Chapter 3: Photographing the Intolerable

What Makes Images Intolerable

Whilst images dealing with sexuality are problematic, the issues posed are largely masked by saturation.  We have become numbed to sexualisation in advertising, the traditional representation of female sexuality in art, and (perhaps unconsciously) the role of the male gaze.  However, images exist which are truly painful to look at—not in a Barthesian sense of mere details that ‘prick’ us, but in the sense that the images are so strong, the subject matter so viscerally disturbing, that we feel compelled to look away.  Yet, despite their painful nature, we find that we are drawn to them—a phenomenon old and pronounced enough to be recognised by Plato (who, as with contemporary philosophers, attributed this attraction to what we would now define as ‘spectacle’) in The Republic, written around 380 BC. (see Sontag, 2004, p.86).

Perhaps the most useful definition of these images for our purposes is that coined by Ranciere in The Emancipated Spectator, in a chapter encompassing our term: The Intolerable Image (2009b, pp.83-105).  For Ranciere, the intolerability of an image is determined not only by the elements which “make us unable to view an image without experiencing pain or indignation”, but also a question: “is it acceptable to make such images and exhibit them to others?” (Ibid., p.83).

In The Object Stares Back, Elkins discusses a series of four photographs depicting the execution of a Chinese woman by ‘death by division into a thousand parts’ (figs. 8-11), which he considers “one of the most powerful sequences of images I know in any genre and from any period”6 (1997, p.115).  The photographs depict a half-naked woman being horrifically and systematically mutilated and, ultimately, being reduced to ‘meat’ (Ibid.), publicly, to a crowd of male onlookers.  The images are unarguably and profoundly disturbing, owing not only to their graphic nature, but also their context and sequence: although the moment of this woman’s death clearly lies somewhere between the progression of frames, there is no acknowledgement of this occurrence in the images—the unflinching expressions and gaze of the crowd that has gathered to watch remain unchanged throughout.

Postcard Showing the Lynching of Jesse Washington by Fred Gildersleeve
Fig. 12 (Postcard Showing the Lynching of Jesse Washington by Fred Gildersleeve)

Elkins suggests that it may be the sequencing of the images (and his inability to locate the moment of death) that produces this profound effect, and that over time we can become accustomed to the sexism and immorality of the event as historical facts (1997, p.115), but I believe that the source of these images’ intolerability lies elsewhere.  Consider Postcard Showing the Lynching of Jesse Washington (fig. 12), a photographic postcard depicting the charred remains of a mentally disabled African American who, at the age of seventeen, was convicted of the murder of a white woman7 and was tortured, mutilated, and burned alive, by a mob that had gathered outside of the courtroom.  Like the images Elkins refers to, death in this image is unambiguous: although the moment of death itself is not depicted, the message accompanying the postcard clearly states that the event happened the night before, and it is morbidly referred to as a ‘barbecue.’  Considering the significant similarities between this image and the series Elkins discusses, is this image any less intolerable based purely on its lack of sequence, and over time will we, as Elkins suggests, ‘come to terms’ with the image?

If Ranciere’s philosophy is to be adopted, it can be said that the factor which defines these photographs as intolerable is complicity, and that the manifestation of this complicity is twofold.  First, there is the complicity of those depicted within the photographs.  In both instances, there is no evidence of the crowd attempting to impede the proceedings.  Secondly, there is the complicity of the photographer.  In the first image, the photographer has a clear perspective despite the density of the crowd, and is recording from a clearly privileged vantage point; his position is dictated by the subject, but it could also be said that what is being done to the subject is being performed to the photographer.  Additionally, the crowd make no attempt to conceal their identities, clearly indicating their willingness to be implicated in the event.  The crowd in the second image are literally posed for the photograph, which, as a postcard, was sold as a memento—an enterprise born of Washington’s suffering.

Although the production of photographs of torture, mutilation and death for the purposes of selling as postcards would today be considered particularly abhorrent, the complicity of the subjects in the images suggests that the subjects themselves did not consider themselves to be behaving unacceptably.  The event depicted in Postcard Showing the Lynching of Jesse Washington took place at a time when lynching was illegal, and therefore could be considered to an outsider, at ‘best’, an instance of barbaric vigilanteism, but the method of execution of the woman in the image Elkins discusses is written into Chinese law (Elkins, 1997, p.110).  This highlights an important consideration: intolerable images are not necessarily considered intolerable by their authors, and are instead declared intolerable by commentators outside of the time and/or culture in which the image was created.  This complicates Ranciere’s definition of intolerable imagery, as the production and dissemination of images interpreted as intolerable in one culture may received and interpreted differently in others.

