Should photographs of suffering ever be so beautiful?

I think that yes, they can.

Photographs, particularly powerful ones can be confronting absolutely, but they can also be incredibly beautiful and empowering. Taking a beautiful and captivating picture is essentially a snapshot of that moment in time. It can represent a lot of things, and while yes the subject/context of the image may be dark, there is something very light about the imagery.

One of my favourite Photographers is Steve McCurry commended for his photojournalism work shooting portraits of people from the east to the west and the many worn torn nations in between. Undeniably his most celebrated image was the 1984 portrait of ‘the Afghan Girl’ that swept the front page of the National Geographic and many other publications. McCurry is known for taking risks, smuggling himself across illegal borders and war-torn nations is his attempt to capture the faces of these countries and tell a story, which is exactly what he did for the Afghan girl. The story of McCurry goes back to a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984 after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. McCurry didn’t believe the Afghan Girl image would be any different from the rest of the shots he had taken that day, for him he was just doing his job (Newman, 2002).

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 3.33.11 pm(Afghan Girl, by Steve McCurry, 1984 – 2002)

It wasn’t until 17 years later, come 2002 that the woman synonymous with her title was given a name. The National Geographic team along with McCurry ventured back to Pakistan in the attempts to find the girl whose eyes challenged the worlds. Identified as Sharbat Gula, a Pashtun now residing back in Afghanistan remembers her picture being taken that day but in the likely way was completely unaware of the impact her eyes had on the world.

While her face tells of the hardships she has experienced, her eyes remain as piercing as ever. Haunting and evident of tragedy, these eyes represent the “23 years of war, the 1.5 million people killed and the 3.5 million refugees”(Newman, 2002). I find this image to be incredibly beautiful and absolutely worthy of viewing. This image shows the story of Afghanistan; it has given this woman an identity and a story and serves to expand individuals’ perspectives.

The argument emerging when it comes to the medias use of confronting photographs is one of difference. When we take a photo are we taking away a person’s privacy and commodifying off their suffering or are we consciously trying to acknowledge their life and share their story. Much like the idea of whether suffering should be beautiful, I believe it would be incredibly ignorant to think that our own suffering could be at the expense of this viewing thus these photographs should be subject to dismissal. I think that as a society we need not to turn a blind eye and become oblivious to issues that are occurring outside of our immediate spectacle, it is important that we are exposed to the realities of others.

In Michael Kimmelman, article, on Photography Suffering, he explains that “good photographs are so stupendously gorgeous that they make you forget everything else while you are looking at them”, which is just not conceivable in my opinion (Kimmelman, 2001). A Photographs context is what is heightened in the image, and the subject is what is representing this. And while the subject can be beautiful, it does not mean we become blind to the enduring context.

Another famous photographer, Kevin Carter was responsible for producing the confronting image of ‘The Vulture’. Carter received a mass amount of hate for this image, with people wanting to know what happened to the child and what role Carter played in helping the young girl. In this instance, many people disagreed with the image being taken but is this just another case of the subjects suffering turning into our own? While it is human compassion to inquire into the young life represented in the image, I think that despite whether he helped out or couldn’t for any unknown legal reasons if it weren’t for this image westerns would be oblivious. Being exposed to such content that seems so foreign and hard hitting can only broaden our minds and make us question what we can do.

Kimmelman, M, 2001, ‘Photogrpahy Review; Can Suffering be too Beautiful?’, The New York Times, viewed 27th March 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/13/arts/photography-review-can-suffering-be-too-beautiful.html?pagewanted=all

Newman, C, 2002, ‘Afghan Girl’, National Geographic, viewed 27th March 2016, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2002/04/afghan-girl/index-text

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