Some thoughts.

Something that’s come up a number of times in our group discussions is the desire to call into question the presupposed virtue of “inquiry”, “knowledge-seeking” and “revelation” attached to certain genres and context – in particular, this of documentary, of journalism, and even of academia. It seems that these sorts of institutions have obtained, as a result of aforementioned virtue, permission to publish/display images which are otherwise condemned as exploitative, the images themselves a form of violating the child’s body. But, since the image is considered an integral form of testimony, it is accepted. Some might argue that this is a necessary condition of the strength of the visual culture we have developed. Seeing is believing, right?

The problem is, I don’t think that can ring true when considering how the act of seeing becomes increasingly mediated (and the forces of this mediation rendering it increasingly problematic) as the image-saturation of our lives grows. I feel as if it becomes harder to “trust” what I see. Not merely because of superficial alterations of an image (cue endless photoshop before and after comparisons) but more importantly the effects of a media’s form/context upon our reception of an image, which we may not immediately consider.

Let’s back track to our formative meetings 2 months ago. When we first began thinking of the treatment of the child’s body as a topic, the discussion had developed upon mentioning the photograph of Alan Kurdi, a 3yr old Syrian boy, washed up on the Turkish shore. The publication of this image on the front page of newspapers, TV broadcasts, mass sharing via social media, etc apparently induced a global awakening of the plight of refugees (because it’s not like there has been steady reporting on drowning refugees and migrants for the last few decades… Oh wait. Yes, there has). There are a couple of points from this discussion which relate to the thesis we eventually developed:

  • It is because of the notion of a child’s purity and innocence that the washed up body of an infant, compared to that of a grown man or woman or adolescent, possessed such emotional gravity.
  • Arguably highlights an issue in the way that European societies perceive the refugee figure as not necessarily or inherently innocent, but very much politically charged. However, the child body escapes this political charge by the innocence and purity tied to its infancy.
  • It would seem that the ability for everyone to sympathise (and parents worldwide to empathise) with the image of a dead child points to a sort of universality of the sanctity of the child’s body, no matter its race, gender, nationality. The treatment of the child body should be the same the world over..
  • ….but not really, because the corpse of a Caucasian/European infant would not (and has not) been so graphically presented on the front pages of newspapers, nor broadcasted on TV. Social, political, racial, cultural factors mediate the acceptability of viewing the child’s body in this way.

I guess my point (yes, there is one..) is that the way in which our vision is mediated needs to be addressed. Our engagement with the act of seeing shouldn’t be blind to its blindness, which I feel is sometimes ironically exacerbated in the case of documentary/journalism and academic media, where images are used to facilitate a critical argument. Essentially I’m wondering if using images of violated children in this way constitutes its own form of fetishism – one which our reliance on visual testimonies prevents us from addressing because it serves a purpose of illumination. And this re-purposing of the image, in its new critical context, is supposed to overrule the initial problem that the image itself exists? I wonder if Stacey Dooley’s documentary, Young Sex For Sale in Japan, would be as popular, as convincing and impactful, if it didn’t show images of sexualised young girls and child-based pornographic material.

Just to round this off, in the spirit of self-critique, I wonder if focusing on/aggrandising the image in this debate is a mistake. Perhaps it’s a question of our appetite for detail, no matter the medium? Since, as demonstrated by Brendan O’Neill’s article, ‘Sharing a photo of a dead Syrian child isn’t compassionate, it’s narcissistic,’ his refusal to reproduce the image of Alan on the shore is supplemented by a graphic wordy description of the photograph instead.

As of yet, this issue remains very much inconclusive in my mind.


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