To View or Not to View – The Complex Nature of Confronting Photographs

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Starving woman inside a Warsaw ghetto (1941)

As we all know, death is a part of life – over our history there have been multiple mass events of death, not to mention the fact that 151,600 people die every day. Parents, siblings, friends and everyone in between… to be reminded of this is a pretty tough pill to swallow.

Life is cyclical, so if you take a quick look at the other side of the story, you find out that 363,000 people are born everyday. Being exposed to images of death and suffering is extremely important for perspective. It begs the question though – is it ethical to view such provocative images? Images that capture a moment of the worst aspect of life itself?

R Tooth (2014) puts forward the complex dilemma that we face when engaging with these images;

“If you had died a violent and unjust death, wouldn’t you want the world to know all the details surrounding that death? On the other hand, in showing those images, are we perhaps feeding a propaganda machine and fuelling more conflict?”

So can these photos escalate conflict? Leave it unchanged? Bring it to a halt?

Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who washed up on the shores of Turkey in 2014, died as he and his family were trying to escape Syria. A Turkish journalist snapped the photograph, and within days it was plastered on every screen and talked about on every station. Everyone wanted to do something – the world can’t stand for this carnage any longer.

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“Photo of my dead son has changed nothing” – Father of Alan Kurdi, who drowned trying to flee the war-torn country.

Only, nothing happened. His father Abdullah pointed out the biggest problem with photos of death, especially in our society now – it leads to even the most out-of-touch, middle class teenager living in the western world to feel bad while looking at this photo, share it, then go back to watching Netflix.

“The politicians said after the deaths in my family: Never again! Everyone claimed they wanted to do something because of the photo that touched them so much. But what is happening now? People are still dying and nobody is doing anything about it.” – Abdullah Kurdi

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Credit: @khalidalbaih

Which begs another question – for us especially who are just not exposed to these types of situations. Do these photos fall under the category of entertainment?

Yes, they do – the difference though is that this is completely unintentional. It’s a macabre form of entertainment, one that engages us, makes us think and reflect, and makes us even sympathise with those currently involved in life-threatening conflict.

But that’s it. That’s where it ends, we can only sympathise; never empathise.

Which is exactly why I believe that these photographs, at least in our present day, act as entertainment.

I’d also like to quickly distinguish the difference between photos of suffering and death today, and photos taken over the last century. Pictures from WWI and WWII, among other documented genocides and iconic photos, tend to be shone in a different light. Those photos are not consumed by society the same way that present-day photos are – it’s practically instantaneous today, and looking into historically controversial photographs acts more as education rather than entertainment.

It is impossible in our lives to understand what certain people/communities go through without directly going through the same thing, and in many ways, seeing a different side of society is somewhat satisfactory to us. The fact that we are able to even look at whatever atrocity is happening in the world and take a break from our reality to look into another is what puts us in a position of privilege – this separation and ability to snap in and out of sympathy just by looking at other peoples misfortune is what makes this a category of entertainment, completely unintentional, but entertainment nonetheless.

So consume as much stressful content you can – its important to be aware of everything life can hit you with, and its important to recognise the privilege that we have living in developed countries. Some people will see images of suffering, have a moment of reflection and move on, and for others it might spark a fire in them to make a change. Whatever the case, stay open, and humble.


R Tooth, July 2014, “Graphic content: when photographs of carnage are too upsetting to publish”, The Guardian

J Ensor, September 2016, “‘Photo of my dead son changed nothing’ says father of drowned Syrian boy Alan Kurdi”, The Telegraph


The Meaning of the Selfie? Nothing.

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Left to right: Bill Nye, Barack Obama, Neil deGrasse Tyson

Selfies; one of the most scrutinised one-touch actions today.

Over the last few years, there has been a tremendously varied level of analyses that have emerged on the topic, rapidly being churned out almost as fast as the word “selfie” became as common as the word “the”.

After a long period of time where cameras and mobile phones were completely seperate, the biggest agent of change in our time – the change that bridges the gap between a silly photo and something that (in some arguments) exhibits all of our narcissistic traits, is convenience.

Around the time the iPhone first came out, cameras were no longer exclusive to just capturing a moment. Now that they were being built into mobile phones (on which internet was becoming the norm), all the different, and instant, uses of these photos began to create a convenience that would birth a whole culture. A culture that all of us nitpick and try to relate to our hopes and dreams and the way we live, except I believe that it all means… nothing.

When you’re somewhere that you’ve never been before, and seeing all brand new things, a selfie just adds another category of photos you can take – previously, if you went to Paris, you’d take a perfectly framed picture of the Eiffel Tower. But with our new category, the framing of the Eiffel Tower suddenly becomes a whole new creative aspect; how can you take a photo that a) shows enough of the tower b) shows enough of yourself c) combines the previous 2 options, and passes the “does it make me look like sh*t?” test.

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A selfie stick in action.                                                                      Credit:

But how can this mean nothing? Well, to clarify, I don’t mean nothing.

The act of a selfie itself is nothing – despite the studies, the average millennial (I count myself in that category) doesn’t think that going for lunch with an old friend is a perfect opportunity to repress their own issues so they can show everyone that they look half-decent, eat appetising food and frequently socialise. So what do they think about? This comes down to the convenience factor I spoke about earlier; while a lot of write-ups on selfies will have you believe there is a whole multi-step process behind every selfie, the truth, the absolute bottom-line is that its just the easiest way to capture a moment nowadays.

Selfies are just a fresh new category of photographs. The convenience that comes with being able to get a photo of you and you friend without having to ask a passer-by to take it, without having to set a timer as well as being able to see exactly what your taking, is what makes this “nothing”. I say nothing because at their core, all the other views on the process behind a selfie are post-photograph, and are something completely unrelated to the moment attached to otherwise innocent, simple photos. That selfie that your best friend uploaded the other day? They bought some new shoes, and wanted to show everyone ASAP. So they posed holding them, happy that they got the shoes, and while giving the shoe some pretty good angles, put it on Snapchat. Innocent enough. Just a happy moment in time – “Day one with my new kicks!”, the caption reads. Nothing else. The convenience of being able to capture their emotion as well as the thing that is actually making them happy is what gives the selfie all its meaning.

While I maintain that the reason for the selfie is the convenience, that’s all well and good for people like me. But what about in other contexts, perhaps artistic ? It’s been proven time and time again that photography can be considered art, so surely the selfie can fall into that category… can’t it?

Yes, it can. While the selfie itself, or even a collection of them, act as normal photos with a little more significance, the apps we use and the way we distribute them can be artistic, and provide a snapshot of a society driven by social media.

Argentinian-born Amalia Ulman did exactly this. Using Instagram as her platform, she took on the role of a young woman moving to Los Angeles to follow her dreams, uploading photos that were mostly selfies – she started showing off her body, her lifestyle, and her accumulating possessions. She showed scars from breast enhancement surgery, flaunted the fruits of her shopping trips, took selfies when she was having a down day from struggling to “make it” in Hollywood, among nearly everything else going on in her life. In total, she racked up 175 photos over 5 months, presented to what ended up being nearly 90,000 followers.

Only to reveal that it was all fake – she even concocted a back story for her five-month project talking about how she became an escort, and went on to explain how it was not only satire, but how being a woman in this type of society is constant maintenance, and hard work.

So whether you’ve had an eye on social commentary, or just wanted a photo with your dog, the selfie – at its core and true nature amounts to nothing more than another photo. It simultaneously is and isn’t art, is and isn’t nothing, and also is a major social element in today’s world.

So smile!