It’s Not Happening Here But It’s Happening Now – Part 2

Amnesty International's It's Not Happening Here But It's Happening Now Campaign (2006) - Walker Agency - Creative Director: Pius Walker; Photographer: Federico Naef

Amnesty International’s It’s Not Happening Here But It’s Happening Now Campaign (2006) – Walker Agency – Creative Director: Pius Walker; Photographer: Federico Naef

In an earlier essay I considered Dawn Woolley’s (1) analysis of the Walker Agency’s 2006 Amnesty International advertising campaign Not Here But Now (here) and was interested to see that she positioned her conclusions in the context of Susan Sontag’s argument, expressed over forty years ago, that a proliferation of images of suffering has led to a desensitisation of the viewer. Sontag was not alone in expressing this belief, when describing an exhibition of “Shock Photos” Roland Barthes said that “most of the photographs exhibited to shock us have no effect at all” (3: p.7) and it would not be widening this argument by too much to include Martha Rosler’s argument that “Documentary is a little like horror movies, putting a face on fear and transforming threat into fantasy, into imagery. One can handle imagery by leaving it behind. (It is them, not us.)” (4).

So in an attempt to summarise these and subsequent critics’ views: images of poverty, suffering and atrocity are no longer shocking because we have been desensitised by their proliferation; the process of documentary photography create a safe distance between the viewer and the victim and the images convert reality into a fiction that we licensed to ignore . These factors combine to disable photography’s ability to play an effective part in bringing about social or political reform.  Susie Linfield points out that this theory has become so embedded in photographic crtisicm that “to dispute [it] is akin to repudiating evolution or joining the Flat-Earth Society” (3: p.45)

The Myth that Atrocity Photographs have Anaesthetised us. 

A reasonable place to start a repudiation of Sontag and co. would be to revisit the Not Here But Now campaign as discussed in part 1 of this exercise (here). Dawn Woolley, who states that she “generally” agrees with Sontag’s thesis, felt compelled to think again about the impact of photographs of war, natural disaster and other humanitarian crisis, (which I will refer to collectively as “atrocity photographs”), as a result of this campaign. We could nit-pick about the differences between The Walker Agency’s posters and a contemporary war photo but in essence the only fundamental difference is their context, the latter might be seen in a newspaper or on-line and the former is presented cleverly in the street by a creative agency. They are both photographs of atrocities but the Swiss public and Ms. Woolley were emotionally impacted by Not Here But Now;  based on the evidence of the Swiss public’s reaction (10) they appear to have  achieved Amnesty International’s objective to “sensitise people to the issues of human rights” (5) or at the very least to provoke discussion.

It is perhaps pertinent to recognise that Amnesty International as an organisation owes its very existence, at least in part, to atrocity photographs. Jay Prosser argues:

“Documentary or humanitarian photographs of atrocity underlie many important social principles, such as human rights. Part of the “Appeal for Amenesty 1961″ which blossomed into Amnesty International, was its response to atrocity pictures, and in subsequent decades the world’s principal human rights organisation has depended on such images.” (6: p.8)

A Nine Year-Old Albino Boy Clutching an Empty Corned Beef Tin, Biafra 1968 - Don McCullin

A Nine Year-Old Albino Boy Clutching an Empty Corned Beef Tin, Biafra 1968 – Don McCullin

The success of the Not Here But Now campaign supports this argument and it is hard to imagine how Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières, The Red Cross or other humanitarian organisations could raise public awareness and funds without access to the atrocity photographs provided by witness photojournalists and others.

Médecins Sans Frontières was created in response to the Nigerian Biafran war (7), a localised, albeit horrific, conflict in such a far-way place that Europeans should have believed it was at a “safe distance”, non threatening and irrelevant. For many this conflict was brought to the public’s attention by the emotionally charged photographs of Don McCullin and if his only achievement had been to shock the journalists and doctors who formed Médecins Sans Frontières into action then he would have gone a long way to disproving Sontag, Barthes and Rosler’s theories.

