To look or not to look. Our obsession with depicting suffering

To look or not to look. Our obsession with depicting suffering

“Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” (via New York Times)

That’s a pretty awful statistic. Throughout civilisation war and the suffering has repeatedly been documented in visual mediums. From the Bayeux Tapestry (completed around 1070) to Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War series of prints (early 19th century) and more recently the photographic documentation of Robert Capa (1913-1954) the resulting suffering caused by war has continued to attract artists. This infatuation with depicting suffering seemingly runs so deep that countries commission artists for the very purpose of documenting war.

“Paint her shirtless. More men will enlist if they think there will be topless women”

So what exactly is it that attracts artists, photographers and filmmakers to capturing the suffering of others? What is their intention?

And how are we as an audience supposed to respond? Is there a “correct” way to respond? Why do we choose or not choose to witness suffering?

During the Vietnam War (the first war to really have widespread media coverage) art depicting the suffering of soldiers and civilians alike communicated a distinct sense of resistance. It was suffering depicted in protest of the war. So it could be said that at least one reason for depicting suffering is to oppose suffering. Artists expose audiences to suffering so that they might reject it.

But what if when an audience views a text depicting suffering they do not feel the need to reject it? After all, the intended message of an author is not always what is received by the audience. Susan Sontag suggested that we commonly feel bad at seeing depictions of suffering as a reassurance that we are “good” people (presumably because only “good” people feel bad at others suffering). Does that make someone who views suffering apathetically a “bad” person?

So basically anyone who has ever played GTA
So basically anyone who has ever played GTA

That question is complicated even further by the arrival of the internet. Depictions of suffering online require us to make a choice – do we look or not? An interesting case study regarding this are the videos depicting the executions of hostages allegedly carried out and uploaded by ISIS.  Those against watching the videos argue that viewing them makes you complicit in their terrorism.

The greater implication made by this argument is that viewing suffering makes you complicit in suffering.

Proponents for watching the videos argue that the truth should not be censored, that they feel a need to witness atrocities so that people may rally against them. So that people may

“…feel such uncontrollable rage that no amount of reasonable argument will ever temper it”.

The argument here being that viewing suffering allows for a unification against it.

Whether or not we choose to view depictions of suffering is irrelevant however. What is important is that we choose to act against it.