Interpreting Intolerable Images

In The Object Stares Back, Elkins speculates that, over time, he will ‘come to terms’ with the images of death by a thousand cuts:

I think we can finally get used to the pain (doctors become entirely anaesthetised to pain; it comes easily with practice), and we must finally accept the sexism and immorality as historical facts (just as we must come to terms with newspaper reports of atrocities and injustices).

Elkins, 1997, p.115

Whilst it’s true that Elkins may eventually become numbed to the historical context of the image and the physical torment of its subject, I propose it is unlikely that he will become numbed to the effects of intolerable images generally.  In the Information Age—at a time when the world is becoming ever more connected, and in which digital cameras are mass produced and photographs cost almost nothing to produce—there has never been a time in history when it was more likely that we risk being overexposed to and saturated by powerful images of the intolerable, as we have been by sexualised imagery, banalising their content.  And yet there are still images which we find intolerable, and which are we are not numbed to.

Elkins himself recognises that images that are powerful are also rare.  He remarks that “especially in the art world where artists continuously struggle to be noticed and there are few boundaries to what is possible, it is odd that more images are not this powerful.” (1997, p.116).  He considers this to be due to the ‘nature of the power itself’, and because these photographs “shout all images down: they are harsh and importunate, so that they are not only hard to see; they also make everything else hard to see.” (Ibid.).

This statement reflects a well-documented problem with the nature of intolerable images: that they overpower reason and thereby complicate—or even preclude—interpretation of the images themselves.  They evoke strong, visceral emotions, which cloud normal judgement.  Writing in response to an exhibition catalogue essay for a Holocaust exhibition titled Memoires des camps, which featured photographs of women being pushed into gas chambers, Élisabeth Pagnoux remarked that “by projecting into our present the horror of Auschwitz, [the images] captured our gaze and prevented any critical distance” (see Ranciere, 2009, p.89).  The intolerable acts depicted within such photographs negate the prospect of reasoned argument.

Elkins’ argument that he may be able to overcome the pain caused to him by intolerable images is not unfounded, and the hypothesis that we will become numbed by images (and photographs in particular, since their invention) is an argument that far predates photographic practice.  In Regarding the Pain of Others (2004), Sontag reflects that, whilst this was the stance she opined in the essays of her earlier work On Photography (1979), she is now somewhat skeptical.  She muses that the sentiments proposed in On Photography are what could be considered the ‘conservative argument’, because they deal not strictly with our responses to images, but instead argue for the “defence of reality and the imperilled standards for responding more fully to it”. (2004, p.97).

To understand this statement, it is first necessary to understand Baudrillard’s theories of the image as reality.  In Simulacra and Simulation (1995), Baudrillard proposes that saturation of imagery has transformed our understanding of reality and representation by inadvertently trading reality for a simulation based on symbols and signs (in the semiotic sense of these terms).  This is a process in which images evolve from representing reality to distorting it (due to the subjective nature of their creation), hiding it from view, and ultimately becoming simulations of reality in themselves:

it is the reflection of a profound reality;
it masks and denatures a profound reality;
it masks the absence of a profound reality;
it has no relation to any reality whatsoever;
it is its own pure simulacrum.

Baudrillard, 1995, p.6

These theories are based on an opposition within images between reality and representation, which transform images into simulations.  According to Baudrillard, “representation stems from the principal of the equivalence of the sign and of the real”, whereas simulation is born of “the sign as the reversion and death sentence of every reference” (Ibid.), meaning that images that have become simulacra necessarily obscure the reality that they once represented.

Ranciere develops this theory further in The Future of the Image (2009a) by introducing the concept of ‘hyper-resemblance’8.  He proposes that this element “does not provide the replica of a reality but attests directly to the elsewhere whence it derives” (2009a, p.8), the disappearance of which announces the transformation into a simulacrum.  However, this hyper-resemblance never truly leaves the image, as it is formed by the mechanical reproduction of the image itself, and “never stops slipping its own activity into the very gap that separates the operations of art from the techniques of reproduction” (2009a, p.9).

