Sometimes the media publishes photographs that shock the world and grab everybody’s attention, sometimes these may include photographs of people in horrifying situations or people who have died. Should we as a people be publishing and viewing photos like these? If we don’t publish them are we ignoring or hiding them? Does viewing photographs of individual people make us care more about a situation effecting many?
One photograph that quite recently went viral was of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who was fleeing the country. Worldwide people were seeing the body of this little boy who had washed up on the Turkish shore, for many it was this photo that made them aware of the Syrian refugees. Awareness of a situation is important in itself, this photograph spiked protests and discussions on the situation, while if this photo was never published these positive steps might have never happened with less people were aware of the situation.
What this photograph was able to do was put an individual face on a horrible situation that was effecting many. When you hear about the Syrian refugees it is difficult for us as individuals to apply empathy to a mass group of people we do not know. Mary-Catherine Harrison discusses this in her book, ‘Sentimental Realism: Poverty and the Ethics of Empathy, 1832–1867‘,
“But Smith’s “man of humanity” suggests another emphatic limitation- the difficulty of feeling with large groups of people. Smith twice reiterates the massiveness of the disaster – “the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren,” “the destruction of that immense multitude” (106) – but it is the very massiveness diminishes the spectator’s response. Rather than his distress increasing in proportion to the magnitude of the loss, it seems instead to have an inverse relationship.”
However when we are able to take a situation that is affecting a large group of people and apply it to an individual or individuals we are able to feel this level of empathy that we would not normally feel towards large groups of people.
Another example of a large scaled catastrophe being brought down to the individual level was the conditions and treatment of POWs kept in Nazi concentration camps. While above I spoke about how one photo can change millions of perspectives I now want to talk about my own experience with applying empathy to a large group of people and viewing, potentially considered disturbing, photographs.
11 million people were killed during the Holocaust and millions more imprisoned in Nazi POW (Prisoner of War) camps. Last year I visited Auschwitz and Dachau and after seeing some of the things I saw my understanding of WWII changed forever. I walked through those concentration camps, listening to the stories and looking at so many photographs taken of POWs in poor conditions, and even some dead or being executed. I was only looking at individuals from that one camp that I was visiting, a tiny fraction of how many people were involved in this atrocity.
I can tell you that before I went to Auschwitz and Dachau it was difficult for me to comprehend the situation due to the vast number of people involved, I can’t tell you why, only that it is psychological, but after coming out of these places I was able to feel a type of empathy for these people I had never known and that I previously hadn’t felt. I had known of the horrible things that had happened but before seeing the impact on individual people I was unable to comprehend what millions of people had gone though, it was difficult to feel what you understand to be the appropriate emotions. But after seeing those photographs I had a completely different understanding and emotional reaction to these atrocities during WWII.
The reason I’m talking about empathy is because in order to create change we have to truly be able to care. If we as the public don’t care or if we ignore a situation nothing will change, and these photographs and stories of individuals allow us to feel the empathy we need in order to really truly care about a situation that is effecting millions of people we don’t personally know.
When it comes down to it it is an individuals decision whether or not to view photos such as these, but it is important to do a little research before labeling shocking photographs as inappropriate.
Harrison, M. (2008). Sentimental Realism: Poverty and the Ethics of Empathy, 1832–1867. University of Michigan: ProQuest, pp.120-130. Available at: https://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=sblHJnMGUA8C&oi=fnd&pg=PR2&dq=Sentimental+Realism:+Poverty+and+the+Ethics+of+Empathy,+1832–1867&ots=6swmCmqb3C&sig=xH2Cm3rKfqVa4-4w0WMkoKrE5pU#v=onepage&q=Sentimental%20Realism%3A%20Poverty%20and%20the%20Ethics%20of%20Empathy%2C%201832–1867&f=false [Accessed 14 March. 2017].