What compulsion is there or should there be to purposely view the suffering of peoples both near and far. When Sontag wrote her analysis into how we might concern ourselves with depictions of atrocities in Rwanda or Cambodia; modern conflicts that she rightly points to the echoes of past atrocities, Serbian death camps in 1992 would recall Nazi death camps in 1945, Pol Pot becomes mirrored in Rwanda, Nanking perhaps in modern day Aleppo? These visual and partial descriptions, even in 2003 were becoming a rarer sight on television screens – the urge to view these scenes today is being militated against by the further fracturing of the media by which we, the would be spectators and proxy witnesses, can participate in the comprehension and subsequent conversation into these events.
Professor Stewart Purvis, former Editor in Chief ITN News suggests (here) that we might all try a bit harder to find these documentaries by searching the digital channels, “…for example Al-Jazeera English has good work… viewers will have to try a bit harder to see them (digital channels available on Freesat et al)…but its worth the effort…” Whose job is it anyway to provide these stories (a curious noun for a process by which the authors would have us believe is the truth) of untold misery and suffering. It is current in the depths of the news that the Syrian government ordered the making of photographs of all those it has killed and tortured. Why a regime would inflict this bureaucratic process on both the photographer and it’s victim is difficult to comprehend, but these pictures are now slowly being released – not in a Wikileak way, with a deluge of information – no the authorities are drip feeding their introduction into the mainstream accompanied by statements like “our experts have confirmed they haven’t been “photoshopped’ in any way” – they must therefore be true! A further study, mentioned in the news article, is here.
My view, from the work quoted above, is that the competitive framework of media, and particularly news media, makes decisions based on viewer figures. The decision to relegate ‘good work’ to the backwaters of the digital network is a complicit acknowledgement that networks are afraid of viewer figures. Peter Rudge of Duckrabbit told the OCA students that the frame update rate of news media on a news media site needs to be around or less than four seconds otherwise the viewer will ‘surf away’. This is a statement about viewers who have made the decision to go to a news media site, recognised a story they want to engage with – but only if the image refresh rate is no more than four seconds! This appears to chime with the ‘remote’ censor, if the image on the television screen isn’t charming the viewer they will ‘graze’ and turn their gaze elsewhere.
Sontag suggests we don’t have to look, the notion that this video here is a reflection of. If the viewer doesn’t want to see pictures then why not withhold that imagery – perhaps insert advertisements over the commentary? A detergent advert cleansing us of any sense of involvement? Susie Linfield in a piece entitled ‘Advertisements for Death’ writes: “The documentary photographers of the early 20th century, and especially the early war photographers, believed that the revelation of violence and oppression would lead to saving action. Some even dreamed of a world without war and exploitation. I don’t think they ever imagined that the camera would become a tool with which to proclaim and affirm, rather than fight against, the most hideous aspects of war and the most fearsome authoritarian regimes. Their dream has become our nightmare.” And I think I have to agree; only photographers seem to hold the view that by representing the victims of war they might militate against the barbarity of man’s inhumanity to his fellow human. The descriptive and reflective analysis of the word is still perhaps the most vehement of truth tellers. As Sontag mentions, even the imagery gathered by networks, staged by the military in the ‘Shock and Awe’ of the Gulf war in ’91 “…American television networks weren’t allowed to see footage acquired by NBC (which the network then declined to run) of what that superiority could wreak: the fate of thousands of Iraqi conscripts who, having fled Kuwait City at the end of the war, on February 27, were carpet bombed with explosives, napalm, radioactive DU (depleted uranium) rounds, and cluster bombs as they headed north, in convoys and on foot, on the road to Basra, Iraq – a slaughter notoriously described by one American Officer as a ‘turkey shoot’”. And whilst no-one appears to want to see these images – who would? – the likelihood is that not only are we being ‘saved’ from them – the current Syrian atrocities a very current example, but the networks would rather we watched another reality cooking programme.