I know that some readers could feel uncomfortable looking at intimate family moments made public. Indeed, looking at aging, looking at diseases, looking at loss and the lost, looking at despair, feels even embarrassing. As viewers, we acknowledge that every time we look at photographs showing intimacy, discomfort, or those many moments in life when we’re struggling or feeling lonely, we feel some sort of shame and think we shouldn’t be looking at such images. It feels impolite to look at photographs of people at times of weakness, and it feels voyeuristic to look at photographs that reveal the bare nudity and normalcy of our bodies and of our lives.
Although the fictions of literature, painting and theatre, and the factual accounts of journalism, have long investigated the darkest and most tragic sides of life in order to sensitize us to the pain of others, every time photography does so without celebrating the heroes or the martyrs, or every time photography silently and impartially records the fall and the banality of life, we feel that we are crossing a boundary and breaking a taboo. Why is that? Is it because in photography we get to see the faces of real people? Is it because we relate more directly and more quickly with what has been photographed than with what has been painted or written? Is it because a photograph is captured by a machine and requires some kind of moral censorship afterwards?
First, I believe photography (and moving photographs, the video) has the strongest link with physical reality of all media. Lenses are designed to reproduce what the eye sees. I can’t take a photograph of something that wasn’t there in front of my camera for at least a fraction of a second. Second, I believe we relate with extraordinary strength to photographs and we do it at a very high speed (a second or less). When we see a photograph we are very quickly forced into a narrow space of relationship and intimacy with what is depicted in that photograph. We can feel strong immediate compassion or disgust because each time we are taken in by the illusion of being actually in front of what is depicted. For this reason, the advertising industry, newspapers, and charities too, prefer photography as a way of creating a dialogue with viewers and of prompting a reaction in their mind.
Is it the psychological power of photographs that makes us want to push some of them away from us? It seems reasonable therefore that intimate or sorrowful moments would be hard to digest for the viewer of photographs. But why is it easier to look at photographs of natural disasters and wars in foreign countries, than it is to look at a photograph of our friend’s grandmother getting ill? Each day the front page of our newspapers show dramatic photographs coming from all over the world, to illustrate stories of injustice, inequality and violence in our societies. We are used to seeing more and more horror and violence on TV. Than, why does the photo of the angry child of our fellow citizen provoke such outrage?
It seems to me that what really bothers us is the mirror effect of photographs and of the ideas we project of ourselves. More and more in the last century, we have sunk into the comforting arms of the American dream: our goal is to be strong and successful. Advertising experts and politicians know this well, and have always given us the image we want to see of ourselves: the winners, healthy, wealthy, beautiful and strong. Somebody that failed has become a loser, and somebody that is aging has to be put away and forgotten as soon as possible. We don’t want to relate to these subjects because we don’t want to be them. To raise a mirror and question if pictures of power and happiness are the only pictures that should be allowed to describe ourselves, is to question this set of values and scream out loud that life can be worthy also when you lose, when you’re sick, or when you’re ugly. To explore the misery of our lives not as a tourist, not from top to bottom, but with compassion and identification, with poetry and resilient will, is to give worthiness to the invisible, to the ordinary, to the sacrifice that millions of anonymous people are carrying out this very moment.
Reflecting on The Picture of Dorian Grey, in which the protagonist sells his soul to ensure that his portrait ages and fades, rather than himself, it seems to me that our society is trying to do the opposite. In times of economic crisis and with southern Europe in despair, we try to keep our image clean and neat and winning, while our bodies and our lives are more and more in pain and struggling. If photography is a mirror, we should be using it to explore and understand who we are and if we’re not satisfied with what we see, we should change ourselves rather than change the picture of ourselves. The artists I mention in this essay have raised that mirror in front of their lives to show their truth about our own society. They have been questioning consumerism and superficiality, the role of children, of aging, of death, of appearance in our society.
What photography needs, more than moral censorship, is an ethical discourse on photographs.
Nausicaa Giulia Bianchi, London, July 2014