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reframing the WEIRD gaze

When I refer to the “audience”, “viewers” or “us”, I mean members of western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies, as distinguished by Joe Henrich et al. in his study The Weirdest People in the World? I will take the notion to argue that WEIRD people are the main audience and creators of photographic images portraying suffering and therefore consume and produce them accordingly to their agenda, which is applicable only to their identity and reality, with little regard to the broader existence of others or the effectiveness of the methods.

The cultural

Susan Sontag wrote that through compassion and sympathy we distance ourselves from the people who commit atrocities displayed in photographs. We don’t want to be a part of a society that is the cause of someone else’s suffering. However, the suffering of others is the foundation of our everyday lives (exploited labourers produce virtually everything for us, from clothes to electronics; wealth and land has been acquired through exploitation and genocide). We benefit from suffering. At the same time, meaningful opposition against exploitative structures and institutions seems impossible, as they simultaneously provide us livelihoods and self-worth, through employment and goods (mined by children and assembled in factory towns where people regularly commit suicide, then sold to us as fetishes infused with sophistication, elegance and creativity). The exploiter’s interest is protected, as challenging them is too much of a sacrifice. Meaningful opposition is equal to working towards oneself’s detriment. To alleviate this tension, it is easier for us to acknowledge the destitution of others rather than our own powerlessness.

Kierkegaard and later Nietzsche understood ressentiment as a way of shifting the pain of one’s own inferiority and failure onto an external subject. In our collective narrative identity, we reframed ourselves as the ones with agency and power to maintain our superiority over those we deem helpless. Afterall, we donate to charities. We feed people who cannot feed themselves, we build infrastructure and educate. We send envoys who risk their lives and well being to bring back reports and images of people in dire situations. We are active. The suffering are passive. Pain is something that was imposed on them by external forces, something they found themselves in without choice. Their misery can only be alleviated by foreign agents. The hero’s journey is not meant for them.

Meanwhile, our reality is shaped by mythologies of self-determination and meritocracy that provide us ontological safety (an order of things we can understand and fit into). We perceive our actions as having momentum which pushes us towards desired outcomes. We can succeed if we work hard enough. These belief systems are of course designed to mask our own subconscious humiliation (the “temporarily embarrassed millionaire” mentality, as Ronald Wright put it) and to shift the public’s attention away from actual power structures which benefit from maintaining inequality. Nevertheless, to deny others an ontology we ourselves adhere to, is to deem them lesser. Images in which the suffering are denied narratives of agency are rewarded and encouraged, as to accentuate the differences between viewer and subject. This eases the dehumanisation of those that are needed to be exploited and further minimizes the already minute probability of the viewer taking meaningful action that would challenge the status quo.

Reinforced aesthetic qualities of photographs further estrange the Other. Images have to be striking, attention grabbing, pleasing to the eye, they cannot be “boring” or “ordinary”. What is alluring to the audience, is that which is unknown and different to them. Therefore the subjects depicted posses an opposite identity to that of the viewer, in all the vast aspects we can attribute to identity (creed, country, color, class, culture, sexuality). Additionally, they seem to be framed within “inverse” landscapes. What is attractive to the metropolitan audience, are the deserts, ruins and landfills. As Sontag notes, such a way of looking is rooted in the tradition of human zoos (“ethnographic exhibitions” and expeditions) and our voyeuristic need to look at the Other. Just as racism changed its form from socially normalised slurs and violence to institutional condemnation and exclusion, so did our gaze commodify into a more polite good.

The scientific

Photography gave the suffering and underprivileged a concrete representation in the public discourse. However, we are willing to help only without significant sacrifices to our own quality of life. That is why it is so hard for us to challenge systemic injustices that are interwoven with our own livelihoods and dignity. Because of this tension, a certain reconfiguration of our perception was necessary. We had to develop a middle ground that would allow us to continue our everyday lives without a heavily burdened conscious. A way of seeing that allows us to safely engage with the exploitative realities we benefit from and maintain our identity as a civilized society. Paul Bloom, in his study of emotional empathy (Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion), writes:

“In general, we care most about people who are similar to us — in attitude, in language, in appearance — and we will always care most of all about events that pertain to us and people we love.”

Here we see the dissonance between how we truly act and how we want to be perceived. In reality, we want to look at people with whom we do not truly empathize with and we portray them in ways that strip them of qualities we cherish in ourselves. We developed a fetishized way of portraying suffering and imposing helplessness upon others to fulfill our own narcissistic introspection (which in itself is a self-preservation mechanism shielding us from our own powerlessness). This narcissism is psychologically explored by Ellen Winner (How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration). She writes:

“Art with negative content invites us to introspect about our negative emotions, and to imagine how these responses are shared by others responding to the same work of art. While it’s appropriate to focus on how moved and empathetic and horrified we feel looking at a tragedy on stage, responding this way when witnessing an actual tragedy would be inappropriate — indeed, narcissistic.”

