I’ve started this post two months ago and since then Nihilsentimentalgia has been as slow as it gets. I’ve been wondering whether this blog should take a break. Being its tenth year, I thought I’d be motivated to write with a certain cadence, but the opposite has happened.
I’m feeling overwhelmed by images and I’m sure many can relate to this feeling. My life revolves around photography and for some time now I’ve been feeling very disappointed with the way things are evolving in the field. Before Nihilsentimentalgia can take a break, I’ll try and explain the tipping point.
So, I’ve been having a hard time trying to make sense of what these images mean: first and foremost, for us, as human beings; but also for photography and photojournalism in particular. I think they make a huge statement: they remind me of how a photograph can make proof of infernal situations, tragedies we must know of in order to feel responsible and act accordingly.
When I look at the photographs above, some overwhelming feelings arise:
1) for once, I’m shocked and I feel both sick and powerless to know this is happening;
2) then I engage with the photographs and start to question their origin and context;
3) and finally confirm it’s becoming incredibly exhausting to get to the truth when it comes to informative content.
Whoever doesn’t shiver at the horror depicted in these images is soulless and I could care less about the consequences of such a radical statement. If we do not look, if we scroll down, if we change page, we fail to realize that we’re part of the problem and that means we won’t be part of the solution.
Now trying for a less radical approach: I can obviously understand why a) someone would rather look away or b) someone would plainly ignore it.
Option a) I imagine happens all the time, precisely because either we’re overwhelmed by pictures of atrocities or we’re unable to deal with it (already overwhelmed by other circumstances).
Option b) I imagine is even more frequent, for the use given to pictures of atrocities has evolved in such a way that the observer feels alienated from the truthful nature of the reality in question, the brain rapidly dismissing it as “just another news about cruelty”, “just another post with an agenda”, “just another image”..
Who took these images?
I recognize the person who is taking the photograph is present. He or she is a witness. But is he/she taking this photograph in order to show us how overwhelming this is? Does the photograph have a purpose: to expose the situation? He or she is someone very different from me. His or her reality is light years from mine. I have no clue what it feels like to witness slavery and bare witness to victims of human traffic. I see these men; but they don’t see me. I’m not going to act accordingly; that is my condition (for me to deal with).
I first saw these images in a post about slave markets in Lybia. They weren’t the only ones, but these were the ones than kept haunting me. But what can I be certain of?
What I can see in the image on the left is three young and extremely underweight men with scars across their bellies. They’re posing for the photograph, their expressions not giving much away. The circumstances of the photograph are unclear. What is this? Is this like an ID snapshot? Are these men about to be sold on slave market? Apparently not, but we’ll get there latter on, for what troubles me is that the horror of this photograph survives whatever history made it possible.
The photograph was widely shared with comments similar to this: Three men standing side by side with scars covering the wounds from their stolen internal organs. Human beings for sale. Those are the searing images of the modern-day slavery taking place across Libya, posted by a former Nigerian minister after a CNN investigation revealed that Nigerian migrants were being sold into slavery by smugglers for $200.
The image on the right shows a soldier pointing to a burned body, hung upside down. It was posted on twitter by Nigerian politician Femi Fani-Kayode with a note that said: Roasted alive! This is what Libyans do to sub-saharan Africans who are looking for a transit point to Europe. They sell them into slavery and either murder, mutilate, torture or work them to death. All this yet not a word of condemnation from @MBuhari or other African leaders! This image haunts me, no matter what its true context is. I guess it brings back an historical notion of how primitive we were and how dehumanized we’ve become.
The crisis in photojournalism is akin to that of information in general. Journalists are still needed as photojournalists are, but they need to adjust. As has been proven many times before, some of the most powerful imagery from recent decades – in the context of exposing something for the rest of the world to see and act accordingly -, has been made by people who were both participants and witnesses – soldiers in war, migrants in their routes, etc.
A few decades from now this will be history, but that does not mean these images belong in the past. The photographs Lewis Hine took of children working for american industries made a difference, but that reality persists and more than a century has passed. I believe the same sort of pictures now would make no difference at all. That sort of black and white portrait is almost a cliché nowdays. I see how students look at them and if we don’t help them engage, they just don’t. How many “beautiful” portraits of begging children have we seen since then? How many documentary projects of kids working in prostitution? Consuming crack in the streets of “some foreign city”?
But it’s exhausting to track down the origin of images that are not made by professional photographers and that reminds us of how important clarity and scrutiny are in photojournalism. As I came to understand, actually none of these photographs illustrate the situation in Libya. That does not mean slave markets, public executions, organ trafficking, aren’t taking place in Libya, but it does confirm that for the general public such images have become illustrations, so the people represented in them appear not as particular individuals, but figures. And it’s easier to alienate ourselves from figures, isn’t it?
Tracking the origin of the photographs, to try and make sense of their overall meaning, this is what I could verify:
Regarding the photograph on the left: I tracked it down to April 2015 in a post by RFI – Radio France Internationale, with a legend that addresses not only a different context, but that also identified its authors. It said: Eritrean migrants abducted and tortured in Egypt while trying to flee their country Memento/Delphine Deloget et Cécile Allegra. In the article by RFI, this photograph was also used in a context that I struggle with. Again these men’s image is being appropriated to illustrate a wider situation, but nothing is said about them: who are they? What actually happened to them? Are they still alive? Who helped them? Legitimizing its origin makes a great difference. Once we know the authors we can actually verify the context and so on and guess what? The image is in fact part of a documentary entitled Voyage en Barbarie, by filmmakers Cécile Allegra and Delphine Deloget, who say: Le massacre des érythréens dans le désert du Sinaï est à notre sens l’une des plus grands drames humanitaires qui se déroule actuellement en Méditerranée. Et nous avons travaillé des mois durant pour pouvoir, tout simplement, filmer et en témoigner. Unable to watch the entire documentary, it was at least possible to acknowledge the situation and identity two of the men in the photograph. They are: Haleform and Menire and they are alive. The photograph was made when they were freed. The testimony of what happened to them can be read here (in french). After finally getting close to understanding the meaning of the photograph, I’m almost lost for comments and feel I can only reaffirm my belief that it is important:
Regarding the photograph on the right: what immediately stands out as strange is the uniform of the soldier pointing to the burned man. As people quickly noted, it is an Iraqi police uniform. Could find very little about the origins of the photograph and the road to that is not recommended (imagery more violent than most of us can handle). Nothing about the victim. It is “apparently” a register of Iraqi forces or hashd after burning a man alive in a public execution style. The life lost might have been that of a Kurd man.
Another tweet followed that with the picture of the burned man (said to be Nigerian), where Fani-Kayode used another gruesome image of victims to promote his idea of a war with Libya. It said: If there were ever a reason or cause for us to go to war, the Libyans have provided it by enslaving our people and buying and selling them like Christmas turkeys and sallah goats. No human being deserves to be caged like an animal and roasted like suya meat. Once images are used in such a way, they are just propaganda. Who really cares about the burned man? Who knows his name? Men such as Fani-Kayode are equality dehumanized and most observers are easy preys to this manipulation.
So, to wrap it up and explain how this was the tipping point: I’m just fed up and overwhelmed by what’s happening with information and how photographs are used as illustrations, ignoring individual situations. It’s a mess. I’m also bored to death with what’s happening in the more artistic side of things: the lack of authenticity is just enervating and I thing I need to give myself a break, or else I fear I might become cynical.
Don’t stay tuned, I’d be surprised if I make any post before the year is over.