Privilege and Pity

This week I’m working in collaboration with Joshua Trey Barnett at Rhetorical Worlding in conversation with Susan Sontag.

I want to start with Sontag, who poses a problematic at the beginning of Regarding the Pain of Others that:

being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds. Information about what is happening elsewhere, called ‘news,’ features conflict and violence — ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ runs the venerable guideline of tabloids and twenty-four-hour headline news shows — to which the response is compassion, or indignation, or titilation, or approval, as each misery heaves into view. (p. 18)

It is to this that Susie Linfield Responds in her book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. (I’ve talked about Linfield before on this blog, in The Problem of Pity.) Linfield argues in that book that while a photograph may be “created by a person of relative privilege, it might nevertheless foster ideas of human connection and a vision of a less unjust world” (237).

I’d like to think about this possibility: the privilege of the photographer, often inhabiting a privileged body – one that ventures into danger, violence, and pain, but also has the means to leave it behind.

What does it mean to inhabit a white body, and take photographs of violence that (the) ‘Other’ (non-white) body is experiencing? What is the potential for these photographs to intervene in that violence?

In order to engage this, I want to talk about Kevin Carter. Carter, a white South African who grew up during apartheid, took a now iconic photograph of a small child attempting to reach a feeding center in Sudan, while a vulture looks on.

Kevin Carter, 1993

Kevin Carter, 1993

Carter waited at the scene for 20 minutes to see if the vulture would spread its wings (it did not) before shooing the bird away. The girl continued her trek to the feeding center.

After taking this photograph, Carter took more, including executions in South Africa. In the months following the photograph, Carter had continued issues with drug use, developing relationship problems, and had a friend killed while covering a violent outbreak in South Africa. Oh, and a Pulitzer Prize.

And then, just months after winning the Pulitzer Prize, a little over a year after taking the iconic photograph, Carter took his own life in a Johannesburg suburb.

I don’t think that the photograph provides a simple explanation for Carter’s suicide. He described in his suicide note a variety of events and situations that haunted him.

Carter’s experience prompts me to (continue to) think about the implications of whiteness in a world that can’t seem to shake colonial systems of power and relationships. People have talked at length about the photograph, and about the child featured, but I’m also interested in how the body of the photographer is implicated.

Sontag presents a striking problematic: watching, and the gaze, particularly the white gaze, presents a culture of awareness and education. Watch and learn. But as I’ve discussed with the issue of Pity and the Slacktivist, there is continued controversy about the benefits of seeing, watching, and being aware.

Speaking of awareness, and whiteness, Christian Lander has a blog called Stuff White People Like, also found in book form: Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions. One of the problems of whiteness, privilege, and photography, is the connection to awareness (#18).

An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.”  Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it. This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges.  Because, the only challenge of raising awareness is people not being aware.  In a worst case scenario, if you fail someone doesn’t know about the problem.  End of story.

(Aside: I recognize that as I write this I’m sipping on a mocha with foam art in a grocery co-op, #1-Coffee and #48-Whole Food and grocery co-ops on Lander’s list. I’m in Graduate School – #81, and I’m writing on an Apple product – #40.)

I’d like to think that there are significant benefits to being aware. That, like Linfield, we can conclude that even photographs taken by privileged bodies can create spaces for rhetorical recognition, for deliberation.

However, I think the key is that there is potential. If we’re going to talk physics, this potential energy, or discussion, or debate, needs something to prompt or motivate motion, or kinetic energy. Photographs that possess the potential for change, action, and recognition need to be engaged to the extent that their energy is realized.

In Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh claims that:

When we see photographs and programs about the atrocities of the Nazis, the gas chambers and the camps, we feel afraid. We may say, ‘I didn’t do it; they did it.’ But if we had been there, we may have done the same thing, or we may have been too cowardly to stop it, as was the case for so many. […] There has been so much unnecessary suffering in our century. If we are willing to work together and learn together, we can all benefit from the mistakes of our time, and, seeing with the eyes of compassion and understanding, we can offer the next century a beautiful garden and a clear path. (p. 133-134)

In my desire to be optimistic, I think that the transition from potential to kinetic conversation, deliberation, and recognition is possible.

See also:
Time Magazine, The Life and Death of Kevin Carter. (Subscription or institutional access required).

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