She distinguishes art from reality in a very simple manner: reality is something we must confront and act upon, art is not. She elaborates further:

“The make-believe art frame provides psychological detachment, or distance, so that we can enjoy the experience of what we would avoid at all costs in our actual non-fictional lives.”

To this she adds:

“Key to why we seek negative emotions in art, yet avoid them in life, is that art provides a safe space to experience these emotions and to turn inward to savor them — safe because we know it is art, not reality.”

I am convinced photographs of suffering are consumed as art more so than treated as reality (Winner acknowledges the lack of studies conducted on non-fiction material, but predicts the reactions to be somewhere in between introspection and avoidance at all costs, as one does with actual suffering). The circumstances presented in images do not require our immediate action. The injustices portrayed do not impact the privileged viewer (e.g. famine). They do not need to be confronted and acted upon. They are abstract, therefore not real. Such framing repackages suffering as art, in the sense of depictions external to our reality. If they are external, then our ties are cut and we are free from responsibility and further away from realizing our own predicament. Feeling moved becomes enough of an acknowledgement (maybe alongside a donation). At the same time, through such reframing, the portrayal of suffering inherits the nobleness associated with art. And so our identity as a civilized society remains unshaken.

Such perception aligns neatly with the construction and value systems of WEIRD societies. As Joe Heinrich et al. found, members of WEIRD societies tend to think of themselves as individuals and in conceptualizing their “self” tend to skew towards their own personality traits and attitudes. They are lacking in using these concepts to place themselves within societal roles and relationships. Our focus on individualism reinforces our behaviour of introspection and allows us to easily deny others heroic qualities, which we believe are exclusive to oneself.

WEIRD societies value analytical reasoning (focusing on an object’s attributes and categorical rules detached of context and relationships) more than holistic thought (judgements and predictions based on analysing whole contexts and situations rather than focusing on individual objects). Westerners attend to an object’s particularities, explain behaviour in a decontextualized way and rely on established rules rather than perceived similarities when categorizing. It doesn’t help when the rules stem from colonial and elitist roots. Instead of redefining the discourse, exploitative traditions are being perpetuated as reframings.

Lastly, WEIRD moral reasoning is based on the principle of justice and concepts of harm. However, the rest of the world has a broader understanding of morality, such as the incorporation of interpersonal obligations in regards to one's role within the social order.

Because of this, western notion of morality is especially problematic when it comes to systemic exploitation. As Marion Iris Young points out in her essay (Political Responsibility and Structural Injustice), current understanding of responsibility focuses on executing justice in regards to harm that constitutes a breach of social contracts and has been already perpetrated. As she explains, our reasoning does not encompass suffering caused by exploitative practice that has been normalised or caused by many simultaneous factors which do not have definitive individual perpetrators.

Reframing the WEIRD gaze

Photographs are representations and it is through them that we engage with and gain an understanding of reality. Especially in the digital age, where images became the dominant form of communication. That is why photography is important. That is why it is important to question why and how we produce images, especially those regarding the most vulnerable. We have to break away from the colonialist, elitist and ressentimental. If photography is to be the catalyst that will inspire meaningful change in all the other parts of the system that amount to structural injustices, it has to develop as a language that will work towards such an outcome, not against it.

The vulnerable cannot be depicted in ways that deepen their suffering. The portrayals of their identity need to display outward agency, that which we attribute to ourselves. People cannot be denied qualities which we celebrate in our own heroic narratives.

People shouldn’t depend on someone else’s depiction of them, but be able to participate or create their own. The principles of the visual language, means of creation and media platforms have to become more accessible and not concentrated within singular structures (this of course is a matter concerning broader issues of access to wealth, but such is the nature of structural injustices).The power balance needs to be redistributed.

Photographs shouldn’t exclusively focus on the particularities of suffering, devoid of context and connections. They should relate to the circumstances of the viewer and provide insight on the societies they occupy. If photography aims to alleviate or change structural injustices, it has to, with the help of other mediums, portray and associate. Images have to help the viewer actualize and understand their position within systemic exploitations. They cannot function as windows to other distant worlds. Instead, they should help comprehend there is only one reality, shared by all.

The point is not to elicit guilt, but to present complex cultural manipulations used to pit the powerless against each other. If photography can materialize concepts of interdependence, then meaningful work towards holding exploitative power structures accountable can begin. If we remain splintered within oppressive hierarchical systems, in an endless competition for dignity and resources, we will have to continue covering up each others pain with lies.