What happens to the victims of genocide, torture and mass murder? Do they just disappear from memory over time or do we have a responsibility to confront their suffering? Is it "pornographic" to display photos of political violence or is it our duty to see them?
If you're in the second group, as I am, this heart-wrenching new book by photography critic Susie Linfield is a MUST read.
WARNING: The subject matter (text and photos) is deeply disturbing and not appropriate for sensitive minds or young people (under age 16).
Almost since the invention of the camera in the early 19th century, photography has been used to capture both the beautiful "nice stuff" and the ugly horrifying stuff. Photos from the American Civil War and the brutal Belgian occupation of the Congo are prime examples. In the 20th century, photos were used both by activists and perpetrators to document the very worst cases of human cruelty -- from the slaughterhouse of Ardennes in World War I to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the execution rooms of Stalin's Russia. Sadly, this body of evidence keeps growing in our time.
As the book so aptly explains, many art critics of the post-War period (e.g., Susan Sontag) have denounced these photos calling them another form of "victimization" or even "the pornography of mass violence." We shouldn't look at those images, they say, it only makes their suffering worse.
Linfield deftly and completely demolishes that argument, both from an aesthetic standpoint and in terms of basic human morality. She uses real-world examples to demonstrate the vital role that documentary photography has played in exposing political violence over the last 150 years. Moreover, she does so while teaching us about the often difficult intersection of photography, art, journalism, history and human rights activism. Even Mark Twain makes an appearance.
I am not an art critic but I am an historian of sorts. The first chapter -- a discussion of the squabbles among specific art critics -- didn't appeal to me personally. I'd suggest reading the preface and then skipping directly to chapter 2 or 3 where the deeper narrative begins.
As I said in a letter to Linfield after reading her book: "The real value of these photographs is indeed their shock value. This is the world we live in, folks -- let's stop pretending otherwise."
BOTTOM LINE: We have a responsibility to our fellow human beings, especially vulnerable children and other victims of mass violence. The first step is to look that horror directly in the eye and say: "Never again. Never again."
Thank you, Susie Linfield, for writing this amazing work of non-fiction.