Do we need photos of violence to galvanize support for change?

After the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, some commentators argued for the need to photograph and publicize what gun violence does to the bodies of victims. Such photos would be unbearable. They could, these commentators argued, mobilize support for gun safety and control policies. But still others argued that such photos would only traumatize survivors and victims’ families, while playing little role for politicians who oppose gun safety measures.

These questions were destined to remain unresolved. And tragically, the country now has another opportunity to mourn the victims of a mass shooting. On July 4, 2022, a young man reportedly fired from the roof of a building in Highland Park, Illinois, killing at least seven people, injuring over 30 others and traumatizing another American community.

A witness, Dr. David Baum, offered a harrowing account of victims suffering wounds “you’re likely to see in wartime.” Baum also described, “You saw people screaming, you saw colossal amounts of blood in the people who left.”

Those who advocate for the publication of photographs of mass shootings are right to note that images contain information that oral accounts, such as Baum’s moving account, cannot necessarily contain. They also claim that visual evidence has an emotional power that written accounts typically do not have.

There’s some truth to that. Having studied the politics of violence, imagery and denial, I have documented how visual evidence can actually move political leaders to action, whether through investigation or policy change.

And yet the first public reactions to pictures are not the whole story. As we’ve learned time and time again, no photo or video capture is truly “undeniable.” What photos show can be explained away with excuses and justifications. This often occurs with the release of video footage of police shootings at unarmed black men. Police unions and agencies, many politicians and too many juries can look at such footage and too often see a justified killing.

This is precisely what those who oppose the publication of photos of victims of mass shootings fear. Photos can make no difference. They must not influence public opinion, political will and, above all, politics in a way that makes it less likely that mass shootings will happen again. They can also stun the public for the violence they expose.

Public indifference or desensitization to violence is not caused by too little or too much imagery.

But there is something that both sides of this debate are missing. Public indifference or desensitization to violence is not caused by too little or too much imagery. If the public doesn’t know what to do about violence, they are more likely to turn away from these images of violence. This is the case even if they care about the suffering of others.

People will go to great lengths to avoid thinking, learning, and talking about violence if they feel they cannot stop it. They do this to avoid the distressing emotions—especially helplessness and sadness—that awareness of suffering evokes.

This is very likely what many Americans experience after a mass shooting. In the two decades since the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colorado, Americans have become accustomed to two regularities: mass shootings and political inaction against gun violence. The recent Supreme Court ruling restricting gun control is only likely to add to those emotions.

Knowledge of violence cannot carry us. Neither are the emotions that this knowledge evokes. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag recognized the powerful emotional reaction people often have to photographs of violence. Those responses wither, she concluded, if they are not “put into action.”

So maybe we don’t need more knowledge about violence and its causes. It follows that we may not need more images of violence. Instead, what the American public needs is an understanding of how to take action — individual action, certainly, but also collective action — that could bring about the kind of changes that would reduce the likelihood of violence in the future.

Knowledge of violence cannot carry us. Neither are the emotions that this knowledge evokes.

What we need instead are lessons, discussions, stories and images of social and political action. Journalists and photojournalists need to document and describe how people resist violence and bring about political change. Educators, particularly in the social sciences and social sciences, need to devote as much time to teaching strategies of social change and resistance as they do to the causes and consequences of violence and other public issues.

And what about the individual viewer of these images? There will be more photos of violence because there will be future acts of violence. We must acknowledge that these images do not testify to the act of photography and its ethical dilemmas. Rather, they testify to the human capacity to commit and suffer violence.

But they also testify to something else. We witness violence and suffering because we belong to local, national, and even global communities of people. As such, we share a common impulse to acknowledge the suffering of others, to grieve, and then work to alleviate the suffering of others.

Continue reading

about violence in America:

https://www.salon.com/2022/07/16/do-we-need-photos-of-violence-to-galvanize-support-for-change/ Do we need photos of violence to galvanize support for change?


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