No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy

David Simpson writes:

Hariman and Lucaites propose that ‘indifference towards others’ is the greatest danger in public life, and that photojournalism at its best can prevent it by making us care for and about others. The opposite case, made by Susan Moeller – and by Rousseau and Plato before her – in Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death (1999), a book that is only briefly noted here, is that excessive exposure to images of pain and suffering can inoculate us against what the authors here call ‘strong emotional uptake’. It is not easy to assess how much of the uptake of the Abu Ghraib photos was to do with compassion (there has been little risk of ‘compassion fatigue’ over Iraq since we see hardly any images of the dead and dying, and no one has marketed any of them as potentially iconic). The portrayal of pain, Hariman and Lucaites realise, must be narrowly contained if it is to become iconic: the screaming girl at the Kent State shooting can embody a ‘lost citizenship’ because she and not the dead body is the centre of attention and because the body itself shows no sign of its death and retains a certain ‘decorousness’.

(LRB 29 November 2007)

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