In 1973, the critic Susan Sontag wrote about viewing, for the first time, photographs of World War II concentration camps: “One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, perhaps the only revelation people are granted now, a negative epiphany. For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July, 1945. Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Ever since then, it has seemed plausible to me to think of my life as being divided into two parts: before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after. My life was changed by them, though not until several years later did I understand what they were about.”
I had a similar feeling last week while watching, along with millions of others, Diamond Reynolds using her cellphone to broadcast via Facebook Live as her bloodied boyfriend, Philando Castile, a school cafeteria supervisor, lay dying next to her, having been shot multiple times by a policeman. “Stay with me,” she says, extraordinarily calm at the beginning of what would be nearly a ten-minute live broadcast, her four-year-old daughter with her in the car, while the policeman who killed Castile is outside, his gun drawn, facing them. “We got pulled over for a busted tail light in the back and the police just, he … they killed my boyfriend. He’s licensed… he’s licensed to carry,” she narrates to whomever is watching. “He was trying to get out his ID and his wallet out his pocket, and he let the officer know that he was, that he had a firearm and that he was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm.”
Then we watch as the policeman is heard saying, “Ma’am, keep your hands where they are.” She responds, one of several times she refers to him as “sir,” perhaps as a way not to get shot herself: “I will sir, no worries, I will.” And a bit later the officer, increasingly distraught, exclaims, “I told him not to reach for it! I told him to get his hands up!” And she has the presence to answer, “He had, you told him to get his ID, sir, his driver’s license. Oh my God please don’t tell me he’s dead.” Then, for the second time, we hear the officer say “Fuck.”
Reynolds becomes more upset when she is handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car. We hear her daughter say, “That’s OK mommy.” And then a moment later she says, “It’s OK, I’m right here with you.” Crying, Reynolds then makes an appeal, “Y’all please pray for us, Jesus, please y’all. I ask everybody on Facebook, everybody that’s watching, everybody that’s tuned in please pray for us. Sister I know I just dropped you off but I need you to pick me up….”
The viewer is horrified, and somehow complicit. We have intruded on a scene of such utter agony, and from such distance, that it feels like we must do something. But what can be done? Sontag asked a similar question concerning her experience of viewing the photographs of the concentration camps: “What good was served by seeing them? They were only photographs—of an event I had scarcely heard of and could do nothing to affect, of suffering I could hardly imagine and could do nothing to relieve. When I looked at those photographs, something was broken. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.”
The lives of the survivors in that car, Diamond Reynolds and her daughter Dae’Anna, of the Minnesota policeman who shot and killed Castile, and of the others who were there at the scene, have been profoundly and irrevocably changed. But so have the lives of the viewers, as we watched the shooting’s immediate aftermath broadcast from within the vehicle, narrated and filmed by a young woman whose boyfriend was dying and whose daughter was watching during what should have been a routine traffic stop. Unlike Sontag’s experience, in the digital age millions of us were able to look on transfixed just as the horror was unfolding, either live or soon afterwards. What do we say to our children? What can we do other than vent our rage? How do we sleep at night?
The gauntlet is thrown, the trauma is widespread, and we are left knowing that someone, anyone, using Facebook Live, or Twitter’s Periscope, or a comparable app, will soon broadcast yet another horror—as happened only the next day when five Dallas policemen, there to protect people marching peacefully at a Black Lives Matter protest, were killed by a crazed sniper who was himself then killed by a robot with a bomb. And we can expect that the horrors broadcast, in order to continue to attract our attention, will become even more awful as happens when image is used as spectacle.
In an interview on BuzzFeed after the release of the Facebook Live feature earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg commented: “We built this big technology platform so we can go and support whatever the most personal and emotional and raw and visceral ways people want to communicate are as time goes on.” It is doubtful that he foresaw a 26-year-old woman sitting in a car broadcasting over Facebook Live while watching her boyfriend die, or five Dallas policemen being gunned down and killed in a surprise attack the following day.
We also must be aware that these and similar technologies can be used by the aggressors, not only by the victims and bystanders, as has been the case with ISIS’s scripted decapitations and in other criminal acts. Can social media companies like Facebook do a better job of regulating these emerging episodes of horror 24 hours every day of the week, able to determine what is in the public interest with clear, enforceable ethical guidelines in place, than we as a society have done over the last several decades with the gratuitously violent and misogynistic imagery that has been all too pervasive in media? What would the impact have been on Sontag when she was a child, or on any of us, to have encountered Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen via live streaming, watching enslaved laborers toil while exterminations are in progress?
Live-Streaming the Next Mass Tragedy
Just a bit less than fifteen years ago on September 11, 2001, the looping videos of the World Trade Center towers in flames and falling seemed to be everywhere, like a repeating nightmare from which one could never wake. The images shrieked apocalypse on a visual scale never before seen in New York City, with a transcendent blue sky providing a backdrop that made the events of that day seem even more ominous, more cold-blooded and insidious.
Photographs of those fleeing the buildings appeared almost immediately, soon followed by images of the numerous handmade posters displayed by people searching for their missing friends or family. On the same day as the attacks, a photograph of the flag of the United States being raised at the ruins was published, echoing the famous World War II photograph of Iwo Jima, a quick, almost desperate answering salvo in the image war.
But it was the imagery of the people falling from the high towers that was seen as the most horrific and forbidden, revealing an even more personal and visceral subtext to the events unfolding in the powerlessness of those trapped. Publishing these images was considered by many as re-victimizing the victims, and as elevating the trauma of those who knew and loved them, or could see themselves in their place. Many at that time were in shock, unable to comprehend how to move forward: there must have been something more to be said than the president’s advice to go shopping, or his decision soon afterwards to bomb Afghanistan.
Now, with billions of pictures and videos being shared every single day, with Facebook Live and Periscope and other such live-streaming apps, we might think of what would it have been like if those inside the burning towers had been able to broadcast their plight to the rest of us during those last trying moments.
In recent years I have often wondered if a distant photograph of people falling from the building had been too much to contemplate in 2001, how could those witnessing on a screen the suffering and death of their loved ones in real time ever deal with the pain? Would a proliferation of such imagery inevitably lead to some form of all-out war as the only way to revenge the suffering that had been shared? Could civilization right itself?
The enormous freedom of expression and dissemination that we have been given in this era of camera-phones is certainly not a license to photograph and publish everything. But for those in a terrible situation, it may be a response, perhaps the only one, which makes some sense. And, as a result, the viewer from afar will not be spared the intimacies of extraordinary suffering, nor will he or she most likely feel that there is an adequate response to them.
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This simultaneous viewing of horror inflicted on others may puncture one’s sense of equilibrium without providing a way to move forward. Such imagery may acknowledge symptoms but do little to explore and repair underlying systems that may be at least partly responsible for the tragedies. Professional journalists, whose job has been to mediate such events, have been largely circumvented by people reporting on their own lives, with results often perceived as more credible due to the raw and unfiltered quality of their documentation. This year’s sad, farcical campaign for national election, preoccupying mainstream media while resembling reality television, is hardly reassuring.
Voices like that of Diamond Reynolds, or of the anonymous woman reading her anguished 12-page statement last month in a California court as her student-athlete attacker, judged guilty of three felony counts of sexual assault, is given a light, six-month sentence, have found their way into the center of a national conversation. The evidence of social injustice, made available at great personal cost by the individuals affected, now must be responded to with a similar sense of urgency and clarity. Otherwise, we are reduced to a stance of voyeurism, of the most intimate and appalling kind.
Fred Ritchin is Dean of the School at the International Center of Photography.