Text by Emanuele Coccia
For centuries, we thought that in the beginning of everything was the word. We believed that words could start and end wars. That it was through them that pacts were stipulated or broken. We used words to declare our love or the end of it. In this world built around words, images were deemed a secondary ornament, hung on the walls of curatorial venues, museums or other spaces constructed through words. But a few decades ago, everything changed. Words appear to have become almost powerless compared to images and these, far from being superfluous decorative objects, are now the essential tools through which we write about ourselves and our history. One simply needs to take a look at our smartphones to see that. We may not be consciously aware of it but, despite being invented to allow our words to travel far from our physical body through our voices, smartphones are very much the devices that led us to start communicating through images. We do not send them as illustrations accompanying write-ups and they do not need captions. We also ceased to contemplate them and used them instead to communicate.
It is for this very reason that imagery, and in particular photography, has become History’s main protagonist. Photographs are no longer the mere representations of an event or an incident but appear now able to incorporate that event in itself. This was the case of the image of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned toddler found dead on a Greek beach that our mind goes to when we think about the Syrian refugee crisis. The same can be said of John Moore’s photograph of a 2-year old Honduran girl crying desperately at the feet of a border patrol agent, which seems to embody and summarize, and not merely portray, the consequences of the Trump administration and their handling of the US-Mexican border issue. By the same token, looking at the sadly iconic Richard Drew’s The Falling Man image is enough for the spectator to comprehend and re-live the tragedy of the attack on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York. Historical events are not just amplified through photography – they seem to be summed up to the extent that they run the risk of existing only on its surface.
Thus, utilizing an image is always a delicate act: it means to literally use and manipulate History and not just its portrayal. Hence, the circulation of an image can make the event in it politically and historically more significant – and real. For the same reason, though, an excessive exposure to such an image could transform that same event into something trivial, ordinary and therefore losing its real significance, its ability to stand out.
It was Susan Sontag who articulated such a paradox at the end of the Seventies and questioned the moral implications and consequences, which are especially important when the story at stake is that of somebody else’s pain. Confronted with the danger of the repeated exposure to images of other people’s pain and suffering and with the numbness that can arise as a result, Sontag long examined how to make good use of such photographs. How to reconcile the need to disclose and report facts and events with the risk of causing people to become hardened or indifferent to the suffering of others?