Research point: spectacle and truth

I found the course notes for this project to jump around different aspects of the subject a little, and was left wondering how to pull the threads back tonether in the context of Gesture & Meaning course generally and the Social Documentary section in particular. It did come together in the end.

Atrocities and desensitisation

The notes open by talking about the work of George Rodger, the British photojournalist who captured harrowing images of Second World War concentration camps using a calm and unsensational visual style. The point is made that images such as shocked at the time yet people have become desensitised. For what it’s worth, not everyone agrees; Clarke says: “Rodger’s images of concentration camps remain painful and difficult studies of mass suffering and evil“, and “Although the images […] have been frequently reproduced they never lose their power as images.” (Clarke 1997: 159)

Sontag’s On Photography is quoted here, though a full reading of the appropriate section in the essay In Plato’s Cave (Sontag 1977: 19-20) reveals a more subtle and complex interpretation: Sontag’s point is more that one’s initial exposure to photographic atrocity is suitably remarkable and revelatory, but subsequent horrors need to ‘up the ante’ to achieve the same effect. Ironically for Sontag it was images from Bergen-Belsen, possibly those of George Rodger mentioned above, that set the ‘atrocity benchmark’ for her.

I read this as: nothing will move you as much as the first photographic atrocity – unless it is even more horrific/inhuman/transgressive. You will see images of suffering and will mentally compare them: “That’s terrible, but not as horrific as Bergen-Belsen/Cambodia/Sudan/whatever.“. Once an image does break through, it replaces the former ‘worst image’ in your mind. This is how I think desensitisation may actually work, ‘backwards’ from a particular reference point – rather than ‘forwards’ through cumulative exposure to multiple images.

Sontag’s original stance in On Photography (1977) that “images anaesthetise” led to the commonly-held view that photography of atrocities and inequalities has led to ‘compassion fatigue’, although she later rescinded (or at least qualified) this stance in Regarding the Pain of Others (Sontag 2003): “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand.”

I found the later, more in-depth analysis of the issue in Regarding the Pain of Others to be a much more rounded discussion than the ‘compassion fatigue’ generalisation in the 1977 essay.

Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” (Sontag 2003)

It’s difficult to summarise and ultimately I found her views to reduce to a kind of ‘it’s complicated / it depends’ conclusion. One key takeaway was that the reaction to images of war and atrocities is influenced in part by the empathy felt by the viewer, the connectedness to the event depicted. This may seem selfish, but I concede that I am more shocked by images of violence and death in Paris than in the Gaza Strip.

The spectacle and photojournalism

The course notes then move on to discuss spectatorship and voyeurism, introducing the concept of ‘the spectacle’ covered by Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967). The book is a dense, meaty dish that I am chewing through slowly, and digesting more slowly still. The general sense I initially got from starting reading Society of the Spectacle was that it pertained more to the (mis-)use of imagery in mass media, government, big business and increasingly social media than to journalism – but my takeout from Anandi Ramamurthy’s essay Spectacles and Illusions: Photography and Commodity Culture in Wells (2009:207-236), is that photojournalism absolutely falls into the definition of the spectacle. This is something of a revelation to me, and a worrying one at that.

“The spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life. Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity.” (Wells 2009: 213)

The course notes asks us to consider this quote in the context of photography in general and photojournalism in particular.

Photojournalism falls under the spectacle of commodity because photojournalism is a commodity. As per Ramamurthy in Wells (2009: 207): “The photograph is both a cultural tool which has been commodified as well as a tool that has been used to express commodity culture.

Whilst it tempting to see photojournalism as an inherently truthful genre, a platform for objective visual news communication, there is a potentially more problematic and sinister drive underpinning much journalism. It loops back to the earlier point on desensitisation. If journalism requires attention in an ever-busy spectacle, it will be the most novel – graphic, lurid, sensational, horrific, transgressive – images that will be sought, shot, selected and presented to the public: “if it bleeds, it leads“. The search for attention in a saturated, desensitised world can lead to unscrupulous photographers manipulating scenes, and this is not a recent phenomenon by any means (Wells 2009: 210). The ‘truth’ implied by photojournalistic images is undermined. Who to trust?

I believe an important distinction to make here is between the two ends of the ‘photojournalism’ spectrum: at one end is the genuinely compassionate photographer, seeking to be as objective and accurate as possible (the George Rodger, the Don McCullin) while at the other end is the paparazzi photographer. It’s a question of intent, which in turn becomes a question of patronage: who is funding the photojournalism? Or is being taken speculatively to be sold to the highest bidder after the event? “Follow the money“!

The course notes make an interesting point on the specific responsibility of photography with regard for ‘truth’; unlike video footage, the momentary/fragmentary nature of photography removes the immediate context and relies on the exact image contained within the frame being representative. This goes back to the idea of authorial control (even before one gets into the question of subsequent editorial control).

But why do people want to see increasingly horrific images? Because they’re used to seeing them; it’s become normal. It’s what they see in the newspapers, on TV, on the internet and so it is entirely understandable that they will continue to want to see them. In the Debord world-view, it’s the spectacle that is both feeding them and generating their appetite. We helped create the spectacle by happily consuming it.

To go from Wells to Weller: “the public gets what the public wants / the public wants what the public gets” (Weller 1980).


So what have I taken from all this? I’ll persevere through Society of the Spectacle at my own pace as background reading and may write more later. This reading has certainly made me more keenly aware of the inherent (sometimes misplaced) trust we place in news photography, and how our tastes/interests are shaped by the wider cultural and social landscape (Debord’s spectacle).

In a way it’s made it clearer to me the intent of artists who make so-called ‘edgy’, ‘alternative’ or ‘anti-establishment’ art. It’s articulated reasonably well just what it is such artists are ‘against’, if that makes sense. It has given me a stronger understanding of how to perceive particular types of imagery, be they art or documentary (or both) – as being a part of, or a stand against, the prevailing visual culture.


Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Debord, G. (1992) The Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press.

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

Weller, Paul (1980) Going Underground In: Going Underground. London: Polydor.


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