Seeing is believing

Some years ago I was having a discussion with a friend about going to visit animals in enclosed spaces and as my friend was arguing for his position, he stated: how else can I see them? Somehow, I’ve never forgotten his argument, so maybe there’s something to it. At fist, it seems just a very desperate thing to say, in the sense that in our better days we can all agree that our (human) caprices shouldn’t justify anything. We can all be curious about very different things, but that doesn’t mean we go out and appropriate them, take over them, own them… unless we’re sociopaths like Donald Trump. We can all live very decent lives without seeing whales, sharks, rhinos and whatnot.

I have friends who visit zoos, who go to dolphins’ and seals’ shows, who take their kids to animal circus, etc., but one thing we don’t do is discuss these issues and that is mainly because I’m unable to. I tend to don’t understand where they’re coming from, why they think they have the right to do that and be passive observers (so they think) or active accomplices of an overall attitude that endorses race superiority. And that is probably the core of the problem. On the other side, when one in unaware of his/her part in the big picture, well… it’s complicated.

© Jo-Anne McArthur, Melbourne Zoo, Australia, 2010.
© Jo-Anne McArthur, Melbourne Zoo, Australia, 2010.

But let me come back to the idea that ‘we should be able to see’. Seeing and knowledge are very different things that often come hand in hand. One can be willing to witness things he/she knows of but hasn’t been able to experience before, but the idea that ‘seeing is believing’ seems to suggest that media like photography are untrustworthy. Of course it can also mean a variety of other different things, but what interests me is this very paradigmatic feature of photography: if on the one hand its materiality can be very objective, on the other hand its field of interpretation is all about subjectivity. Surprise or habit seem to play a very important role when disentangling what is and is not “worth” photographing (or seeing for that matter).

Last Thursday, when a group of terrorists killed more than a dozen people in Barcelona, the country’s authorities issued a statement asking people not to share videos and images of the attacks on social media. Doing this, their main aim was to prevent the killers, still on the run, to access information that could help them escape. But isn’t there (or shouldn’t there be) a deeper purpose behind this advice?

As I went looking for information on the Portuguese media about what had just happened in Barcelona, I was surprised to see that they were airing unedited videos from the actual killing. To be more specific, they were showing videos from cellphones that people had made while on the same time, apparently, trying to escape the scene or make sense of what had happened. Those unedited videos showed the worst: the victims, deprived of their dignity, seconds after being killed. Every time this happens I’m chocked and I think it’s a good think that it doesn’t become an habit. But the main reason why this doesn’t become an habit is not because I’m somehow more enlightened but, instead, because I don’t expose myself to this sort of imagery. If the media doesn’t follow their own code of ethics, it falls on the observer to do so. If the media doesn’t respect the victims, we, as observers, need to do so.

I’m aware sometimes it’s difficult to discern what is and is not informative content, but this is not one of those cases. The unedited and uncritical screening of the massacre is just wrong and it’s wrong for all the cases. No exception.

A few days earlier, when a young white supremacist attacked left-wing protesters in Charlottesville, in Virginia, killing Heather Heyer and injuring a lot more people, the western media had a very different approach. We know the attack is overall condemned, but the images tell a very different story. Would our media really air interviews with jihadists letting them promote their points of view on why we, westerners, should die? So why air interviews where white supremacists “explain” why they think every non-white person should be erased from the planet? What do we really need to see in order to know it exists? And what are the consequences of that sort of visibility?

Following the events in Virginia, Charlie Rose invited Vice to comment on their reportageRace and Terror“, in which reporter Elle Reeve went behind the scenes with white nationalist leaders. What Charlie Rose seems to attempt, at one point, is to discuss the consequences of the exposure given by Vice, although that discussion doesn’t really unfold. Watching Vice doc we understand the reporter and editor(s) are very conscious to avoid glorifying their subjects but what is it about that doc that we need to see to believe?

 

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