To what extent can mediated images of suffering be considered voyeuristic?

Whenever we view images of humanitarian crises and suffering and remain idle, we could be considered voyeurs. However, does this mean that when images of this kind do prompt the supply of humanitarian aid, we are not voyeuristic? In contrast, it seems our post-modern world is becoming increasingly uncaring towards victims of crises and suffering. For instance, images of the European Migrant Crisis have played into a post-terror sensibility and resulted in the public turning their frustrations outward and radicalizing their discourse against immigration (Postelnicescu, 2016, p. 205). Though, has the government created this reaction for a propagandist purpose? And is there anyway we can justify our gaze?

Sontag acknowledges that “images were expected to arrest attention, startle, surprise” (2003, p. 20). In spite of this, images of crises and suffering are relayed to us continuously through news, advertisements, and many other vehicles. As a result, the suffering we see has mostly become “infotainment – just another commodity” and “our experience and our understanding of a crisis is weakened, diluted and distorted” (Moeller, 1999, p. 35). This indifference is called compassion fatigue, “becoming so used to the spectacle of dreadful events, misery or suffering that we stop noticing them” (Tester, 2001, p. 13). It could be argued that this response is a defense mechanism, as the only way people can continue with their normal lives is by “detaching themselves in such a way that where there might have been engagement and compassion, there is instead weariness and apathy” (Tester, 2001, p. 15). This could be why we overlook suffering: because there is too much of it.

Perhaps, it is compassion fatigue that allows politicians and the media to ignore suffering and prioritize political concerns. For example, the government does not want to help a country they have no ‘interests’ in or if there are no high-profile political issues at stake. Also, if we, the public, are largely unaware of an issue, there is no need for any response because media and political interest/ disinterest has a direct effect on the amount of support that a crises will receive. This relates to the theory that the media is our ‘gatekeeper’ meaning that they decide what we know about and do not know about. This is why some crises and suffering gain immediate coverage, whereas others get a delayed, or even no response. The European Migrant Crisis was going on for years before it finally got bad enough to be recognized by politicians and the media. Serban, referencing Breed, understands that the media can slant stories by “omission, differential selection and preferential placement” to display a “pro-policy item” or bury an “anti-policy story” (2015, p. 18).

It is possible that compassion fatigue can lead to “a voyeuristic or even ‘pornographic’ disposition towards suffering” (Chouliaraki, 2013, p. 38). Many thinkers, like Moeller suggest that “watching and reading about suffering … has become a form of entertainment” (1999, p. 34). “Images of the repulsive can … allure” (Sontag, 2003, p. 85), hence sometimes we enjoy consuming “ever delightful spectacle of poverty and catastrophe” (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 67). Sontag points out that “needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted” (1977, p. 24).

However, the destitution of others has only become “our adventure playground” (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 67) as the victims are at a distance. We have “been freed from the moral obligation to act” (Chouliaraki, 2006, p. 145) because “they are infinitely close as objects; but doomed to remain, happily, infinitely remote as subjects of action” (Bauman, 1993, p. 178).

This is possible because, with the Internet and 24-hour news, we live in a Global Village: “coined by Marshal McLuhan … in the early 1960s” (Louw, 2016, p. 2). Living in a Global Village means “public indifference can no longer be attributed to ignorance as it once could” (Finkielkraut, 1998, p. 141). As Bauman identifies, “space stopped being an obstacle” and consequently, we can see suffering from around the world in “just a split second” (1998, p. 77), unlike during World War Two, when the British public and even politicians could argue, with some plausibility, that they did not know about the horrors of the Holocaust while they were happening. Although, perhaps nowadays we are forced into a spectatorial position, as we cannot escape images of suffering, even if we want to.

Some could say that images of crises or suffering cannot replace seeing the real thing. Sontag expresses that “a photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence” (1977, p. 16). We must see refugees face-to-face to feel morally moved and be convinced to take real action, because it is only once you see a victim’s face, that you feel “responsible for his mortality” (Levinas, 1998, p. 91). No photograph can replicate those emotions, no matter how atrocious the suffering it depicts.

Although, sometimes seeing images of suffering from across our global village does stir us into action. Powerful images can, at times have a great impact on us because “it seems we feel mostly through our eyes” (Bauman, 1989, p. 155). As Sontag notes, the iconic photo of the South Vietnamese child from 1972 almost certainly did more “to increase public revulsion against the war” than any news report (1977, p. 18). The media and politicians utilize these emotions as “reports on the migration crisis are often available in the form of combination of texts” to raise “the level of emotional perception by consumers” (Galikhuzina, Penkovtsev & Shibanova, 2016, p. 27).

However, we usually still do not do enough. We concentrate on charity and raising awareness, and forget about the bigger picture. Is donating £2 a month, buying a ‘Choose Love’ T-shirt, and sharing the iconic picture of Alan Kurdi on Facebook enough to acquit us of moral responsibility? Tester, citing Simpson, suggests that charity will not help in the long run and we need to ignite real political change (2001, pp. 96-97). Yet, it looks as if like we are always expecting someone else to act for us.

