The Questionable Right to Witness

Photographers will argue that their work exists to be a visual representation that increases public awareness. This awareness, when it is extracted from the photograph, will see us viewers be deemed as a ‘witness’ to such depictions. The ethical responses that will result from controversial images including those that depict rather severe cases of human suffering will be constantly disputed due to the equivocal righteousness in which the photograph was taken. Unless the purpose of the image and intent of the creator will induce a collective opinion towards combating the depicted suffering, the morality framework in taking such images will always be vulnerable to dispute.

Sebastião Salgado is a Brazilian photographer and photojournalist whom is widely known for his poignant images that attempt to document dire circumstances of raw human suffering. Recipient of the ASA’s Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues Award in 2010, Salgado was recognized for his contribution towards promoting sociological concerns via his photography. When researching about Salgado’s photography, there was an overriding sense of favourable admiration for his work. Being described as being “the last great photographer,” (Jones, 2015) and one of the most respected modern photojournalists, Salgado’s reputation has been built on the appreciation for his evocative visual documentations.


Image via


However, Salgado’s intent to portray humans dealing with extreme human conditions calls into question whether such images are taken in an appropriate ethical manner. As stated, “aestheticisation refers to photographs of human suffering” that are believed to offer disinterested pleasure to the audience (Grønstad & Gustafsson, 2012). It is argued that the presence of such representations aims to further “depoliticise the viewers” (Grønstad & Gustafsson, 2012) by diverting their attention away from the suffering depicted and instead, towards the image quality and composer’s artistry. Here we can see how the audience can be deemed insensitive to the circumstances being presented and thus, its failure to instigate an appropriate collective reaction to inhumane circumstances.

Additionally cultural theorist and critic Mieke Bal underlines the ethical controversy surrounding the publication of certain images. She states that the subjects in the photographs “do not get paid, or paid in proportion to their enduring exposure” and they are given “no chance to endorse the circulation of their image” (Grønstad & Gustafsson, 2012). Therefore, Bal argues that the viewers to these images are contributing to the subject’s exploitation (Grønstad & Gustafsson, 2012). Bal’s argument further feeds the belief that these photographs are not taken in the correct ethical manner for it is an unjust misuse of photography that does not benefit the subject in any instrumental way – for the subject is ultimately left in the same suffering that they were found in.

By contrast, the justification for exhibiting such photographs on a global scale relies on the need to educate and inform global viewers. An excerpt from The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, states that photographs bring attention to the “unbridgeable chasm that separates ordinary life from extraordinary experiences of political trauma” (Linfield, 2010). Furthermore, it discusses the depictions of Holocaust camps and how such events cannot be easily processed which is why photography can function to educate us on past failures in order to truly gain an insight into historical devastation (Linfield, 2010) .

The debate surrounding the publication of such unsettling images will continue to exist for as long as such distressing human conditions exist. The aesthetic aspects of Salgado’s photography can be argued to function as depriving the subject of true validation and value. However it is also the shock tactic that can also be argued as forcing recognition for such suffering caused by political and humanitarian crises. As a result of such informative artistry there will perpetually exist the questionable justification of being able to ‘witness’ such evocative photographs. Therefore it is our individual interpretation of such representations that will contribute to our comprehension of the image functioning as either an ethical or unethical method of communication – or perhaps even elements of both. While we are able to turn away from the photograph, the subjects in them are not given that prospect. So ultimately, it is our own inaction that can be our own undoing.



Grønstad A, Gustafsson H, 2012, Ethics and Images of Pain, Routledge Publishers, New York USA, p. 22, p. 25

Jones, 2015, The Guardian, Sebastião Salgado: my adventures at the ends of the Earth, viewed March 17th 2017 <>

Linfield S, 2010, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, University of Chicago Press, USA p. 15

Artsy, 2017, SEBASTIÃO SALGADO, viewed March 17th <>


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