Let us stay for a moment with this anecdote; the sequence of events is irrelevant but a mixture of television coverage in France, witness photographs from war correspondents and the experience of Red Cross volunteers on the ground in Biafra led to Raymond Borel and Philippe Bernier, journalists from the medical review Tonus, issuing an appeal to “establish a band of doctors to help people suffering in the midst and wake of major disasters” (7). Borel and Bernier were medical journalists, the volunteers were medically trained, they were humanitarians by nature and training who had been shocked into an response to images of atrocity. This might suggest that Sontag’s ideas need to be reappraised; evidently these people had not been desensitised, quite the opposite, they have been galvanised into more and greater action in the following forty years, using pictures of atrocity to help raise funds. Is it a question of receptiveness, it appears that professional humanitarians and the ordinary people who fund them respond to media coverage of atrocity, coverage that is dependent on images, so who is it who has been desensitised?

Susie Linfield proposes the uncomfortable argument that we were never sensitive to the pain of others in the first place. It seems an unassailable fact that for most of history any localised group of people were unaware of atrocities or humanitarian disasters that were occurring elsewhere, “elsewhere” being any place known or unknown that was not in regular contact with them. Linfield’s argument is that when news of other people’s disasters did make it to any given group they probably wouldn’t have cared anyway. If documentary photographs create a “safe distance” it is nothing compared with the distance created by word of mouth crossing a continent or newspaper reports of events that occurred days if not weeks previously. Before photography existed atrocities were being committed but, to evoke an emotional reaction they would generally need to be committed by “others” upon “us” because “our” atrocities could be positioned as necessary to achieve our goals, and they would need to be on such a large scale that they were more awful that the day-to-day challenge of survival. The Atlantic slave trade is an example of a British atrocity committed consistently for three hundred years before a small number of dissenting voices began to campaign for its abolition (i). The harsh and unpalatable truth is that we are not genetically coded to be sensitive to the pain of others or to care about people beyond our family and tribe, this is a learnt social attitude  with a comparatively short history.

No other medium, including the written word, has more effectively brought the plight of others to the attention of that mysterious entity “the general public” than photography, especially if we extend the definition to include the moving picture. However, this stream of communication only started in comparatively recent times, we might argue it began with Matthew Brady in the American Civil War or Clarence G. Morledge’s aftermath photographs of the massacre at Wounded Knee but we would first need to question the photographers’ motives; Mick Gidley suggests that the Wounded Knee photographs were more to do with showing the efficiency of the US Cavalry than exposing an atrocity (8: p.31). Christina Twomey (9: p.39) argues that it began with photographs of mutilated Congolise who had been exploited, tortured and murdered by King Leopold at the turn of the twentieth century, photographs that stimulated the formation of the Congo Reform Movement and eventually led to the end of King Leopold’s rule.

In the great scheme of history it hardly matters whether atrocity photography began either side of the turn of the twentieth century or with the haunting images of the persecuted occupants of the Nazi concentration camps as they were liberated in the forties; the point is that photographs of horrific events have been only being brought to the attention of the last three or four generations. There is an equally important point that un-photographed atrocities such as Stalin’s purges do not hold the same status in our collective memory nor stimulated public outrage or Government reaction as those for which we have seen the photographic evidence.

If we accept that there never was, what Lindfield refers to as a “golden age … in which people throughout the world responded with empathy, generosity and saving action when confronted by the suffering of others” (3: p.45)  and that the history of public reaction to atrocity in far-off-lands appears to coincide with the availability of atrocity photographs then we have not only dispelled the myth that atrocity photographs have anaesthetised us but opened a more relevant question about their historic and contemporary function?

The Role of Atrocity Photography

Accepting this argument shifts the paradigm of the discussion regarding atrocity photography towards considering its role as a sensitising agent rather than the opposite. Sontag herself came to recognise that the role of the witness photographer operating in disaster zones and wars is an essential component of contemporary civilisation, that it is in fact a civilising act. Somewhat remarkably for the “mother” of the theory under discussion she commented that “it has become a cliché in the discussion of such images to assert that they no longer have the impact they once had” (12: p.28) She goes on to argue that it is important that we are made aware of the level of depravity that exits in the world and puts the case for the atrocity photograph as an “invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalisations for mass suffering offered by established powers” (12: p.29).