Politicians often put a focus on charity and raising awareness, to avoid having to take political action. Stories can be mediated so that we do not get the whole picture, “all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently” (Sontag, 1977, p. 22). Serban, referencing Galtung and Ruge, admits that “the media image of an event” can often appear different to “what happened in reality” (2015, p. 23). If we only see partial suffering, it would be only natural that we have a partial response. Then again, with the thousands of different news sources and the Internet, many have debated that “we do not have the defense of ignorance” (Tester, 2001, p. 4).

Even if we do donate to charity, after that, we quickly forget about the suffering. This is thanks to the short attention span of the media, which is quick to disregard big stories after they have been covered. For example, almost all of the British media responded sympathetically to the shocking image of Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach. The Daily Mail labeled the event “heart-breaking” (Hall, 2015) and the Daily Express called it “tragic” (Lee, 2015). And yet, the press still returned to condemning refugees and migrants after the incident. This year the Daily Mail continued to portray refugees as a drain on British resources (Harding, 2016) and the Daily Express has described them as “unruly” (Mowat, 2016).

With the British media’s negative representation of refugees, it could be claimed we do react to images of humanitarian crises but we react harmfully. We are not voyeuristic because when we see images of refugees we blame and demonize them. This is evident is the growing popularity of UKIP and Britain’s departure from the EU. Perhaps this is because “in the face of fear, people want to feel safe” (Postelnicescu, 2016, p. 204) and refugees become the “necessary Others” (Celik, 2015, p. 129), in a similar way to how the Jews became the ‘necessary Others’ for the Nazi party and a lot of the German public.

Levinas claims that “no one is good voluntarily” (1998, p. 11), nevertheless, the public probably would not think this way without the correct political discourse. Sontag thinks that “photographs cannot create a moral position”, they can only “reinforce one” (1977, p. 17).

Politicians and the media have established refugees as Others and consequently heightened fears surrounding terrorism and safety to serve their own political agenda. This could be considered a very inhumane response to suffering, though conceivable judging by Europe’s history of colonialism and imperialism. By Othering this minority, British authorities are eroding the public’s moral inhibitions against atrocities.

Galikhuzina et al. found that even in the “politically correct media” refugees are represented as, above all, part of a “mass with out names”, “which negatively affects perceiving refugees and building up a dialogue” (2016, p. 31). This type of prejudice “leads to a collective paranoia of fear: radicalization of emotions, political populism, closing of borders in Europe, exclusive thinking and defensive attitudes with the emphasis on internal, domestic and civil issues (our people) rather than on dislocated strangers (the outsiders)” (Louw, 2016, p. 2).

Framing refugees as Others creates a dangerous distance. The more distance there is between the victims of crises and us, the less moral responsibility we feel. Bauman recognized that the greater the distance, physical or psychical, indifference “may eventually be replaced with resentment” (1989, p. 184) and “the easier it was to be cruel” (1989, p. 155). Arguably, we want the suffering to remain at a distance so that we never have to feel responsible. We are thankful that they are “the far-away locals, and pray they stay that way” (Bauman, 1998, p. 76).

Overall, the negative depiction of refugees in politics and the media has produced a damaging public perception and reaction, leading to prejudice and xenophobia. However, some epochal images of suffering can still stir us into action. The influential photograph of Alan Kurdi’s body lying on the Mediterranean shore opened many people’s eyes. Although the public forgot, thanks to fast paced news cycles and political disinterest. Ultimately, nothing can have the same impact as seeing the torment of these individuals with your own eyes. Yet, in our Global Village, we remotely witness crises and suffering every day. The European Migrant crisis has made headlines for the past two years and we still take no action. The bombardment of images of the Migrant Crisis from the media has created a compassion fatigue, comparable to the compassion fatigue we experience surrounding poverty in ‘Africa’, a continent “invariably presented as a place of endemic and persistent pain” (Tester, 2001, p. 7), which many of us have experienced for most of our lives. On top of that, the cultural and psychological distance that politicians and the media have built between refugees and us means that we feel less emotional strain seeing them suffer than if, for example, we saw someone from our own city suffer. In fact, some people can find images of suffering addictive, even prurient and it could be argued that images of suffering are violating and intrusive. Sontag believed that “to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s morality, vulnerability, mutability” (1977, p. 15); so perhaps we are taking advantage of the “poor abroad” who cannot defend themselves as the West has rendered them “silent and powerless” (Clark, 1997, p. 158). Even if we do feel some moral liability and sympathy, we simply donate a few pounds to charity, which is not enough. Arguably, politicians have engineered our response to refugees, to take advantage of our panic and loathing, our disinterest, and our charitableness.

Whether “compassion, or indignation, or titillation, or approval” (Sontag, 2003, p. 16) motivates our gaze, fundamentally, in this postmodern world, we are principally motivated by “individualism and the search for the good life” (Bauman, 1993, p. 3), so often, seeing images of humanitarian crises and suffering can in fact make us more self-preserving and outwardly hostile.



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