Before I could read, I was mesmerized by the pictures. I would flip through pages of magazines and newspapers that were sprawled across the coffee table in my parents’ living room. They were crumpled, old editions of the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Daily News of Newburyport, and the like. In my own room, the particle board shelf beside my bed bowed under a 30-year archive of National Geographic. I’d spend most of my time examining the striking images that I found—images that I’d later learn were paired with sophisticated essays on the Amazon river basin or the state of rhino populations in Africa—as though I were looking at a picture book. The first exposure to gruesome imagery I can remember didn’t come from any of them. It came from a book of photographs illustrating the bloodstained grounds of Civil War battlefields and the bodies strewn across them in the brutal aftermath of war.
I can’t remember the name of the book, but the photograph that struck me most—a photograph I quickly became obsessed with—showed a Union soldier who’d been felled by a cannonball during the battle at Gettysburg. The shell severed his left arm—it lays detached in the foreground, directly in front of the soldier’s rifle—and tore through his trunk, disemboweling him. His face is pallid and bloated and rotting, and it appears as though something—a bird, a rat, something—has removed his eye from its socket.
I remember thinking that the hole in his torso looked as though it were stuffed with leaves. This torso stuffed with leaves and the ghastly, less-than-human face convinced me that this could never have been a living man but was rather a scarecrow toppled by a storm. The violence that had been inflicted on this man was so unbelievable to five-year-old me that I could not process it, could not accept it as possible reality. There was no way this could ever happen to my body.
The book was kept on a shelf in our bathroom closet. When it was time to brush my teeth, I’d shut the door and run the water in the sink to trick my parents into believing I was taking care of my dental hygiene, and then I’d open the book and look at the hole in the scarecrow’s stomach. When it was time to take a bath, I’d prop the book up on the toilet, open it to my favorite page, and look at the scarecrow’s swollen lips. I must have suspected my fixation was a bit bizarre, otherwise I’d have taken the book out of the bathroom and into my bedroom or our living room. My infatuation with this image of death felt dirty, but it also felt thrilling. I knew the act of experiencing this violence—even if only through a 127 year-old photograph—was important. But I didn’t know why.
Susan Sontag wrote, “The quality of feeling, including moral outrage, that people can muster in response to photographs of the oppressed, the exploited, the starving, and the massacred also depends on the degree of their familiarity with these images.” Months—years?—of staring at the felled Union soldier fostered a familiarity. I knew that he had fought for the North—the place I was from—and I knew that that meant he’d fought for something more righteous than the men fighting for the side who’d fired the shell that took his life. I empathized with this man even if at the time I couldn’t picture him having lived an actual human life.
This specific thing couldn’t happen to my body—I was not at war then, as I am not at war now, and so dying a brutal death which might leave me disemboweled on a battlefield was and remains speculative fiction to me—but studying this image engendered a fundamental awareness that yes, bodies can stop working. And sometimes bodies stop working at the hands of extreme violence.
Exposure fosters familiarity. There are those who argue—Sontag included—that overexposure to violent imagery fosters too much familiarity, and that this superabundance of familiarity can mutate into indifference and, worse, desensitization. Violent images, says Sontag, have the ability to “anesthetize.” I don’t think that’s quite right.
In 2015, CNN profiled famed conflict photographer Don McCullin. He said, “All the things I photographed would have been plain atrocity situations, but I had to create an image that would carry a message...I make it possible for you to look at them and try to come to terms with them instead of rejecting them.”
In the same piece, McCullin was also quoted saying, “I’m contaminated by darkness, by the fearful things I’ve seen.” Is it better to see and to try to understand, knowing that the risk we run is to be contaminated by darkness? Or to look away or, worse, to never have the option to choose?
McCullin is not the only conflict photographer who’s been haunted by the things she or he has seen. In July of 1994, just three months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his photograph of a starving Sudanese toddler being stalked by a vulture, South African photojournalist Kevin Carter committed suicide. He’d built a career on photographing the plight of starving children and the devastation caused by the madness of war criminals, a career of choosing not to look away.
Violent imagery is difficult to look at not because the act of doing so is unfair or immoral, but because doing so brings into sharp focus an uncomfortable truth: humans are violent. When we all looked on in horror at photographs of Aylan Kurdi—the three year-old Syrian refugee who drowned off the coast of Turkey—some were critical of media outlets who decided to publish the image. But what was the alternative?
To not publish the image would have been to erase Aylan’s existence and to deny the violence that forced he and his family to flee their homeland. To not publish the image would have been to ignore one of the world’s chief conflicts. To not publish the image would have been to say, effectively, “You don’t have to look at this; you don’t have to think about this; this is not actually happening.”
