The police left Michael Brown’s bullet-riddled body in the street for hours, even though his mother cried out for him to be covered. We kill each other. But then I read Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance and was confronted by the narcissism of my thinking — how it shifts attention away from the content of the photograph and toward the viewer and her emotions, how it reveals a longing to find an innocent space from which to look, or a justification for choosing not to. With him are the driver in the front and two men and two young children in the backseat, three of their faces bathed in sunlight. The challenge, then, is to stay open-eyed, awake. The dead who appear in photographs published by the American media are usually from other countries, and in the rare cases when the dead bodies belong to Americans, they are often people of color. Reports indicate Alyousef wanted this picture to be seen. We are citizens not of nations but of images, she argues. Five-year-old Omran Daqneesh covered in dust and blood sitting in an ambulance. It matters what I demand my leaders do. I understood visually pleasing photographs of pain to be ethically suspect. The car door cuts through the frame of the photograph, redacting part of the driver’s head. He positioned his children so they could be captured by the camera. Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach. Privacy in death — and maybe even dignity — seems reserved for White Americans. Trump looked at this photograph — and presumably at other photographs reported to be even worse — and launched an attack. Photographs bring suffering close, but they can also make it feel further away. We are accountable to one another, responsible for what we can now see. But turning away isn’t respect, it’s denial. There’s no doubt that images have power. If a photograph of suffering doesn’t give rise to a sufficient response, perhaps it’s not a failure of the picture, but a failure of the viewer. It matters what I do. That was a horrible, horrible thing.
Sarah Sentilles is a writer, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books. Photography can generate otherness. We know images effect all kinds of change. Later, a photograph of Brown’s body was published on the front page of The New York Times. 15, Revolution
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WHAT difference does this photograph make? Pornography and advertisements depend on images to make viewers act. I’m not sure looking does any good. He did not cover their faces. This photograph is just one of many photographs of dead and injured children in Syria. Like many viewers, I am perhaps used to images of mothers mourning their children; the Pietà, Mary holding the dead body of Jesus, is one of the most iconic and pervasive images in the history of art. Mothers have to decide whether or not to make the bodies of their dead sons visible. “The more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying,” Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, and she’s right to point out the racism at the center of such images. Borders remain closed to refugees. The bright white cloth in which his dead children are wrapped stands out against his red shirt. To get better at turning intense emotional reactions into political action that stops violence. OCTOBER 2, 2017
This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. Her most recent book is Draw Your Weapons (Random House, 2017). “I believe that the whole United States is mourning with me,” she said. The photographer is there, too, standing outside the car and looking in. No inoffensive way “to document unforgivable violence.” But that’s not an excuse not to look. Alyousef is not alone. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.” The next evening, speaking from his Florida estate, he said, “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. Which raises the question: What obligation do viewers have when confronted by an image like this? In “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” Claudia Rankine writes about the devastating decisions made around visibility. Looking at the photograph of Alyousef and his twins, I have to keep reminding myself that the children are dead and not sleeping. The theorist Ariella Azoulay calls photographs “transit visas,” and in The Civil Contract of Photography she insists the camera grants a kind of citizenship that transcends borders. Photographs allow viewers to be somewhere they could not otherwise be, to see what would otherwise remain invisible. I wish I hadn’t seen it. Who gets to decide who gets to look at whose bodies? Photographs can limit grievability, but they can also, like this photograph of Alyousef holding his children, extend it. To see, in Judith Butler’s terms, how I am implicated in lives that are not my own. It doesn’t matter what I feel when I look at this photograph. Photographs of violence are taken after the violence has occurred, and as a viewer, I have arrived too late. But like questions about the aestheticization of suffering, a refusal to view documentary photographs of violence shifts attention away from the pictured atrocity and toward the emotionally affected viewers, as if our sensitivity indicates something about our empathy, as if our turning away signals our essential goodness. Hers was a decision that turned the lynching tradition against itself, Rankine argues. What matters is how you look, what kind of witness you become, what you do in response to what you see. Did the photographs do this? To admit, as Sontag insists, that my privilege is located on the same map as their suffering. Alyousef has already buried them all. At what should we look, and from what should we look away? Questions about representing Till’s murdered body were in the news again after Dana Schutz’s controversial painting Open Casket was put on display at the Whitney Biennial. The photograph seems to have been taken in haste, a snapshot rather than a composed portrait, closely cropped, urgent. But what does this responsibility look like in practice? There is no unproblematic way “to show the degradation of a person,” she continues. But this is a photograph of a grieving father, and instead of one adult child, there are two small infants in his arms and two little boys watching from the backseat of a car. In early April 2017, this image rocketed around the internet, appearing on the front page of newspapers, multiplied on Facebook and Twitter feeds. You can also visit Till’s original coffin at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where it rests in a small, shrine-like room, the only place in the museum where taking photographs is not allowed. I want to turn away. Discussing the video footage of some of those missiles, watching their brightness light up the night, Brian Williams said on MSNBC, “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen, ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ They are beautiful pictures.” Is the photograph of Alyousef a beautiful picture? This photograph is the newest addition to the violent archive, and it won’t be the last. And what does it mean to look at it? He is on his way to bury them in a mass grave alongside 22 other members of his family, including his wife and brothers, all of whom are reported to have been killed by chemical weapons during an attack in Idlib Province in Syria. The debate about whether a photograph of violence should be beautiful “is more concerned with the clear conscience of the viewer than with the plight of the injured subject,” Linfield writes. The police wouldn’t let Lesley McSpadden see her son’s body, claiming it was evidence, yet, even a casual reader of the news was allowed to look at him. Yet, like Alyousef holding his children, we also mourn our dead. I don’t want to look at this image. While photographs of lynched Black bodies circulated as symbols of white supremacy, Mobley displayed her son’s body to encourage national grief. When does visibility contribute to accountability for violence, and when does it perpetuate oppression? Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, famously insisted on an open casket to protest the racist violence done to her son. The man in the photograph — Abdel Hameed Alyousef — sits in the front passenger seat of a car and holds Aya and Ahmed, his nine-month-old twins, dead, wrapped in white cloth, their faces visible. She exposes the hierarchy of grief, the fact that some lives count more than others, that only some deaths are mourned. Yet the violence continues. Whose deaths are shown and whose are hidden? It has been transformed from an image of a particular mother and child into a symbol for human suffering, which risks turning other images of individual mothers and their children into general symbols, too. Like Emmett Till’s mother, he must have known that after seeing the image viewers will not be able to claim ignorance as an alibi. What matters is not whether you look. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
Then he launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria. To allow myself to be undone. Alyousef’s children and most of his family are already dead. So it’s better to close our eyes, better to protect the person in the photograph from our gaze. The sunlit faces in the backseat are overexposed. For nearly a decade, I critiqued the aestheticization of suffering. “Let people see what I see,” she said. To refuse to let the camera dehumanize. The refusal to look also suggests there is a failure at the heart of what Susie Linfield calls “photographic suffering”: images are not powerful enough — or, perhaps, they are too powerful, too overwhelming — to effect change. Photographs reveal the range of what human beings are capable of doing to and for one another. Grief is political, Butler argues in Precarious Life. President Trump seemed to refer to this photograph when he said to reporters in the White House Rose Garden, “I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact. Recognizing all lives as grievable makes war less possible; it’s harder to kill people for whom you will mourn.