COM­MEN­TARY

Mcgill needs to step up its fam­ily care Slav­ery, re­sis­tance, and hu­man na­ture Let­ter Sol­i­dar­ity state­ment for stu­dent teacher Com­pro­mise needed on smoke­free cam­pus pro­posal The ac­tivist cul­ture of over­work Year in re­view: Com­men­tary Pho­tog­ra­phy exp

The McGill Daily - - Table Of Contents - Khatira Mah­davi Com­men­tary Writer

As an artis­tic and jour­nal­is­tic medium, pho­tog­ra­phy gives its au­di­ence ac­cess to re­al­i­ties that they wouldn’t oth­er­wise have. Pho­tos that fea­ture Brown and Black bod­ies as vic­tims of war, famine, and other hu­man­i­tar­ian crises are of­ten pro­duced un­der the guise of gen­er­at­ing sym­pa­thy and aware­ness toward the im­mense vi­o­lence that con­tin­ues to plague much of the Mid­dle East and parts of Africa.

Pho­to­jour­nal­ists, of­ten white male ones, cap­ture and cir­cu­late these images un­der a frame­work of ad­vo­cacy meant to high­light and bring at­ten­tion to these vic­tims of vi­o­lence. How­ever, this ad­vo­cacy fails when, within the chaos of im­age dis­tri­bu­tion, these pho­tos lose their con­text and the peo­ple in them – life­less or not – are de­hu­man­ized. They be­come name­less sym­bols of vi­o­lence that must be stopped, of peo­ple who must be saved, all with­out ac­knowl­edge­ment of the sys­tems caus­ing the vi­o­lence in the first place. This is how neo­colo­nial­ism is jus­ti­fied. If the West­ern masses can be con­vinced that these bod­ies rep­re­sent an un­civ­i­lized, help­less, and ho­moge­nous peo­ple, West­ern na­tions can con­tinue to val­i­date their in­tru­sions into these coun­tries.

Through­out the on­go­ing Syr­ian refugee cri­sis, pho­tog­ra­phy has been cru­cial in re­port­ing the hos­tile con­di­tions en­dured by refugees. How­ever, it has also cre­ated fer­tile ground for the ex­ploita­tion of their bod­ies. Alan Kurdi, the young Syr­ian boy whose life­less body was found off the coast of Turkey, be­came vic­tim to this phe­nom­e­non as his im­age went vi­ral on­line and on so­cial me­dia. His body be­came politi­cized and used in sup­port of var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal agen­das with­out a trace of his hu­man­ity spared for those who knew and loved him. He was sketched as car­i­ca­tures and as­so­ci­ated with a mul­ti­plic­ity of po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal nar­ra­tives, all by peo­ple who seemed to think that this was an ap­pro­pri­ate way of gen­er­at­ing aware­ness of the plight of Syr­ian refugees.

This pat­tern is not unique to the refugee cri­sis. In Fe­bru- ary, when Boko Haram bombed and burned down an in­ter­nally dis­placed per­son (IDP) camp in north­east­ern Nige­ria, images of des­e­crated homes and burned Black bod­ies went vi­ral. Such non­cha­lant con­sump­tion of these images serves to ob­jec­tify and nor­mal­ize the death and suf­fer­ing of Black peo­ple.

In stark con­trast, white bod­ies are rarely pub­li­cized as a tool of aware­ness. The masses are ex­pected to ac­knowl­edge the grav­ity of vi­o­lence against white peo­ple with­out vis­ual proof. The most re­cent ex­am­ple of this is of the at­tacks on Paris; graphic images of the vic­tims were not spread, un­cen­sored, in main­stream me­dia. Why then, are we con­vinced that it is im­pos­si­ble to ac­knowl­edge and dis­cuss the treat­ment of refugees or the hor­rors of mass vi­o­lence with­out dis­re­spect­ing life­less Brown bod­ies?

It is not just pho­tog­ra­phy be­ing a vis­ual medium that makes it so prone to this type of re­duc­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Pho­tog­ra­phy was de­vel­oped as an ex­ten­sion of the white male gaze: the fact that pho­to­jour­nal­ism as a dis­ci­pline was founded and largely con­trolled by white men heav­ily in­flu­ences the way it has come to be prac­ticed through­out the world. While pho­tog­ra­phers of colour are also guilty of ex­ploit­ing peo­ple’s bod­ies, this is still largely be­cause the dom­i­nant con­cep­tion of this art form is grounded in the white gaze. The ef­fect of this dy­namic is par­tic­u­larly harm­ful for women of colour cap­tured in ex­ploita­tive pho­tos, where the in­ter­sec­tion of race and gen­der leave them vul­ner­a­ble not only to the white gaze, but to the male gaze and the fetishiz­ing ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion that comes with it.

It is alarm­ing how com­fort­ably peo­ple in the West con­sume these images with­out con­sid­er­ing the hu­man­i­tiy of the sub­jects. Brown and Black peo­ple are omit­ted from con­ver­sa­tions about the vi­o­lence that is en­acted against them; in­stead of seek­ing and shar­ing sto­ries from peo­ple of colour, images of bod­ies de­tached of their in­di­vid­u­al­ity are spread, made ready for con­sump­tion, pub­lic cri­tique, and en­ter­tain­ment. As these images cir­cu­late, peo­ple at­tach their own per­sonal nar­ra­tives to them. In do­ing so, the no­tion of “ad­vo­cacy” is per­verted. In­stead, they con­sume and use these images for their own grat­i­fi­ca­tion and agen­das.

Through the co-opt­ing of these images, pho­tog­ra­phy is ul­ti­mately an ex­pres­sion of the white po­lit­i­cal agenda and how it would like to see the “other” pre­sented. Although pho­to­jour­nal­ism ex­plores in­hu­mane con­di­tions and vi­o­lence and in­tro­duces them to a wider au­di­ence, it can also be vi­o­lent it­self by ex­ploit­ing the images of vic­tims of vi­o­lence. This leads to the si­lenc­ing of which­ever nar­ra­tives do not rec­on­cile with that of white, West­ern me­dia. It is no co­in­ci­dence that, when the me­dia nor­mal­izes and de­val­ues the life­less body of a Brown child, it is also low­er­ing the stan­dards of liv­ing con­di­tions ex­pected and ac­cepted for liv­ing Brown chil­dren.

Shar­ing images of the dead and adding to the me­dia frenzy seems to sat­isfy the gen­eral pub­lic’s moral need to “do some­thing” – but it shouldn’t. We must col­lec­tively be more vig­i­lant in the ways we at­tempt ad­vo­cacy, and en­sure that the meth­ods we choose are not de­struc­tive.

Khatira Mah­davi is a U1 Cul­tural Stud­ies stu­dent. To con­tact her, email khatira.mah­davi@mail.

Why are we con­vinced that it is im­pos­si­ble to ac­knowl­edge and dis­cuss the treat­ment of refugees or the hor­rors of mass vi­o­lence with­out dis­re­spect­ing life­less Brown bod­ies?

So­nia Ionescu | The Mcgill Daily

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