How can we look - or should we - when the war is not our own?
* Themes below relate to prison, displacement, trauma and conflict.
Mae La Refugee camp, Thailand (2019). Many residents of Mae La fled armed conflict in neighbouring Myanmar.
We remember the images. In August last year, Afghans flocked to Kabul airport to flee the imminent Taliban takeover. Fathers, husbands and sons, clung to the side of an aircraft as it took off from the runway. The footage was called ‘shocking’ and ‘extraordinary’.
It was so disturbing that the US Air Force offered psychological support to staff onboard the flight and at Kabul airport.
It was hard for us all to look, but not many of us looked away.
As the footage was shared and re-shared across social media platforms, a common sentiment rang out, as it often does when imagery narrates such chaos, “Imagine if this was our family fleeing.” or “We’re so lucky to live in [place] where this wouldn’t happen. Hug your family tight tonight. I’m so thankful we’re all safe.”
A few months later, images flooded our vision again when Putin’s armies invaded Ukraine. Cradled in the palms of our hands or flickering around our homes, we watched as crowds crossed borders, buildings were bombed and families fled. What if this was happening in our country— our neighbourhood? Which belongings would I pack? Would I be strong enough to carry my children?
We wondered. I wondered.
We insert ourselves into the scenes we see. It’s a natural impulse, but I’ve learned that sometimes it’s far from helpful, because we are not at the centre of every story. Why do we find ourselves vicariously grieving, although it is not us, in this case, who are bereaved? Why, exactly, are we re-sharing scenes of someone else’s desperation? Does our watching dignify the people who we are seeing?
As a photojournalist and not-for-profit humanitarian storyteller, who believes that a single image can change the world, I spend a lot of time thinking about when, how and why we witness - or see, or watch - another’s suffering. In fact, I’ve been writing a book about sight (and splendor) and suffering.
Image theorists and photojournalists have debated the depiction of suffering for decades and maybe I’ll delve into some of those perspectives another time. By now, we know well that you don’t have to search far to find images that are dehumanizing, exploitative and that reinforce prejudice.
Yet we also know that sometimes someone who is suffering wants to be pictured, because the suffering is not all there is. In a moving story told by writer Ocean Vuong, he recalls the moment a photographer met him as a child with his mother,
“Three cups of rice for that photo. We were in a refugee camp, and we got rations. And each day, each family got three cups of rice. And there was a photographer who went around — even in a refugee camp, it’s a microcosm of the world…so I wanted for my first book to have Vietnamese bodies on the cover that were living…and so that photo was a moment of salvaging and preserving bodies in transit. What was it about these women, I thought, that [they] would surrender their very sustenance, in order to preserve their image?”
There are times when people pictured during war, conflict, persecution would prefer their image —a slither of time, frozen—to endure, to reach across divides, to ask for help, to document, to prove, to validate and to testify.
An image can also be a signpost saying: pride and hope are here, even if they are hiding.
Ngarambe Rukambika, 49, and his nine-month-old son, outside a hospital in Masisi, North Kivu, in August 2008. Published 21st November 2008, Cedric Gerbehaye/The Independent Newspaper
C.S. Lewis reminds us against the powerlessness that comes with vicariously witnessing someone else’s pain,
“I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know. God may call any one of us to respond to some far away problem or support those who have been so called. But we are finite and he will not call us everywhere or to support every worthy cause. And real needs are not far from us.”
Seeing can become an escape. Seeing can stop us from responding. Seeing reminds us that we are finite. Seeing reminds us that we cannot be everywhere.
I have too often mistaken my own perspective as another’s’ or another’s perspective as my own. I have often mistaken a compulsion to look as a substitute for genuine engagement or meaningful action. Susie Linfield in A Cruel Radiance writes about this, referring to photographs of people inside prison camps,
“One can mourn the people in [Lubyanka and S-21] - one must mourn, know what happened and when and how - but that should not be mistaken for closeness. We are not inside those prisons: they were. Our hells almost certainly are not theirs…We cannot become the prisoners of S-21 any more than we can save them…it would be good to eschew a knowledge that is easy, an identification that is glib, and a resolution that is cheap.” (p.59)
Photojournalists are responsible for the ethics of showing, says Linfield, but we are all responsible for the ethics of seeing.
At worst, our sight becomes black-and-white, us-and-them, or (what I call) they-are-me. We slide into voyeurism, condescension and over-identification. We erase nuance. We fix our eyes on that which we can do nothing about; becoming paralysed by a constant state of compassion fatigue. Seeing becomes an answer to our questions instead of a way to ask questions. We forget that images do not explain. We offer a ‘resolution that is cheap’.
Ironically, by seeing so much we can also end up ignoring the people who want - or need - to be seen.
There will be times when our gaze stretches too far and we harden our hearts to the needs just beyond our doorstep.
But, at best, our eyes can lead us to better learn, and to better honor and dignify others. At best, images help us to know who it is that we see. Our eyes can bring light to what is hidden in darkness. Seeing can lead to truth, justice, rescue, restoration and healing.
Maybe we watch, because deep down, we wish the suffering we see simply didn’t exist. We watch, waiting for a resolution, for justice, for vindication.
It’s complex isn’t it?
Maybe it’s not right or wrong to wonder how someone else’s life may be similar or different to our own.
Maybe it’s not right or wrong to look away. Maybe it’s not right or wrong to be a bystander.
Being an eyewitness sometimes changes the world, but sometimes being an eyewitness counts for nothing; George Floyd was still murdered, the plane still took off with people clinging to the wings, Putin still continues to invade Ukraine.
Looking means that we are participating, somehow. Looking away doesn’t have to mean that we are denying someone justice. Sharing an image on social media may directly help those pictured, but it also may not. Images can remind us that are many ways to care.
Monitoring the media might lead us to solve ‘some far away problem’ in unexpected ways, but it doesn’t neccessarily make us more safe.
So, is there a right way to watch war?
I am learning to live with the tension of sight— with both its power and powerlessness— as much as I am learning how to live in peace while the world is at war. Learning to live with this tension is like learning how to tend a garden on a planet with rising sea levels and drying deserts.
Seeing itself is paradoxical; it is at once both clarifying and incomplete. It is both unquestionable and yet fleeting, fragmented.
Maybe embracing these tensions is the antidote to weariness. Maybe critiquing my gaze will soften my heart more towards lasting, honest, unseen, local, care for my neighbour.
When Putin’s war against Ukraine was waged, I could only bring myself to look at Iona Moldovan’s photographs Lives in a Suitcase which focussed on one family carrying one suitcase across one border one at a time. I roll their names around my mouth in prayer while I do the dishes. Olga. Divia. Max. Leonid.
Maybe learning the name of one person, or sitting with the words of one family, or praying for one person pictured, or following up on one story after the headlines have moved on— can actually change something.
Maybe, to come full circle, an image can help us care for someone far away, and maybe, an image can also help us love our families well.
As Mother Theresa once said, "What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.” Whoever, or wherever we count our family to be.
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So thought provoking. I now want to personalize the events so that I can pray more specifically.
This was beautiful. Thank you.