The idea that photographs of war and humanitarian crisis are an invitation to pay attention, reflect and learn distinguishes the concerned documentary photographer who consciously invites us to share in their concern from the “combinations of exoticism, tourism, voyeurism, psychologism and metaphysics, trophy hunting – and careerism” that Martha Rosler railed against in her assessment of contemporary documentary photography. (4: p.178) This differentiation is not always easily made but is fundamental to the separation of sensationalist and intrinsically shallow work with voyeuristic undertones from information being provided by an informed witness.

Stuart Freedman, an award winning photojournalist, describes the contemporary documentary photographer that so concerned Rosler:

“It seems to me that in the rush to create a new visual storytelling in the post-newspaper age, many photographers are overtly marketing themselves as brands: self-appointed heroes who believe they are interpreting the world in a singular way who in reality are shooting visual clichés of suffering because it sells and advances their careers.” (13)

Freedman’s  overriding message is that the professional photojournalist should be differentiated by the ethical standards they maintain and an outcome that is “as rigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution” (13) In essence their work should be honest, trusted and memorable if it is to raise awareness with the ultimate aim of enacting change.

The great, and perhaps by that I mean trusted, photographer creating memorable images that raise awareness will express this idea in a variety of ways. Don McCullin, not the only war photographer to be still wrestling with his ghosts, but one of the better documented ones, has no doubt whatsoever of his objectives in general:

“What I hoped I had captured in my pictures was an enduring image that would imprint itself of the world’s memory” (14: p.96)

Or on the specific and haunting photograph of the albino boy in Biafra:

“If I could, I would take this day out of my life, demolish the memory of it. But, …… we cannot, must not be allowed to forget the appalling things we are all capable of doing to our fellow human beings. The photograph I took of that little albino boy must remain engraved on the minds of all who see it.” (15: p.124)

And remain engraved it has. So it meets the test of memorable but did it or can any other photograph of atrocity by proving the futility of war stop all war? Clearly not but it can modify the approach to the next war, or alter the behaviour of tyrants and oppressors. A bold claim perhaps but one supported by evidence.

In 1966 Philip Jones Griffiths started a three year project to cover the Vietnam War, there were many other journalists in-country at the same time but many chose to report from the comparative comfort and safety of the US military press briefing rooms. Griffiths, a socially aware and politically mature Welshman, refused to see the war from the perspective of the American military and set out to comprehensively document the war from his own and the ordinary Vietnamese people’s perspective. Griffiths was a member of Magnum but they found it impossible to sell his photographs to the American media, they were too far off message. In 1971 he published Vietnam Inc. (16), a quite extraordinary book that combines his photographs of a land ravaged by war, the soldiers, the civilians, the dead, the dying, the grieving and the soon to be murdered or raped all explained and amplified by his factual, often scathing and highly personal eye-witness statements (ii). Magnum have claimed that Vietnam Inc. “was crucial in the movement to put an end to the Vietnam War” (17) but David Campbell exposes this a myth by placing its publication within a timeline that shows that two thirds of US troops had already been withdrawn by the time it was published (17). However, the photographic coverage of that war by Jones Griffths, McCullin, Larry Burrows and others fundamentally altered the American public’s perspective of war, neither WWII nor Korea had been visually recorded in such a stark, honest and complete way and never before had we been shown the atrocities “our side, the good guys” were committing in our name. (iii)

An iconic image of Michael Burke holding one of the Ethiopian children affected by the famine taken from the seven and a half minute report that was broadcast on the BBC’s six o’ clock news on 24th October 1984 (19)

An iconic image of Michael Burke holding one of the Ethiopian children affected by the famine taken from the seven and a half minute report that was broadcast on the BBC’s six o’ clock news on 24th October 1984 (19)

