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The Power in Photographing Tragedy

Uncredited AP

People often want to help others in the abstract but never quite get around to it. Can we use photography to encourage them to start helping?

Newspapers around the world deliberated the appropriateness of publishing such a graphic photograph. The image, now famous, showed a lifeless toddler wearing black velcro sneakers, a boy likely not old enough to have learned to tie his own shoes, being carried away from the beach where his body had washed ashore. At issue was how to balance the desire to show the extent of the refugee crisis with an awareness of how disquieting an image it was.

One editor at The New York Times explained that after some consideration, the newspaper “chose to run a powerful version of this photo because it (brought) home the enormity of this tragedy.” Although critics labeled the choice as insensitive and even voyeuristic, the paper and those publications that followed suit made the suffering of others in faraway places seem proximate and urgent. It is decisions such as these that have the potential to encourage others to offer assistance.

The 2004 film Hotel Rwanda brought considerable interest in re-examining the 1994 genocide and the somber reality that the other nations of the world hummed along, absorbed in their own affairs, while an estimated 20% of Rwandans were murdered. Among the film’s most striking scenes is a conversation between Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel’s manager, and a cameraman sent from the United States to document the genocide.

When Paul learns that the cameraman has recorded footage of the violence, he is relieved, believing international aid would be sent as soon as the footage were broadcast. But the cameraman responds with what seems to be the unfortunate truth: “If people see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible’ and then go on eating their dinners.”

Inaction when faced with the suffering of others is a theme of Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry…

and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

As Auden’s poem suggests, particularly with its final line, the failure to help is not necessarily the result of a lack of a willingness to do so in the abstract. Rather, more immediate tasks such as organizing a desk drawer or traveling to the car wash before it closes take precedence over helping others. This may be especially true when those in need live in distant places and are unobservable during the course of a given day. The question remains how might we catalyze helping behavior, particularly when one is willing to help, even intends to help, but never quite gets to it?

In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith imagines that it would be more difficult to fall asleep at the prospect of losing one’s finger the next day than after learning that millions of people died in a faraway earthquake. However, it seems reasonable that if he were witnessing this suffering first hand, his sadness about the loss of life from the earthquake might be less transient.

Telling photographs such as the one of the drowned child or Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning image of a young victim of the Sudanese famine can cause the world to feel more acutely the extent of a tragedy. But as the Hotel Rwanda scene suggests, perhaps these graphic depictions of suffering are not enough to bring about action. It is perhaps necessary to pair them with education and discussions of the importance of lending aid so that people will not procrastinate in calling the Humane Society regarding the injured bird in the front yard or donating to support the victims of a hurricane.

Whenever conversations arise about the need to help others and they manage to avoid taking the preaching tone that is commonly found among those that musician Gil Scott Heron called “four year revolutionaries,” there tends to be a premise implicit that one must seek to do “good” at all times. This is, of course, unrealistic and arguably even undesirable as philosopher Susan Wolf suggests in her paper “Moral Saints,” “if the moral saint is devoting all his time to feeding the hungry or healing the sick or raising money for Oxfam, then necessarily he is not reading Victorian novels, playing the oboe, or improving his backhand.” And, of course, if a do-gooder sought to remedy all of the world’s problems, he might be so overwhelmed that in the end he would be unable to alleviate the suffering of a single person.

This word of moderation aside, it is necessary to make the leap from saying “Oh, my God, that’s horrible” to actually lending assistance. For those of us already concerned with pondering the idea of “ought,” we must encourage others to join us and strive ourselves not to be moral theorists alone but also dedicated moral practitioners.

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder at Merion West.

This article appeared originally in the December 26, 2015 edition of The News & Observer. 

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