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The declining significance of the shock photograph

Not a single student graduates without satisfying the PWR requirements, the second edition of which requires the delivery of a presentation. Often being overly dependent on words, it was not uncommon for us to be told to use: fewer words and more pictures. The way to grab an audience is with the pictures.

It actually makes a lot of sense. We are generally a visually-oriented species, so images, particularly graphic ones, can elicit strong emotional responses from us. Part of our affinity toward social media stems from the visual component. There is a greater likelihood that we’ll read news articles with more engaging photos.

Naturally, when marketing social and political causes to general audiences, those advocating and advertising for the cause often use the most shocking photographs they can find. Upon simply mentioning the “Humane Society and SPCA,” grayscale images of sad puppies and kittens begin to materialize. Similarly, a mention of “Save the Children” will call forth images of solemn, melancholy, hungry-looking children, probably also in black and white.

With smart devices and almost constant access to the internet and other media sources, we are bombarded by such troubling images almost constantly. We see a high volume of them and we see them rapidly. So much visualized pain can have serious effects on viewers’ health. This can result in denial and disbelief, distancing us from the impact of disturbing and graphic images, the sorts of which people have historically used in an attempt to motivate us toward action. Shock photographs have ceased to be mechanisms to create empathy. There are so many available to us that we have no choice but to distance ourselves from their subjects to prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed. They no longer make us so sad that we feel a need and responsibility to do what we can to improve bad situations. In fact, they can’t even help us to flag pieces of news that might be urgent and in need of attention.

Take, for example, the atrocities occurring in Syria as a result of the civil war. Yes, that’s still happening. It has been easy to forget, as it has been largely removed from front page news, and as we’re now more normalized to images of death and destruction in Syria. This has less to do with bombardment with images from Syria than it does with the fact that we’re pretty used to seeing images of death and not doing anything about them. In fact, the Syrian government’s most well-known defector, who goes by “Caesar” to protect his identity, has recently expressed much frustration with the American response to many of his photographs. His photos have certainly shocked, but haven’t done much to motivate people to act.

This is because the images simply aren’t moving enough. It’s not that they do not elicit empathy. It’s not that they do not depict awful abuses. It is simply the case that we are so accustomed to graphic and gruesome images that they don’t have the same impact that they did, such as how Jacob Riis’ photos in “How the Other Half Lives” motivated action and government reform. When we have video footage of beheadings and historical archives of pictures of other genocides readily available to us, it only makes sense that the distancing and desensitization of coping with that trauma would have already taken place, thus leaving us unmotivated to act as a result of mere images.

This begs investigation of what would be enough to cause us to act. We could advocate for a smaller circulation of graphic images, or rather that fewer photographs be taken so that we would see fewer disturbing images and they would carry more weight. This is problematic, though, because the wide circulation of a plethora of images allows more people to be better informed about events in the world. What we need is a way to be able to wholly consider events in isolation without becoming overwhelmed by their implications. We need to be able to not compare different atrocities but empathize on a case-by-case basis. There may not actually be a way to reach such a state, but we can certainly work on methods of more effectively cultivating empathy.

Since we’ve been normalized to graphic images, we should turn our attention to different forms of media to motivate action. Adding sound clips to news stories or providing additional video could certainly help, as these would at least be forms to which we’re not so totally accustomed. Alternatively, separating tech/media engagement time from time we spend in the real world would allow us to fully meditate on the implications of the photos and the stories behind them. Maybe then we’d feel moved enough to act toward change.

Contact Mina Shah minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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