Capturing Suffering: Ethical Considerations of Bearing Witness and the Use of Photography

By Jordan Sloshower.

Published by The International Journal of the Image

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Attempting to bear witness to extreme suffering in an ethical fashion, especially through photography, is a treacherous moral endeavor fraught with complex social, political and philosophical hazards. In considering the theoretical difficulties inherent in representing extreme suffering, such as that which took place during the Holocaust, this paper outlines an ethical conception of bearing witness to such atrocities and proposes a mode of witnessing that is conducted on behalf of victims and strives to represent the silent, ineffable nature of suffering in a unique fashion. While this ethic can be realized through the medium of photography, there exists a range of theoretical and practical concerns of doing so in past and present contexts. Following Georges Didi- Huberman, it is argued that photography can function as a phenomenological and psychoanalytic mode of bearing witness that produces dynamic images, which although incomplete and imperfect, can represent ideas, themes, concepts and deep truths about the human condition that transcend their material factual basis. While the complex, metaphysical interplay between photographer, photograph and viewer enables this great potential, it also creates the ethically hazardous possibilities that images can misrepresent and distort historical facts and that their production can be used as a voyeuristic coping mechanism by the witness. In the context of documenting contemporary crimes against humanity, the photographer must further contend with the danger of contributing to the modern public’s desensitization to images of suffering or even becoming complicit in the suffering they are attempting to document. With no clear path to avoiding these pitfalls, the paper concludes by reflecting on the ethical contingency of images created in order to bear witness.

Keywords: Bearing Witness, Suffering, Photography, Ethics, Images, Representation, Holocaust

The International Journal of the Image, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp.11-22. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 921.842KB).

Jordan Sloshower

Medical Student, School of Medicine, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA

Jordan Sloshower is a fifth year medical student at Yale University. He was born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada, where he completed his undergraduate studies in bioanthropology, before undertaking his master's degree in medical anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. Jordan endeavors to pursue a career in the field of global mental health, coupling clinical care with structural interventions in order to diminish suffering related to mental illness and various forms of violence, as well as to promote dignity and social justice.