This ‘space between art and reproduction’ complicates the interpretation of intolerable images.  Writing in On Photogoraphy (1979), Sontag proposes that “a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask” (p.154).  It is this fixing of trace into an image that allows photographs to be used as historical documents, for example, or as evidence in court.  However, photographs are representations and therefore by definition not the thing itself, and the subjective process of their realisation can call both the tolerability and authenticity of the photograph into question.

Sontag notes that “photography that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible is much criticised if it seems ‘aesthetic’; that is, too much like art” (2004, p.68), and that the utilities of photographs as documents and as art are perceived to be opposites, and therefore “photographs that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful” (Ibid.)  She expands by explaining that images that are perceived as being too beautiful drain attention from the subject depicted and “turns it towards the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture’s status as a document” (Ibid.).  It can be said that the act of photographing an intolerable event transforms both the photograph and the event itself into a spectacle, to be consumed by a consumerist society.

Despite her apparent accord with this supposition, Sontag later states that “to speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism”, because it universalises the experiences of what is in reality only “a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment” (2004, p.98), and “suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world” (Ibid., p.99).  This is the problem of intolerable images: whereas viewers removed from the event may choose to be (or not to be) spectators of the intolerable, and despite the fact that the reality depicted by these images is never complete and is not comparable to the experiences of those depicted, atrocities do happen, and photographic records remind us that these events happen, whether we find them intolerable or not.

The Role of Intolerable Images in Society

If intolerable images can never be complete and can never effectively convey the actual suffering that took place, do intolerable images have a useful role in society?  This immediately suggests an additional question: if intolerable images have no useful role in our society, does the fact that they were made in the first place make their very existence intolerable in itself?

An additional essay published alongside Élisabeth Pagnoux’s criticisms of Memoires des camps, written by Gérard Wajcman, argues that the photographs featured in the exhibition are intolerable because they are unnecessary:

The Shoah occurred.  I know it and everyone knows it.  It is a known fact.  No one can say “I do not know.”  This knowledge is based on testimony, which forms a new knowledge… it does not require any proof.

See Ranciere, 2009b, p.90.

However, as Ranciere points out, Wajcman is not directly addressing the images themselves, but rather forming an opposition between two forms of attestation: testimony, and proof (Ibid.).  Wajcman’s argument that ‘proof’ (in the form of photographic images) is not needed because the event is ‘common knowledge’ is invalid, because testimony is subjective, based on the experiences of the witness, and therefore cannot be considered ‘proof’ in itself.  Regardless of the truthfulness or untruthfulness of a testimony, it does not contain an easily definable ‘trace’.

Wajcman is also in a privileged position, as it is only with hindsight that he can be so confident in asserting that no one can argue ‘I did not know’.  It is often the case that photographic records themselves are a significant contributory factor for the dissemination of knowledge about atrocities, the outrage and scandal which they create being the catalyst for widespread acknowledgement, and change.  Ranciere hints that recognition of this is hidden between the lines of Wajcman’s argument: “the images are reassuring, Wajcman tells us.  The proof is that we view these photographs whereas we would not tolerate the reality they reproduce” (2009b, p.91).

The photographs that have been discussed so far have been relatively old, and yet have been striking enough that we recoil from them.  We cannot aid the subjects—the moment has passed.  However, new intolerable images emerge constantly.  As Sontag points out, since the beginning of the 20th century, “war has been the norm and peace the exception” (2004, p.66), providing ample conditions for intolerable images to be created.

Perhaps the most notorious example of intolerable imagery in recent times has been the materialisation of a series of photographs depicting acts of torture and abuse of inmates at the hands of western forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which entered the public arena shortly after the publishing of Regarding the Pain of Others (2004).  Although earlier reported instances of torture were largely ignored by the mainstream media, the release of these images prompted international outrage.

Political and ethical philosopher Judith Butler wrote at length regarding the circumstances and affect of these photographs, alongside the nature of embedded reporting and media censorship, in her essay Torture and the Ethics of Photography (2007).  She proposes that “for photographs to accuse and possibly invoke a moral response, they must shock” (2007, p.955).  This would seem a self-evident statement, as in a culture where news and imagery are considered consumables, surely the most effective way of eliciting a response is the production of imagery that is difficult to consume.  However, not all images of death are intolerable, and for images to provoke moral and political actions the viewer must have an existing relationship to the events that the images depict.

