Writing on photography

The Violence of Images

There are certain issues in all countries that spark fierce feeling, in the United Kingdom perhaps none more than the sexualisation of children. This concern manifests in various ways, but most often in two forms. First as a pathological societal fear of the paedophile, lurking at every turn to abduct and abuse children (brilliantly parodied ten years ago by Brasseye). Second in the concern that children are passively exposed to a highly sexual culture that forces them to ‘grow up’ too quickly or which which distorts their understanding of the world.

In response to these fears the government recently proposed new legislation. Firstly making it more difficult to find and access already illegal child pornography, and adding a ban on pornography which depicts rape. Secondly legislating to force internet service providers to filter out websites with pornographic images. Rather than an opt in system as currently exists, whereby filters can be enable by those who wish, the government proposals seek an opt out system, where those who wish to view pornography must declare it. The intention being that such a system would shield children from accidently stumbling across such images on the internet, which the Prime Minister says are ‘corroding childhood’.

Interestingly few photographers or writers on photography have commented on this. One or two have noted the notorious inaccuracy of these filters, and the likelihood that innocent photographs will be blacklisted as a result for example Nobuyoshi Araki’s photographs would almost certainly be banned. It seems highly unlikely any filter would be able to distinguish between the pornographic, and that which is simply erotic or refers to the sexual, particularly given the fact that many people find it difficult to distinguish between those categories. But also I suppose most commentators have avoided this topic because they concern themselves with artistic or journalistic photography, and pornography falls somewhere strangely, awkwardly in between these two categories, in different senses overlapping into both territories, and remaining entirely separate.

I find it interesting that a photograph can be considered so dangerous that it must be banned. That images might have such a power to twist and pervert us over time, distorting our view of the world into one which is hopelessly unrealistic, or even criminal. This was one of the beliefs that underpinned the notorious Entartete Kunst exhibition organised in 1937, the idea that the work included in it was not only the product of minds which, in the words of critic Max Nordau, had ‘been overcome by modernity’ but that this work was even somehow capable of damaging those who viewed it. That pornography behaves like this is often implied by advocates of more restrictive laws, although the facts are not so clear.

There are a number of studies and papers on the subject, but this one by Joseph Shepher and Judith Reisman offers an interesting mixture of analysis of the functioning of (offline) pornography, and the consequences of repeated viewings of it. Shepher and Reisman argue that pornography is a fantasy that usually reflects ideal scenarios according to male mating strategies, a fantasy where ‘there are always sufficient consenting females who unhesitatingly display their naked bodies’. In counterpoint the paper rather amusingly identifies romance literature where ‘males are generally depicted  as  devoted  and  unconditional  investors in  the  female  and  their  mutual  children’ as a female equivalent, or mirror view of what pornography offers men, fostering a similarly unrealistic view of the opposite sex.

Excessive exposure to, and belief in either scenario as realistic, is only likely to lead to disappointment and frustration when confronted by actual reality. Shepher and Reisman further suggest that repeated viewing of pornography can lead to a sense of sexual disillusionment, that ‘habitual  viewing often seems to result in a loss of arousal’ (not unlike the more general sense of image fatigue anyone involved in photography today probably often feels).  Pornography must innovate to sustain the interest of those who view it often, often becoming increasingly extreme as a result. Again one might say the same for other forms of images, including photojournalism and art (particularly shock art) where what has already been seen must be amplified in order to continue to have an effect on viewers.

I don’t contest the intrusive, influential effect of certain photographs, because I have experienced this effect myself. When I was working on a project about violence and the media I spent a sizeable amount of time viewing archive photographs taken by medical professionals of wounds sustained by servicemen in the Vietnam war, arguably another form of pornography. Although I found these photographs deeply unpleasant (this was part of the point of the project) I did not believe they were having any effect on me, until several days into the work when they began to intrude into my dreams, images of shattered limbs and gunshot wounds looming frighteningly out of the dark as I slept.

Knowing this, I find myself thinking that the implication is that if certain images which are sexually or literally violent might have this effect on a very tangible, and indeed even dangerous level, all photographs must affect us in similar, but more subtle ways. As I have already noted, the effect of pornography is dulled with repeated viewings, much as repeated viewings of photographs of humanitarian disaster lead to what is termed ‘compassion fatigue’, a sense of hopelessness, alienation or indifference to suffering. Photographs are by and large repetitive, a consequence as much as anything of aesthetic convention, their means of production, and the things that photographers are drawn to. However many photographs I view (indeed perhaps the more photographs I view) it is so rare to see a one which defies expectation.

If in viewing photographs we are having similar ideas repeatedly impressed upon us, like some sort of visual conditioning, what does that mean for our understanding of the things we see in them? Should it be reassuring that there are still situations where photographs with polar meanings compete against one another? I think for example of the opposing images deployed in the Trayvon Martin case, to variously prove or disprove the legitimacy of his killing as an act of self-defence. Should we be reassured by these differing visions of reality, or are we just confronted in cases like this with a pair of competing photo-myths, instead of just a single definitive one? In short all photographs are potentially dangerous, in the sense that all have the potential on repeated viewing to foster these false visions of reality, visions which violently collapse when confronted with the frustrating, frightening, and altogether different truth of things.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography