Morality and the images of tragedy

Faculty of Arts writer and researcher Arlene Williams attended a presentation held in conjunction with the World Press Photo exhibit at the Allen Lambert Galleria in Toronto. She sent this report to YFile.

Photos of tragedy promote important knowledge of events, but also raise a number of moral issues, says York University Professor Fuyuki Kurasawa.

Left: Fuyuki Kurasawa

Kurasawa, a professor in the Sociology Department of York’s Faculty of Arts, addressed a group of high-school teachers on Tuesday, Oct. 4, about the importance of engaging students in discussions about depictions of tragedies. The event was part of the World Press Photo exhibit visiting the Allen Lambert Galleria at BCE Place in downtown Toronto. The exhibit runs unitl Oct. 23.

Photos of tragedy function in several laudable ways, Kurasawa pointed out, saying such photographs inform the world about horrific situations and create important records of key events. The empathy they elicit can break through public indifference. And the facts they highlight inspire people to take action to prevent future suffering.

“However,” Kurasawa said, “we need to have a discussion about the responsibilities involved in viewing such images.”

He pointed to the winning image of this year’s World Press Photo Contest. Taken by Indian photographer Arko Datta, for Reuters, the photo shows a woman on a beach mourning a relative killed by the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami. “We need to ask: would we want our moments of personal grief made available to the rest of the world?” said Kuraswa. “Is the potential violation of dignity counterbalanced by the responsibility to document harrowing circumstances?”

Right: Viewing the exhibit

He also raised the question of how audiences perceive people involved in tragedies. The problem, he said, is that audiences can respond to such images in ways that dis-empower or reinforce stereotypes about those affected. However, the people involved in such circumstances have broad personal experiences and live in unique social contexts. “We need to empathize with people without turning them into passive victims. This involves deepening and broadening the photographic frame – including in our viewing of photos the understanding that people are not defined by a particular moment of tragedy and that tragic events have structural causes related to unjust domestic and global political and economic systems.”

A photo of a Haitian boy holding a piece of meat illustrated his point. “You can look at this and see it as someone running away after looting food. Or you can perceive it as someone asserting his right to survival.” He pointed out that international images can often be perceived in ways that reinforce pejorative understandings of people living in the global South.

Right: World Press Photo Contest winner Arko Datta’s image

Kurasawa researches the relationship between human rights and visual representations of suffering, a topic he became interested in many years ago when he was exposed to images from the Ethiopian famine. He is currently studying the impact of photography on public opinion and government policy. “A lot of journalists are very interested in these kinds of questions but, given their daily lives, they don’t have a lot of time to think about them,” he says. “This is where I hope my work can help.”

York’s Faculty of Arts is one of the educational sponsors of the exhibit, which showcases winners of the World Press Photo Contest, the world’s largest and most prestigious photojournalism competition. Kurasawa was one of several guest speakers who participated in the educational evening.