Bearing witness through photography

By Lindsey Anderson

Disclaimer: This post contains an image that may be disturbing to some viewers. 

Gruesome images have existed as long as photography has, but they seem to have pervaded modern life because of social media. On Facebook or YouTube, viewers can find videos of Islamic State militants viciously killing prisoners or photographs of Muammar Gaddafi’s brutalized body, among many other horrific images.

Viewing gruesome images can be emotionally devastating. During a FASPE session on the ethics of photography, many fellows recalled how they felt the first time they saw disturbing photographs.

“I was nine and I tried to trick my sister into moving into my room with me because I didn’t want to sleep alone,” fellow Katelyn Verstraten said. “I had nightmares.”

Susan Sontag argues in her collection of essays, On Photography, that an abundance of such grisly photos dulls viewers to the power of such images and the events they depict.

But many FASPE fellows disagreed, saying each image has value. The alternative—not seeing, not having that representation and evidence, despite its ghastliness—is much worse, fellows argued.

Photojournalists are compelled to document the scenes they witness, and sometimes what they see is horrendous. As Nazi concentration camps were liberated during World War II, photographers came across emaciated prisoners and piles of bodies. Taking photographs of those horrors documented them for the world to see. Without such photographs, people could have ignored or denied the true scope of the Holocaust.

Sometimes photographs can be lurid—such as a Daily News front-page photograph of a woman dying in the electric chair in 1928. But many photographs of atrocities convey information the world needs to see.

Sontag argues, however, that displaying such photographs in museums or newspapers plays into the perpetrators’ hands—for instance, amplifying the humiliation and degradation the Nazis inflicted on millions of Jews and hundreds of thousands of others. Nazis themselves took many of the photographs of concentration camps and ghettos, perhaps to document their process or illustrate how inferior they thought Jews were.

Regardless of who was behind the lens, the photographs documented the Nazis’ atrocities, both in the images themselves and in the rationale for taking the images.

As fellow Alexandra Levine said, “Nazis [were] trying to show how disgusting Jews were and their victorious campaign, but it backfired and made them look that much worse. Every photo helped define who they were more than it defined who the subjects were.”

Other photos were taken by victims themselves, including four photographs by members of a Sonderkommando, a group of inmates forced to work in the Auschwitz II-Birkenau crematoria and gas chambers. One image in the series shows naked women being herded toward a gas chamber. Two others show piles of bodies being burned.

sonderkommando for Lindsey

Sonderkommando photograph of bodies being burned after death in the gas chamber. (Wikimedia Commons)

The images are difficult to look at, but not to display them would be a disservice, fellows argued. The photographer risked his life to take the photos and smuggle them out of the camp so the world could see the horrors inside.

If people refuse to look at the photos, refuse to acknowledge them, the atrocities could happen again.



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