Coverage of the Vietnam war probably altered perceptions of war and forced a change to US foreign policy but there is no direct or specific link that proves the case. However, if we think back to the major humanitarian crisis in our time we find an unbreakable link between atrocity photographs and an immediate emotional response from the public to raise funds, lobby politicians or to engage in direct action. The list is long enough to select just one, Live Aid. It matters little that the images that galvanised Bob Geldorf into action were from a BBC news broadcast; the point is that journalists lit the fuse of what, Sarah Bond says was “perhaps the most successful fundraising event in history”. Geldorf’s rallying cry was “I dare you turn away, I dare you do nothing”, the Christmas single “Do they know it’s Christmas” and the Live Aid concert that followed raised £150 million, the equivalent of £350 million today.

I do not suggest, as the Live Aid story shows, that a photojournalist takes a picture, the funds roll in and all is well. Far from it, the poor world is so divorced in every conceivable way from the rich world that humanitarian relief is never enough and thousands upon thousands of images are published and forgotten. The images have not put an end to the atrocities of either nature or humans but the constant stream of such pictures over the last fifty years have changed the perception of a large enough percentage of Westerners to sensitise us to the plight not just of others but more importantly to others that are ethically and socially different.

Theodor Adorno, a German philosopher, argued that the Holocaust was not an aberration, it was an awful symptom of the fundamental moral and social collapse of Western society that led to society being irrational. He questioned how modern medicine and scientific advances had led to fascism,  genocide and weapons of mass destruction rather than a rational outcome that liberated people from ignorance, disease and liberation (21). “Auschwitz irrefutably demonstrated the failure of culture.” (20) Adorno more understandable theories include the idea that for a society to commit atrocity or to reject the plight of refugees is preceded by a process of dehumanisation, the refugee is stripped of “everything that disguises the human from the animal” (3: p.37). This idea, based on the huge movement of people after WWII is highly relevant today. Adorno’s reading of the human condition is that we cannot feel empathy for a person who no longer exhibits the attributes of humanness,:

“Once they left their homeland they remained homeless, once they left their state, they remained stateless, once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightness, the scum of the earth.” (3: p.37)

The de-humanised refugee can be ignored, barred from entering the door, they have been dehumanised, reduced to creatures that we no longer relate to; these are not “us”, they are different, probably dangerously so; throughout history such ideas have led to genocide. In our “enlightened” age we do not take them to camps of our own construction, we leave them in camps of their own making but still cage them in with high wire fences, close borders, tighten security and wish they would simpley go away.

So this is the most important function of atrocity photographs; they serves to slow down and eventually reverse the de-humaisation of the needy, the oppressed, the victims. Collectively they go beyond the function of the witness journalistic images that trigger specific direct action, they creates a persistent background noise by harnessing photography’s ability to be literate, factual and evidential. This is not achieved by capturing the world’s suffering in one great masterpiece but by isolating the humanness of an event, selecting the individual from the crowd, emphasising their similarities to us, our children and grandchildren whilst displaying the awful differences of their condition. We begin to empathise, identify their sameness and recognise their strangeness lies not in a difference of species or ethnicity but only in their situation. Information is at the heart of photographs of atrocity, they inform and make us aware, but above all they break down the barriers of otherness, humanising tragedy and enabling empathy

Notes on Text

(i) For the British the Atlantic slave trade started in the sixteenth century, flourished in the seventieth and eighteenth centuries and was only abolished for British ships in 1807 with slave ownership legal throughout the British Empire until 1833. Putting aside the huge number of Britons who would have been unaware of the existence of the trade in the three hundred years leading up to its abolition there must have  been a sizeable number of people living in British ports, in the colonies, trading goods produced by slaves, connected to the traders and sailers who enabled the trade or the bankers and private investors who financed it. Researchers at University College London (11) have identified that three thousand Britons were compensated when slavery was abolished. It is reasonable to suggest that in the early ninetieth century tens of thousands of people are aware of the trade and the ownership of slaves in the British Empire and none of them had been anaesthetised by photographs of slavery, yet only a handful of Quakers and concerned citizens actively campaigned against it. In fact the Abolition Prject website suggests that the success of the campaign “owed perhaps more to the slave rebellions and revolution in Haiti than to the campaign in Britain”. (12) 

