Week 8 – Responses & Responsibilities

Vietnam, Philip Jones Griffiths, 1967

This week’s topic is one of the first that touches on some of the issues I have been thinking about in my work. With newsfeeds and social media pumping out an almost endless stream of what many would consider shocking material it is difficult to sift out those images that are truly shocking and should warrant our full attention, not to say that all the other events are not tragic in one way or another, they are just so normal as to become the mundane. It takes a rare event to have society to sit up and take notice, however briefly.

In creating work that has a backdrop of potentially shocking imagery, where is the line on what should not be shown and who should be the judge of censoring content? By not showing the reality of events, it can become a mechanism for controlling the narrative. War photography is an obvious example, and I was reminded of the image taken by Julie Jacobson of a young soldier mortally wounded in Afghanistan in 2009, the decision by the AP to publish the photograph against the wishes of the family and the furious debate that followed. Coverage of the Iraq and Afghan wars in the US tended to steer clear of showing the full horror of conflict, and while this image was both shocking and moving, for many, it brought the war home.

War Zone ‘C’ taken in 1965 by Tim Page during the Vietnam war has an almost renaissance painting aesthetic, while it depicts a similar harrowing situation to Jacobson, it seems to lack the shock and immediacy of her image. Maybe it misses that slightly out-of-focus look that Robert Capa used.

War Zone ‘C’ – Ambush of the 173rd Airborne, 1965. Tim Page

Sebastião Salgado is often criticized for aestheticizing the ugly and brutal aspects of life and the environment, his creation of hauntingly beautiful images frequently at odds with the subject at hand.

Sebastião Salgado, Genesis, 2013

While these images of garbage strewn environments are hardly picture postcards with no attempt made to aestheticise the image. How does the aesthetic of the image affect our receptiveness to its meaning, or is it down to the sensibilities of the viewer? Different audiences are going to respond differently to the chosen aesthetic, as the creator of the image one has to accept that criticism in some form is inevitable if the subject is emotive.

In an image saturated society it is easy to become desensitised to issues when the shock value has worn off through repetition, it’s when the image disrupts the commonly perceived narrative that it can be at its most effective. Nick Ut’s ‘The Napalm Girl’ (1972) became a defining image for the Vietnam war and came to symbolise the atrocities committed during the 20 year conflict. Even today, it has an enduring power to shock.


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