Media Objectification of the Afghan Girl

In today’s BBC news, a photographer from the French news agency AFP has won a Pulitzer prize for showing a traumatised girl surviving an attack during the Shia religious festival Ashura. More than 70 people reportedly died that day in Kabul 2011 — the event that shook me one week prior to my leaving for Afghanistan (read first blog here).

BBC, 17 April 2012: Pulitzer Prize

I know that photojournalists report news. In order to make them newsworthy, the right moment has to be captured, felt, experienced — albeit vicariously through the lens of the camera. It is no wonder the Pulitzer committee described this picture as “heartbreaking” and “riveting”. Yet I find this act of rewarding a photographer a Pulitzer for capturing the essence of pain excrutiatingly revolting and repulsive.

In ‘On Photography’, Susan Sontag once wrote:

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.

It is a “subliminal murder”. Plus the fact that the camera is likened to a gun, when contextualised in a conflict zone like Afghanistan, makes it all the more immoral and poignant.

Sontag continues:

…to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Perhaps that is why prize-winning photographer Massoud Hossaini recounts in this BBC article:

I don’t look at it any more because my heart beats faster and it brings back the emotions of that day. I know that whoever sees this photo will think about the photographer but I hope they don’t forget the pain Afghanistan’s people have in their life.

I struggle to articulate my positioning on war images and the (potential) projected violence I am forced to witness. Aesthetically speaking, if the above picture was compared with Steve McCurry’s Afghan girl fronting National Geographic in 1995, I find myself drawn to McCurry’s one (shown below).

Steve McCurry: Afghan Girl (National Geographic 1995 edition)

Steve McCurry: Afghan Girl (National Geographic 1995 edition)

It’s the pain in her eyes that are more arresting. Her pupils exhibit identical hues of the other colours in the photograph – the green of the backdrop and the maroon of her headshawl. You can’t help but look directly at her, and her glance just would not go away. In contrast, Houssani’s photograph appears less “aesthetic”, and therefore less “newsworthy”. But obviously, for very strong reasons. How can a picture in the heat of a conflict show an equivalent artistry? And why should it?

By asking those questions, are we then using the same “values” to judge a piece of street art as we would judge studio art? These are the same struggles applied theatre practitioners and community-engaged arts workers face when questioned about their own productions, something I have faced time and time again, especially with my theatre work in a Singapore prison.

How aesthetic is your work?
Is it of a professional standard?
Is this what you call “art”?

But as I talk about, and compare, these two images, I find myself in the same unethical position as the photographer, objectifying these vulnerable children as ‘the Other’. It is a dangerous place to be in, glorifying the pain and suffering of children — made worse, I think, by calling it art, or a Pulitzer photo.

Ironically, the exploitation of war images is not just a Western enterprise. I have even seen copies of McCurry’s photograph in a bookstore in Kabul — for sale. Afghan merchants profiteering from their own humanity and suffering. I guess when you need to make ends meet, you do it through all means — just to survive. Right?

Edward Said once wrote:

Despite the variety and the differences, and however much we proclaim the contrary, what the media produce is neither spontaneous nor completely “free:” “news” does not just happen, pictures and ideas do not merely spring from reality into our eyes and minds, truth is not directly available, we do not have unrestrained variety at our disposal.

For like all modes of communication, television, radio, and newspapers observe certain rules and conventions to get things across intelligibly, and it is these, often more than the reality being conveyed, that shape the material delivered by the media.

With today’s media cravings for violent images, newsfeeds from social media have proliferated and produced a culture of mass consumption reproducing the violence we aim to stop. In the article “Theatre, Performance and the ‘War on Terror’: Ethical and Political Questions arising from British Theatrical Responses to War and Terrorism”, Jenny Hughes wrote:

The performance-like, theatrical nature of war and terrorism has been referred to by commentators from many disciplinary fields. The ways in which these acts of war and terrorism are repeated or re-performed (emphasis, mine) in our own accounts as well as via globally accessible media have also been subject to critique. [Anthony] Kubiak suggests that experiences of terror only become coherent via their exploitation in the media or other forms of representation: these representational practices transpose terror into ‘terrorism’, yet cannot satisfactorily represent the ‘real’ or original experience. On a similar note, [Jean] Baudrillard describes how mediatised images of the attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 took the original event hostage — glorifying and neutralising it for consumers; a repackaging that was subsequently used to justify acts of war.

Indeed, we stand on morally and ethically shaky grounds. Especially when faced with a dire situation, do we “photograph” or do we “save” the child from impending danger?

Sontag says that photographing is “an act of non-intervention. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.”

Here is one more Pulitzer picture to illustrate the gnawing tensions of photography as a(n) (im)moral act.

Kevin Carter: Sudanese Child and Vulture (1993)

Kevin Carter: Sudanese Child and Vulture (1993)

In this photo, a starving Sudanese child hunches over while a vulture looks on, waiting to prey on her.

Hauntingly, the photographer, Kevin Carter, committed suicide one year after he snapped the photo. So now, the question remains for professional photographers and theatre-makers commissioned to use Art to show one side of the Truth, especially on human inequalities and suffering: What would I do? To record or to intervene?