Consuming the Pain and Suffering of Others through Images

On the 6th of October this year, the New York Times published an image of dead African migrants on its front page. Not only was this image on the front page, it was above the fold, meaning that it was the most prominent part of that day’s coverage. The faces of the dead migrants were not blurred out, nor were their semi-nude bodies covered.

The use of images like this to represent human suffering is a topic that I hold near and dear, both through my research,* and also on a much more visceral level.

the-new-york-times-october-6-2016-331x600-2952084
A version of the 10/6/2016 New York Times front page. We masked the image for the purposes of representing it here.

When viewing an image like this, I ask why such a stark representation of others’ pain need to be displayed? Some have argued that images of pain and suffering act as a mirror through which we can ask ourselves whether we are allies, or bystanders to the suffering of others. Though this may be true, I suggest here that this is a very simplistic approach to understanding images of pain and suffering.

What are the possible reasons to use of this image in a journalistic context? The migrant crisis is a complex issue, but the photo used by the New York Times did not add anything to our understanding of the situation. It did not, for example, tell us why these migrants risk their lives to make such a dangerous journey. It did not tell us why the island of Lampedusa has become a beacon of hope for those fleeing violence in countries such as Libya and Eritrea. It also did nothing towards helping the reader understand other aspects of the crisis, such as the current debates about whether or not we should call them “refugees” or “migrants,” labels which often have very real consequences on people’s life chances wherever they end up settling. Moreover, the use of that image could easily lead the reader to assume that Africans are all running from Africa to go to Europe, ignoring the fact that one of the largest destinations for those leaving the Horn of Africa is not Europe but South Africa.

What images such as those used by the New York Times do is reaffirm several stereotypes about Africa and Africans. It represents Europe as the last best hope for Africans, thus making it worthwhile—even necessary—for them to risk their lives to get to Europe. Just as the coverage of Ebola in 2014, this image is meant to scare readers of Africans showing on European shores. The migrant crisis represents the ever-reliable fourth horseman of the apocalypse, just as the Ebola crisis did in 2014. At the same time, this image is not actually about the living or dead migrants pictured in it, as much as it about Western guilt. The photographs and article, implicitly and explicitly, present this issue as a European problem and ask what we have done to push for some sort of solution. Even in their suffering and death, these African bodies are only useful in as much as they make us want to ‘do something.’

Though some may argue that this is not the case, I pose these questions to you: When was the last time you saw images of dead Westerners on the front page of the New York Times? This is not an argument for moral equivalence, but rather a request for us to think about how we consume images of pain and suffering. Whose pain are we consuming from the comfort of our homes? Why do we need to see images of dead Africans for us to know that there is a crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean? Perhaps most importantly, what if one of those dead migrants had a relative in the U.S. reading the New York Times on the 6th of October?

* Find Siguru’s recent article on the research on and history of the use of images of the suffering of others here.

Wahutu Siguru is a PhD candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Siguru’s research interests are in the Sociology of Media, Genocide, Mass Violence and Atrocities (specifically on issues of representation of conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Rwanda), Collective Memory, and perhaps somewhat tangentially Democracy and Development in Africa.

One thought on “Consuming the Pain and Suffering of Others through Images

  1. Pingback: Curating an Exhibition about Displacement – The Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies

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