Ethics of Aesthetics – Part 2

Looking back at my former post, I realise that I was a bit grumpy and frustrated when I wrote it. Maybe mostly because it is such a difficult and complicated dilemma that I struggle with on a daily basis. I have thought a bit more about it and this has come to mind:

There is no blue print for photographing people who live in underprivileged circumstances. First of all, living in poverty is relative and we should not let our pity be the ruling emotion for determining a life as a victim or of less valuable than ours. Even though the circumstances people live in are terrible and they would like to get out of it themselves, it is condescending to talk about them as victims, problem cases etc. When we photograph them, we enter their lives, a life in which we would not be able to live with for a single day.

This alone should make us respectful when photographing them, and giving them the room to show who they are, in a way they are comfortable. If there is no proper agreement beforehand, or if it is not clear what the photographs are being used for, then the problem is there, not as much in the way the photos turn out.

Yesterday morning, I visited a slum that I wanted to photograph, because it has a very lively puppet making community. I ended up not taking any photographs, because people were just waking up, poohing in the open sewage and at their most vulnerable. It just didn’t feel right to invade their homes, although they are out and open in the street.

But the light was gorgeous, the colours beautiful and I saw some great photo opportunities. My friend who came along did take photographs. I wonder if I think too much, but I really don’t want to produce work that would make me feel guilty afterwards.

It’s a fine balance.


Exercise – The Ethics of Aesthetics

Personally I think Chaskielberg’s work is a refreshing approach to documentary photography. I don’t think it is up to me to decide whether it is too beautiful or not, whether it does justice to the suffering these people go through or whether it is ethical for Oxfam to use such an approach in the first place. It obviously worked in raising a record amount of financial support.

Of course from here the discussion starts about the efficiency and sense of development aid in the first place, with its questions about dependency on aid, the business side of NGOs, how the money is spent and results in the long term.

What I miss in this discussion, is a connection with the West. In order to not be stifled by the images, or be able to make a significant change that goes beyond making a donation, I think photography and maybe campaigns that are targeted at people in the West should focus much more on how all our lives are intertwined through climate change, capitalism and overconsumption in the West. Instead of only focusing on how people in development countries live and suffer, these campaigns should activate the viewers in the West to not only donate money, but take responsibility for the way they live themselves.

For example, next to the daily food ration of an Ethiopian nomad, I would like to see an image of the amount of food we throw away on a daily basis, or the effect of our meat consumption on climate change.

I would like to see images that teach us viewers on how we should make a change, besides just triggering a short lived sympathy of making a donation.

All these approaches are still about ‘us’ and ‘them’, while the problems these people face are a result of how we live, and which we will face as well.

Imaging Famine

There are so many issues at play when thinking about how to image famine and suffering. Who is our audience, what kind of response are we expecting, which form of media is strong enough to provoke a response to action, and is that the response we want in the first place? Do images stifle the sense of inability to help or make change, or do they evoke a response at all? Is it the images themselves that influence this, in what ways do external factors play a more important part in this process?

You can put images aside, you can choose to look at something or not. Maybe the success of the LiveAid and other big campaigns was not as much in power of the images, as in the fact that the images were shown to large groups of people who would otherwise not see them. Through the use of popular artists and media outlets the effects of famine were shown on a much larger scale than ever before.

To me it seems that in general there is not much interest in development countries or poverty, because people don’t really know what to do about it. They feel an overwhelming sense of guilt, but an inability to act. I think this is more stifling than the act of looking at heartbreaking scenes itself. Or maybe most people are just busy living their own lives and struggle enough with their own personal challenges.

“On the one hand you have these crises, a public that is more reticent and you also have a press in Britain that does not understand the nuances of why aid makes a lot of sense.” (McVeigh and Quinn, 2017)

“Everyone knows if we responded in a better resourced way and earlier on, we could reduce the suffering and save lives and it would be cheaper,” said Saeed. “As a global community we haven’t been able to [tackle] this issue of how do you address famine? How do you get the resources before it’s too late?” (McVeigh and Quinn, 2017)

What I miss in most campaigns from development organizations is the link to how the audiences life is connected with those living in poverty. That draught, environmental disasters and famine are closely connected to global warming and the way capitalism works. I think it might be an idea to visualize these connections in such a way that viewers can actually see their own responsibility or response which will make a change.

McVeigh, K. and Quinn, B. (2017). Famine looms in four countries as aid system struggles to cope, experts warn. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 29 May 2017].

Documents of Conflict and Suffering

“You are damned if you remember – condemned to re-live, re-enact the images of your fathers; you are damned if you don’t – condemned to repeat their hypocrisy.” – Gilles Peress

I am quite struck by this quote. There is no easy way out of the dilemma, because pain and suffering will always be there and every individual has a choice to make regarding the amount of pain and suffering they expose themselves to, besides the personal misery they are already dealing with. If one chooses to ignore this completely, you are bound to become part of the inflictors, responsible for the suffering you are choosing to be oblivious from.

This is such a difficult subject. I live in an international community and have German friends. We have talked about the roles their parents and grandparents played in WWII, the sense of responsibility and guilt that they still feel, the suffering their family has gone through, but don’t feel they can or want to talk about, because they are on the side of the enemy. It’s a burden they still carry, even though they themselves had nothing to do with it.

I think about this conscious covering of pain, whether inflicted or suffered and wonder about the effects of actually being confronted with it, what would be the purpose, would it make a difference in avoiding a repeat in the future? Also, what about the bystanders, do they need to know and if so, what will their response be? How about the sensational feelings that might be triggered, like ‘medical or violence pornography’? What kind of images do justice to the stories that need to be told and learnt from?

After reading the articles and listening to the interview with Don McCullin I came across a video ‘Choose Pussy over Pain‘ that tackles the fact that there is hardly any censorship when it comes to violence, but a healthy, human thing like sex or nudity is quickly condemned and banned in social media. Not only is this a strange phenomenon indeed, saying a lot about the taboos we have, but it also shows that there is an entertainment factor in violence and pain that we need to be aware of.

As Don McCullin noted, we need a ‘marked reflective attitude’ towards the suffering we portray and show, being aware of the fact that in order to learn from history you have to experience some of it, have knowledge and a personal attachment. However, violence can be off putting and trigger the wrong sentiments, the ‘goriest pictures don’t tell the story well‘.

It’s walking on a thin line, being aware that when it comes to telling about pain and suffering there cannot be easy answers and black and white opinions, only an open attitude that has respect for the victims and a striving for telling the story in such a way that will contribute to preventing it to happen again, even though we know it will.

Anon, (2017). [image] Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2017]. (2017). BBC – Radio 4 Excess Baggage – 13/02/2010. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2017].

issuu. (2017). Issue 23. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 May 2017].