**This blog piece contains distressing images of human suffering**
Take a moment to think about the last image you have seen in the media that was of a human suffering. They may have been struggling in hard labour, famine, war, or violence. How did this make you feel? Is it important that we have the right to see images and video of such suffering? Is it ethical that we see these images? My current University class – Issues in Media and Communication – brought into focus these exact questions. How ethical is it for everyday society to see such horrific images from human history in the media?
Above are the three images in particular that we discussed in the class and afterwards we had to consciously decide as to the ethics of photographing and publishing such suffering. The Syrian refugee crisis, the Sudanese famine, and the Vietnam War are all very identifiable from these photos. Was it important that these images were shared with society? Joe O’Brien from ABC News, explains how “sometimes with wars and humanitarian disasters there’s an incident or image which comes to symbolise the tragedy of it all” (O’Brien J, 2015). By viewing these images we become aware of the true disasters some humans are encountering around the world. However is simply being aware enough?
It is rare that we physically act on what we see; we simply get a feeling, potentially share on social media and move on with our lives. If this is the case, is it still important to have the right to see images and video of such suffering? Will such viewing actually be helping anyone at the other end of the crisis? Arthur and Joan Kleinman, medical anthropologists from Harvard, describe such viewing as “infotainment” due to the fact that these ‘images of victims are being commercialised’ (Kleinman, A & Kleinman J, 1996). There are a lot of ethics that need to be considered by the journalists, publishers and editors when publicising photographs or videos of human suffering. However what if we never saw it?
I wrote a blog piece last year, which aligned to this very issue of what is ethical to share and see. It pertained to the Syrian Refugee crisis in relation to the above photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the dead Syrian refugee on the Beach in Turkey. I was discussing social censorship and how we, as avid users of social media, need decide what is ok and not ok to share. United voices on social media can create some of the biggest activist campaigns, even encouraging governments to action aid faster or in a larger quantity than usual.
After the image of Aylan’s body was shared across the globe on front pages of newspapers, news broadcasts and social media, governments in and outside of the EU and no choice but to act. The boy “died September 2, 2015” (Withnall, A, 2015). The Australian Government on September 9, 2015 ‘announced that it would make an extra 12,000 humanitarian places available in response to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. These places are in addition to an existing humanitarian program intake of 13,750’ (Australian Government, 2016). In just over a week, the Australian Government almost doubled the humanitarian intake of refugees. Whilst this decision may have already been in place, it is difficult not to correlate the image to this announcement. The conflict is now ‘entering the sixth year’ (Beck, J, 2015). It is very hard to ignore the fact that Aylan’s image, was not in some way influential in fueling the discussion and the quick response government decisions around the world.
My opinion is that it is important that the everyday citizen sees these images, as it is clear that united voices can impact changes. Whilst most of us may not be able to do anything about it, governments may listen to virality in the media. The image of Aylan Kurdi’s body is an example of this in action. Obviously there is limitations to this opinion, as images shared constantly, may desensitise society to such suffering. Overall however, these images deserve to be shared freely to show the intense tragedy to the rest of society, otherwise society is sheltered from such suffering. An image is powerful and if shared with compassion and respect will not be in vain.
Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection, 2016. “Australia’s response to the Syrian and Iraqi humanitarian crisis’. Retrieved from < https://www.border.gov.au/Trav/Refu/response-syrian-humanitarian-crisis>
Beck, J 2015. “Syria After Four Years: timeline of a conflict”, March 16, 2015. Viewed March 18, 2016. Retrieved from < https://news.vice.com/article/syria-after-four-years-timeline-of-a-conflict>
Kleinman, Arthur, and Joan Kleinman. 1996. “The Appeal of Experience; the Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times”. Daedalus 125 (1). The MIT Press: 1–23. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20027351
O’Brian, J, 2015. “The power of an image”, September 3, 2015, viewed March 19, 2016. Retrieved from < http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s4312433.htm>
Withnall, A 2015. “Aylan Kurdi’s story: How a small Syrian child came to be washed up on a beach in Turkey”, September 3, 2015. Viewed March 18, 2016. Retrieved from < http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/aylan-kurdi-s-story-how-a-small-syrian-child-came-to-be-washed-up-on-a-beach-in-turkey-10484588.html>