On Not Looking Away

On Not Looking Away

All perpetrators ask is that we remain bystanders. But to combat complicity, we must confront tragedy.


I can’t get the image out of my mind.” I get the text from my wife hours after seeing the photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, drowned in the Rio Grande. For the next 48 hours the devastating photo is everywhere we look.

When my wife says she can’t handle looking at such awful images, I know how she feels. As the creative adviser at Independent Diplomat—a nonprofit that supports democratic groups and opposition movements fighting oppression—I’ve spent the past six-plus years working with images coming out of Syria, trying to draw the public’s attention to the tragedy that has been unfolding there. I am also a father of a 23-month-old and so I am understandably affected by what I see: photographs and video of children pulled from the rubble following indiscriminate barrel bomb attacks. Babies struggling for their last breath following chemical weapon strikes. Images of victims from the regime’s torture chambers, their eyes and genitals gouged out. Horrific things done to the human body that I did not think possible.

I wasn’t always aware of such horrors myself. Until 9/11 I was a struggling figurative painter working as a security guard at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had no interest in anything outside my bubble until I saw images of people making the impossible choice and jumping to their deaths. Those images, which were later censored, shook me awake. I switched careers and in my new role I was one of the first people to see the Caesar photos—evidence of war atrocities committed by the Syrian regime that the world has so far paid little attention to.

When my wife and others ask how I deal with viewing graphic imagery, I’m not sure I can answer. I feel the same sense of hopelessness, of anger, and impotence. I want to turn away too.

And yet, I’ve learned to put those feelings aside. While I empathize with the people in the images—human beings fleeing bombs and destruction, many of them parents like me or children the same age as my own—I recognize it’s not about me. In his essay, “A Too Perfect Picture,” Teju Cole compares the outsider’s view of India with the native’s, remarking that Westerners cannot help but overlay our own agenda and prejudices when photographing another culture. “Art is always difficult,” he contends, “but it is especially difficult when it comes to telling other people’s stories. And it is ferociously difficult when those others are tangled up in your history and you are tangled up in theirs.”

We see this clearly in the photos we choose of refugees: always the victim, lost at sea, orange life jackets, imprisoned, caged. Passive. While it’s important to show the tragedy, we also need to show the refugee not merely as victim, but with agency and volition. This is a demand made by the refugees I’ve worked for. The Network for Refugee Voices and the Global Refugee-Led Network, for example, are two coalitions demanding to have their voices heard on matters that affect their community—to have control over their own stories.

These activists, journalists and storytellers share everything: not just the stories and images that corroborate their account of the crimes committed against them, but also evidence of their humanity and positive contributions to our societies. Their lives look just like ours.

I no longer work on Syria, but the images still flood my timeline, a Whatsapp group still pings several times daily as the regime and Russia bomb civilians in Idlib. The world does not seem to be interested in these images—or rather, these lives. The victims of such atrocities are at a loss to comprehend not only that such awful crimes are being committed against them—and that the record and evidence of such crimes exists—but that we are choosing to ignore this evidence, to actively look away.

The Western eye has created a media environment that protects us from the graphic realities of our world. But sometimes we are forced to look.

In 2014, the heartbreaking photo of the dead body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Mediterranean shoreline, made global headlines. Now the image of a drowned dad and his daughter, their dead bodies an indictment of us all, filters through our algorithms again and shakes us awake for a day or so—until the discussion devolves into whether or not we should look.

How do we deal with images that affect us so deeply? What is our responsibility to those portrayed? Do we have an obligation to look? These are questions that photographers and editors struggle with daily. The Guardian’s Roger Tooth writes about the struggle of choosing which pictures he will use and his responsibility to the viewer and victims. These are questions I’ve grappled with while trying to raise the alarm on atrocity abuses in Syria.

At the start of his essay Tooth says: “We wanted to show the readers the reality of life—and death—in Gaza but we didn’t want to shock or unnecessarily upset them.” How do you convey a shocking reality without shocking the viewer? You can’t. We shouldn’t. To do so forsakes our own humanity as well as theirs. When we turn away we find ourselves siding with the perpetrator.

According to psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, society is set up to conspire with the perpetrator, to ignore their crimes and pretend they didn’t happen, because otherwise we have to do something—which is a bigger inconvenience. If we won’t even look, how can an uninformed public demand action? “All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing,” Herman writes. “He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”

As media bystanders, it’s not our job anymore to try to filter the conversation, to be the arbiter of images. As Tooth says, “It’s all out there on the internet or on your timeline.” Even when we try to censor, the images still exist, on Twitter, on Reddit, on WhatsApp.

We need to let the people in those images tell their own stories and we need to listen, and to look. And to share.

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