emerged from old and new colonial interventions. Those conditions are invisible to us a lot of the time, but relics are always in plain view.

Take, for example, the university where I once studied, which still names many of its buildings after twentieth century eugenicists. The 'Berry Collection', named after an influential eugenicist at the university, housed Aboriginal ancestral remains, without consultation or permission, until the last decade. Can you imagine the purpose they served in a eugenicist's research? And how that research is part of the cultural legacy of the university's cultural capital? I'm sure that by now most people understand that pedigree and prestige are inextricable from oppression.

So perhaps totems of oppression need to be visible, repeated, and shared. The mantra those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it finds its expression in memorials and photographic relics. But I'm not convinced that visual tokens of suffering, shared within safe, affluent settings, changes much. The photographic archives of history include documentation of every kind of horror, and so far this hasn't prevented horror from recurring with alarming regularity.

And I don't believe that cruelty is enabled by a disregard for hurting people, or an inability to empathise.

Cruelty is enabled by both incidental and wilful ignorance about what exactly makes harm seem reasonable, possibly unfair, but on the whole, unavoidable and sometimes even necessary.

Power inequities between genders, for example, are cited as the leading cause of gender-based violence. A photograph can't prove that. A photo can suggest that a woman is abused by her partner. But we are sensitive, we are smart, we already know that domestic violence exists. This photo might mobilise someone to donate money to a charity, or it might give a victim some authority when they testify.

But this picture won't mobilise a person who benefits from gendered power imbalances to change them. No man, upon witnessing the photographic evidence of a woman's bruised face, would feel compelled to encourage a woman to take the job he wants for himself, to speak in his place on a panel, or to pay his female colleague the difference in their annual pay packages. And why would he? The photograph says nothing about such entitlements.

'For more than a century,' writes Susan Sontag in On Photography, 'photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence — with a spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them.'

When the Eric Garner video circulated, the one where police officers 'restrain' him on a New York street and he is killed in the process, and was subsequently followed by the non-indictment of the police officer responsible for his death, it became very clear that photographic evidence is not for redressing injustice. It is for exposing a reality which is otherwise hidden from the comfortably-off.

Where there is a moral imperative to looking at Aylan's tiny body — to acknowledge that this is unbearable, and something needs to change — looking itself can't stand in for addressing our own complicity, our own material indifference.

What really needs to become visible is why and how some people's lives are given priority over others, not how those 'others' are prone to suffer.


Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage is the Editor at The Lifted Brow, commissioning Editor at Spook Magazine, and a graduate student in creative writing.

 

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Aylan Kurdi, asylum seekers, privilege, refugees, Syria, photography, media

 

 

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