Facing harsh reality

December 12, 1997

Photography. The way we conceptualise pictures, the media's use of disturbing images, and surreal selling

A MANCHESTER Metropolitan University researcher has defended hard-hitting documentary photographs against what he describes as the increasing "squeamishness" of the news industry.

In a book to be published next April, titled Body Horror: Photojournalism, Catastrophe and War, photohistorian John Taylor draws on his research to consider the moral responsibility attached to publishing and viewing photographs of violence.

"The media widely publicises certain experiences as both 'universally' horrible and newsworthy: gruesome, sudden death in accidents, disasters, massacres, murders, disease and war. How these stories are told and illustrated is affected by beliefs of taste," he says.

Mr Taylor believes there has been a move away from presentation of harsh reality through the photographic image by the media. "We are being overly coddled and there is a kind of squeamishness which is passed off as being in good taste. And the defence has always been privacy, privacy, privacy," he says.

He is not suggesting that there should be a gratuitous, full-frontal assault on the senses; there will always be instances where people need to be careful about what they show and say.

"Censorship and self-censorship are inevitable," Mr Taylor says. "The problems lie in their practice, and their boundaries are always changing. I think we are in a phase where there is contraction."

In recent times, there has been the rise of the "pornography of death", with people who look at death regarded as ghoulish, weird and voyeuristic. This has tended to further reinforce the inability of people to face up to harsh images of reality.

"I think propriety in the face of barbarity is indefensible," Mr Taylor comments. "It is better to have gruesome photographs than not. To be polite in the face of the holocaust is to construct a society which is poor in knowledge - it gives rise to a kind of cosmetic knowledge. In a democratic society there has to be room for large and varied knowledge that includes uncomfortable images."

He finds it ironic that at a time when the news industry has been "dumbing down" its treatment of hard-hitting photojournalism, the art world is full of gruesome and visceral images.

"We get off on it there but somehow it is deemed too disturbing to cover when it is real," Mr Taylor says.

Some commentators have argued that a glut of horrific real life images of events such as horrible accidents or atrocities blunts morality and has an "analgesic" effect that numbs onlookers to the point of indifference.

But Mr Taylor rejects this argument. "It confuses the glut of images with the surfeit of knowledge - the two are very different. There may be lots of images but they are often narrowly defined by propriety and good taste. It also overlooks the increasing difficulty and cost of seeing and getting information and imagery," he says.

"The so-called 'glut' of images actually disguises the profitable ways in which access to information and imagery is restricted so that they become scarce commodities."

Mr Taylor says a major problem with the "analgesic" argument is that it assumes the audience is made up of "stupid misanthropes".

"You have to believe that empathy with the violated occurs, though why, when and for how long remains uncertain.

"It is difficult, for instance, to look at Kevin Carter's photograph of a starving child in Sudan and not feel some sort of moral responsibility and shame," he says.

"Documentary photojournalism is an integral part of the press and the kinds of knowledge produced by the news industry. That is why it is so important. Its absence suggests a dimming of knowledge. And that is really bad news."

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