Suffering & The Photograph

I was working today, walking about Liverpool interviewing people about smoking. As I walked around and began to tire, I came across the Sony Professional Competition Gallery down in Liverpool One. I knew about it beforehand, but having been consumed w/ research it had drifted from my mind. But I walked in. Excited.

As I walked among stunning images, ranging from Wild Lions to the smiles of a young Indian girl, something struck me. It was not a new thought. Among the images of beauty, still life, and surreal landscapes, were images of suffering.

Scars of war. The punches of a relationship. The supposed cultural affinity for crime. Captured with a precision that the skill in itself was enough to make you hold yourself. The gallery, all white with blazing lights, was near empty. But I could imagine opening night. VIP’s, artists, rich and poor, the aristocrats next to the “I want to be you” next to the intellectual next to the pseudo-intellectual. I could imagine the conversations they had about suffering. I could imagine its subtle yet insidious effect. The stimulus of the mind to admire and feel, but never to touch.

We can empathize. But when is empathy hijacked to become nothing more but an exotic animal to look at? Why can we walk away from this with a feeling of sadness and fury just to fade away into the forgotten. We create high theory on the subjects of these photographs, but do so asleep in our beds in our Ivory Towers while we dream.

I asked myself. What of those suffering? What ever happened to them?

Then I asked myself another question. Is this art? Is our human suffering up for display to be enjoyed? Is the audience ever truly sad? What are these competitions and awards for? Brilliance? Skill? Storytelling?

Suffering is real. The suffering in the photographs is real. But as they stared back at me, frozen in time, I could not help but feel that it was all an illusion. A lie told by the photographer. A distant and safe way to say “I feel bad for you” but never say “I will help you.”

I walked out. And that was it.

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