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Thursday, 15 January 2015

Why Don't We Believe in Newspapers Anymore?

Mail Online Screenshot

I read Janina Struk's book Photographing the Holocaust: Interpreting the Evidence over Christmas. It was a really interesting perspective on images that we take for granted, on history that we take for granted.

And then I reread this article by Fred Ritchin in Time on the social contract of viewing photographs and the mass of photographs that are currently made. It starts like this.

During the last century, photographs of mass murder in Nazi Germany, Argentina, Cambodia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia seared the civilized conscience with their revelations of barbarity. Some of the more irrefutable images were the most clinical, eschewing the empathy of the documentary observer while cataloging the horrors as a form of record-keeping, leaving it to the viewer to arrive at the moral calculus of each atrocity.

It's a great point to make, but even with the most horrific images, people don't always respond to pictures in the way they are supposed to. They never have. Compassion fatigue is nothing new and often it is shaped not so much by the images but by the places they are published, by the way they are framed. The moral compass has never pointed straight.

In her book, Struk talks about how holocaust images and films were shown in London at the end of the Second World War. Reactions to the images varied; 'In a Mass-Observation report, made to assess the response to atrocity films, one person who did not intend to see them said: 'I'm beginning to get fed up with all these pictures in the papers. I know it's very terrible and I was as horrified as anyone at the beginning... I do think they've overdone it... I mean you keep on looking at dead bodies heaped on top of each other - you just get used to it. Just as you get used to the idea of death all through the war.''

Ohter people felt disgusted not just with the photographs, but with the people in them for their grey skin and emaciated bodies. 'Such views,' writes Struk, 'may have been exaggerated by the dehumanizing way in which those liberated in the camps were often described in the press: 'pitiful specimens', 'the living dead', 'ape-like living skeletons', 'skeletons held together with rags', ' wrecks of humanity'.

People were often confused by the context in which the newsreels of the atrocities were shown; as a prelude to a Donald Duck film or as a short clip. One Mass-Observation respondent said, 'though the film is terrible, it's very short - too short to be properly convincing and of course you know quite well that the worst shots have been cut out. And then it's followed up by a Walt Disney, and that sort of removes any impression it made; people are laughing again within a minute. And it's all mixed up with a propaganda film about Noble London and how wonderful Londoners were in the Blitz, and that makes you feel the whole show really only is propaganda.'

So not everyone was shaken to their boots by these terrible images. They weren't shaken because the pictures were dehumanising, because the journalism that accompanied them was dehumanising, because they were shown in a context where they were surrounded either by entertainment or propaganda. Or maybe even because the publications in which they appeared shared, in some small way, the sense that these people who had been so callously killed were essentially foreign - they were regarded as Jews or Russians or Gypsies or Communists or Poles or.... pretty much anything except Western European (and this is a point Struk makes in the book).

And perhaps these same reasons are why photographs of atrocities today do not touch us in the way we think they should; because for them to touch us, the people they show need to be made real, they need to live and breathe and laugh and cry, they need to be about people who have lives we can understand. They need to be shown in media in which dehumanisation, stereotyping and war-mongering does not take place. They need to be shown in an appropriate context in publications that are free from propaganda and bias.

screenshot from Der Spiegel

And I don't think there are too many publications that can make that claim.

So maybe the problem isn't so much with the mass of photographs that are made as Ritchin suggests, but with the publications that show them. So instead of saying, Why Don't We Believe in these Pictures anymore, maybe we should ask Why Don't We Believe in these Newspapers Anymore? or Why Don't We Believe in these Broadcasters Anymore?

And Struk already answered that.

Photographing the Holocaust: Interpreting the Evidence is a really interesting book. Buy it at your local bookshop. 

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