I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photo...
Wednesday, 17 April 2019
Why we care about Notre Dame, Why we don't care about Yemen
Why do we care about Notre Dame? The fire in Notre Dame kicked up just about the biggest load of whataboutism I found at times infuriating, but with some examples such as the Grenfell fire, incredibly pertinent.
Why do some disasters gain financial attention, and others not.
In this carefully worded text, Carl Kinsella doesn't engage in charmless whataboutery, but states the obvious in a direct but thoughtful way.
He states why Notre Dame is of such importance; spiritual, historical, economic and as an urban and national symbol. But he also wonders why it gains so much financial attention and what that says about our national, political values as a whole. Again he does this with not a whiff of whataboutery, with a certain amount of persuasive charm. I think that matters. His conclusion is quite simple - Notre Dame gets the money because that's what rich people value. But it doesn't have to be that way and to pretend it is in major bad faith.
I thought of Yemen in particular because of this excellent radio programme, Why don't we care about Yemen, presented by Kavita Puri.
It is a simple breakdown of why people don't care about Yemen, why it is so underreported. It's a kind of flipside to Notre Dame, a place where millions visit every year, which has featured in stories and films and is a symbol of Frenchness and religious power, which has a history of patronage that both absolves their souls and through the power of art absolves their money. There are no barriers to caring about Notre Dame. There are plenty of barriers to caring about Yemen.
The reason we don't care about Yemen, according to Why don't we care about Yemen, is few us have been there or anywhere near there. Unlike Syria it doesn't have neighbours like Jordan or Turkey or Israel which we might have visited.
Next, it's difficult to report on . There are no civilian flights, you need permission to film to get in and you need permissions from local militia to report. Reporting is difficult - fighting happens at night, so you travel during the day. And of course it's dangerous.
There is also no tradition of citizen journalism in Yemen. That's in contrast to Syria - where you also had a verification process. From Yemen, the limited material that does come out is difficult to verify.
42% of Brits had no idea there was a war in Yemen. It comes after wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya and the rest so there's the idea that there are so many. And the war is further complicated by our de facto involvement in it via our arms sales to Saudi Arabia. You'd think that would increase consciousness but it might be that it does the opposite. There's the ghost of commerce floating around there somewhere.
Add to that the fact that there are no obvious good guys (even by proxy - Saudi Arabia v Iran.), and the conflict is confined within its borders both in terms of fighting and in terms of refugees. Three million people have fled their homes. They are not living in camps but are living with other family members so the refugee crisis is not visible.
Perhaps most significant of all is the fact that there is a divided diaspora so there is little mobilisation, absence of a unified diaspora to act as a voice to influence policy makers and there you have it. The people who do have a united voice are the arms lobbyists, and that's a voice that is not going to help anyone anywhere anyhow.
There are limited voices all round then, both in Yemen and from overseas. I am not really sure how you can make people more aware of the war, how you can bring voices out on a large scale. I wonder if in these cases the retrograde 'raising awareness' cliches of photography might actually be valid points to make. It's something I wrote about in this piece for World Press Photo Witness on Tyler Hick's image of a starving Yemeni girl, Amal Hussain. I wonder if sometimes photography does need to take a backward step to make its presence felt above and beyond the limited world of photography.
And after listening to Why don't we care about Yemen, I also wondered about that retrograde idea of the photographer or the journalist as some kind of witness, going out there and bringing the news out. Because behind the programme there is that idea that if nobody is reporting an event, it simply isn't happening in the eyes of the world.
And that reminded me of a couple of Susan Sontag's great quote from Regarding the Pain of Others. I'm never quite sure about Sontag, but she does great quotes. This is one on the pain of the observer, the journalist, the aid worker, and the idea of the privilege of 'witnessing'
"We" - this "we" is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through - don't understand. We don't get it. We truly can't imagine what it was like. We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can't understand, can't imagine. That's what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.”
And then I thought about another quote which is in opposition to that in many ways and is more in keeping with a Rosleresque idea of images being a projection panel to salve our middle class consciences.
“Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it - say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken - or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”
So which one's right? Both of them probably. And it's the same with the whataboutery of Notre Dame, a one-night historical disaster where the conditions for caring are in complete opposition to Yemen, but where the enormous shared consciousness of the fire puts it on some kind of parallel, if lesser, level to that of experiencing war.
But here, you still have the whataboutery, the Notre Dame v Grenfell/Yemen/Palestine/Xinjiang /Planet Earth comparison, which is both unfair and relevant at the same time. But which sides's right? They both are, because there not really sides.
I wonder if what matters isn't the approach, and if there is a right approach and a wrong approach, because Kinsella had an approach that recognises the world that we live in and extends the debate beyond the immediacy of the pain felt at the burning of Notre Dame. It's the approach that makes it the right side.. The right side is the side that looks at everything and understands it's not an ideal world, that recognises we need to make it better, but still has the ability to recognise that some things are incredibly cheap, and devaluing Notre Dame and the heartfelt pain and loss felt by millions of people is one of those things. And if you do devalue it, you devalue every event of destruction and loss, because the whataboutery can never stop.