(ii) Even now, fifty years after the earliest photographs were taken, it is a deeply distressing book; the photograph of a bereaved mother and child, her husband had been killed “moments” earlier, being observed by a bespectacled and seemingly empathetic GI just before the troops withdrew and called artillery fire down on her village is as powerful an anti-war picture as any of the more brutal images he captured. We are faced with the paradox of the dappled sunlight, the young intelligent looking soldier, the serene mother and her sleeping child and the knowledge that within the hour they will be ripped apart by high explosive shells. 

(iii) I will leave it to the historians to weigh up the various influences that changed the relationship between the American public and its government but there is little doubt that it did change. The years that followed Vietnam are characterised by skepticism and cynicism towards both the government and the military. In 1984 Casper Weinberger re-defined American rules of engagement to include the statements that “vital national interests must be at risk” , “there must be reasonable assurance of …. public support” and “force should be used only as a last resort”. Hawks will point out that he also said that if America went to war it would do so “wholeheartedly” (18) This was the legacy of the Vietnam war and in that sense it shaped America’s foreign policy for fifty years.



(2) Sontag, Susan (1971) On Photography: Kindle version of the 1978 Penguin edition. London: Penguin Books

(3) Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

(6) Prosser, Jay ( 2012) Introduction to Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis. London: Reaktion Books

(8) Gidley, Mick (2012) Visible and Invisible Scars of Wounded Knee (an essay in Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis) London: Reaktion Books

(9) Twomey, Christina (2012) Severed Hands: Authenticating Atrocity in the Congo 1904 -13 (an essay in Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis) London: Reaktion Books

(12) McCullin, Don (2001) Don McCullin (2015 edition) London: Jonathan Cape

(14) Scott, Clive (1999) The Spoken Image: Photography and Language. London: Reaktion Books

(15) McCullin, Don, (1990) Unreasonable Behaviour: 1992 Edition. London: Vintage.

(16) Jones Griffiths, Phillip. (1971) Vietnam Inc. : First Published by Collier Books 1971, this edition published in 2001 and reprinted in 2011. London: Phaidon.


(1) Woolley, Dawn (2015) Looking at Adverts 13 (accessed at OCA 3.6.16) –

(4) Rosler, Martha (1981) In, Around and Afterthoughs (on documentary photography) (accessed 2014 at the Everyday Archive) –

(5) Walker Agency (ND) Human Rights Abuses Taking Place on Swiss Streets (accessed at Walker 4.6.16) –

(7) MSF (ND) The Founding of Médecins Sans Frontières (accessed at Doctors without Borders 4.6.16) –

(9) Walker Agency (ND) Results: Amnesty International Not Here But Now (accessed at Walker 4.6.16) –

(11) BBC (2013) how many Britons are Descended from Slave-Owners (accessed at BBC 7.6.16) –

(12) The Abolition Project (accessed at The Abolition Project 7.6.16) –

(13) Freedman, Alan (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism (accessed at Editorial Photographers Uk and Ireland in 2013 and again 4.9.15) –

(17) Campbell, David (2013) Mythical Power: Understanding Photojournalism in the Vietnam War (accessed at David Campbell 7.6.16) –

(18) PBS (ND) Post-Vietnam Intervention (accessed at PBS 8.6.16) –

(19) Bond, Sarah (2011) Live Aid: the history of an all-time great event (accessed at Sofii 8.6.16) –

(20) Nosthoff, Anna-Verena (2014) Barbarism: Notes on the Thoughts of Theodor W, Adorno (accessed at Critical Legal Thinking 8.6.16) –

(21) Zuidervaart, Lambert (2015) Theodor W. Adorno (accessed ar The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 8.6.16) –

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