But it is still happening. The video of five year-old Omran Daqneesh being pulled from the ruins of his home after an airstrike perpetrated by his own government is proof. Watching Omran wipe the blood away from his forehead and then onto a chair in the back of an ambulance is proof. The death of Omran’s older brother Ali, just 10 years old and who died as the result of injuries sustained during the airstrike, is proof. The atrocities in Syria remain, even if we choose to look away.
To the degree that violent images have the ability to desensitize or anesthetize, they also have the ability to shape public opinion and spur action. Some of these actions are bad outcomes—while there’s something viscerally satisfying about Trump supporters being hit with fists and eggs by Trump protesters, reacting to hatred and violence with hatred and violence seems incredibly stupid—but others are critical to ensuring transparency in our systems. For more than a year, a reporter and an attorney battled the Chicago police department and implored them to release a video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald by one of their officers. It was only after the public saw the video—when officer Jason Van Dyke’s superiors all already had—that Van Dyke was charged with murder.
Of course, violence perpetrated by the American state against its citizenry—especially and disproportionately the extrajudicial killings of its black citizenry by its increasingly militaristic police force—is not a new phenomenon, but data shows that 47 percent of Americans believe police brutality is on the rise. This is not necessarily true (good luck finding historical data—despite the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994’s recommendation that the government keep records on the use of excessive force by police officers, no such records exist), but people believe it’s true because, finally, thanks to technology, we’re getting to see the proof in images. This is fundamentally good.
If you think it’s difficult watching two police officers pin Alton Sterling to the ground before one of the officers fired multiple shots into Sterling’s chest is difficult, you’re right. If you think it’s difficult watching Philando Castille bleed to death after being shot by a police officer during a routine traffic stop, you’re right. If you think it’s difficult watching Eric Garner being choked to death by a police officer, or Tamir Rice—a 12-year-old boy who was doing what 12-year-old boys do, playing with his friends in a park—getting shot to death by an unstable cop who shouldn’t have been allowed to push papers, you’re damn right. This should be difficult to watch. But without the images, we can be lied to and no one can prove otherwise.
When Facebook momentarily removed (No one believes the “technical glitch” bullshit, right?) Diamond Reynolds’s video of the immediate aftermath of the Castille shooting, which showed Mr. Castille slumped and bloody as he bled out in the driver’s seat of his car, they were doing every American citizen a disservice. We’re no more or less violent as a species than we’ve ever been, and we shouldn’t pretend that violence—especially violence perpetrated by the state against its citizens—doesn’t exist. These images don’t desensitize or anesthetize. They anger and inform.
What if the act of watching an act of violence is enough to stop other deaths? Feelings about body cams seem mixed among police officers, but at least departments are taking steps toward making their officers accountable for their actions. (That is, accountable when officers actually decide to turn their body cams on. That doesn’t always happen, as evidenced a few weeks ago by one of the officers who shot and killed Paul O’Neal, an unarmed black man in, you guessed it, Chicago.) Seeing these images is important because seeing them forces us to reexamine what we’ve tried to believe in (that humans are inherently good, that in America everyone gets a fair shake, that cops are always the good guys) and reconcile these beliefs with what we fear is actually a truer picture of the state of things (that humans aren’t inherently good, that in America everyone doesn’t get a fair shake, that police departments, or at least the concept and execution of “policing,” might be full of bad guys).
Exposure fosters familiarity. Familiarity fosters empathy. Violence in the abstract—like love, like hate, like fear, like death—is complex and hard to grasp. We all experience love and hate and fear ourselves, and never doubt their existence. But for the lucky ones among us, we need violent imagery to cement human violence as real. Allowing ourselves space and time to experience it, to wrestle with it, to accept it, is to allow ourselves to try to do better.
When I was a child looking at an old, somewhat blurry photograph of a dead man who I couldn’t distinguish from a scarecrow, it never felt like there was much at stake. I could run to the bathroom, flip the book open, gawk at the image of death and feel as though I were rebelling against something, subverting something. But the images aren’t blurry anymore; the people whose lives I now watch get stolen are contemporary. They lived while I lived, and now they don’t. The only scenario in which the curtailing of violent images would be appropriate is if we were somehow to become a nonviolent society, if somehow our state would stop killing its own out of fear, and without fear of reproach. Until then, imagery is the best weapon we have against this kind of violence.
Terrence lives in Boston, where he works as an editor for America’s Test Kitchen. He’s co-founder of Bender Magazine, and has also written for Vice Sports, Tasting Table, and Serious Eats. Sometimes he tweets poorly @TerrenceDoyle.