Balloons by Martha Rosler
Fig. 13 (Balloons by Martha Rosler)

In The Emancipated Spectator (2009a), Ranciere discusses a series of photographic collages created by Martha Rosler in the 1970s that constitute criticism of America’s war with Vietnam.  The series, titled Bringing the War Home, consists of imagery captured during the aforementioned conflict integrated into middle-class American domestic environments.  As with the art images discussed in the previous chapter, these images play with established themes in order to make statements.  In fig. 13, domestic luxuries and status symbols such as a glass table and a hanging chair are contrasted with the horror of a man carrying the limp body of a half-naked child, literally bringing the horrors of war into the household.

However, as Ranciere states, “there is no particular reason why [these images] should make those who see [them] conscious of the reality of imperialism and desirous of opposing it.” (2009a, p.85).  In other circumstances, a more likely reaction may be to look away, or to dismiss the image as representative of the general maladies of the human condition, in which war is an unfortunate but distant reality that afflicts other people in other places. “For the image to produce its political effect,” asserts Ranciere, “the spectator must already be convinced that what it shows is American imperialism […] In short, she must already feel guilty about viewing the image that is to create the feeling of guilt.” (Ibid.). Ergo, the image is effective as it draws from existing negativity of the American conflict in Vietnam.

The previously mentioned photographs of Abu Ghraib are so profoundly affecting because they undermine the stated purpose of the invasion and effective occupation of Iraq as necessary to overcome a merciless dictator.  The photographs released depict physical and psychological abuse, and include scenes of sexual humiliation such as that portrayed in fig. 14 and fig. 15.  The sequencing of these images on the memory card to which they were captured suggests an additional context: photographs of abuse, rape, and murder were interspersed “with photos of the local bazaar, friends smiling and eating, soldiers saluting the flag, views of the street and the neighbourhood, Americans making love in apparently consensual terms” (Butler, 2007, p.960), suggesting that abuse was a fact of everyday life.

The abuse is twofold: not only is the subject degraded and treated as an animal, but the traditional gender roles are reversed, with Lynndie England (the female soldier in both photographs) assuming the role of dominatrix in fig. 14—a humiliation doubtlessly exacerbated by the strong patriarchal values of Iraqi culture.  The photographing of the event becomes an integral element of the abuse, with the symmetry and balance of fig. 15 strongly implying that the spectacle was purposefully staged for the camera.  The images are also ‘pornography’ in another sense: “the so-called pornography of the image itself, where pornography is defined as the pleasure taken in seeing human degradation, in the eroticization of human degradation.” (Butler, 2007, p.962).

The role of the photographer also surpasses the complicity exhibited in figs. 8-12, as Butler explains:

The torture is, in some sense, for the photograph.  It is, from the start, meant to be communicated; its own perspective is in plain view, and the cameraman or woman is referenced by the smiles that the torturers offer him or her: as if to say, thank you for taking my picture, thank you for memorialising my triumph.

Butler, 2007, p.959.

As with figs. 7-12, these perpetrators of torture make no attempt to hide their faces, suggesting that they, likewise, don’t regard their actions as unacceptable; but there is an additional, more sinister layer of significance: not only is the photographer an active participant in the scene, and not only is the act of photographing part of the abuse, but there is an indication that the presence of the photographer may have been a catalyst, without which the acts of abuse may not have taken place.

However, in spite of what Butler seems to be suggesting, it transpires that the acts of brutality and sadism depicted were probably not performed exclusively for the camera—as techniques for torturing Iraqi prisoners were sent from higher up the chain of command, and numerous reports have emerged stating that “prisoners were routinely humiliated by US troops venting their frustration” (Goldenberg, 2004), regardless of the presence of a photographer.  If they were performed for the camera, the apparent fact that the soldiers implicated in the Abu Ghraib scandal don’t exhibit signs of guilt or shame suggests that the capability to perform these intolerable acts lies within the soldiers themselves.

This brings us back to the questions posed at the beginning of this chapter. Ranciere suggests that questioning what it is that makes certain images intolerable leads us immediately to a second question: “is it acceptable to make such images and exhibit them to others?” (2009b, p.83).  The question is not straightforward, and is complicated by the fact that, in many cases, what we would refer to as intolerable images would not be classified as such by their authors.  The nature of these photographs often preclude reasoned thinking about them but, as we have seen, they can also form political criticism or shed light on atrocities, drawing our attention to injustices and brutalities, and aiding us in defining what we, as a culture, find intolerable.