Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

Portraying The Unthinkable

The portrayal of suffering in artwork has always been, at least for me, a difficult issue. Nonetheless, surely there is a role for such imagery outside the venue of photojournalism. One of the problems, in my mind, is getting around the use of sensationalistic, overtly gratuitous, and graphically violent images when attempting to convey a message that is, at its core, violent and horrific.

Recently, however, I had the opportunity to see an exhibit by photographer Adam Nadel entitled "If My Eyes Speak", which clearly demonstrated to me that the unthinkable can be presented in a way that conveys a message, and conveys it powerfully, while still respecting the dignity of the victims. In fact, by giving those who have been violated a spokesperson who themselves were part of the suffering, by giving them a voice and a face, by making it clear that these were human beings that were 'just like us', the message is delivered in a manner that, in many ways, is more powerful than the portrayal of mounds of dead and mutilated bodies.

Nadel's project consists of simple portraits of the survivors and, in some cases, the oppressors. The photographs are presented with a short caption or quote that tells a portion of each person's ordeal. Though not physically part of the image, each caption is inextricably bound to a particular photograph. Simple, short, and extremely effective.

Emmanuel Murangira,

These rooms were filled with the dead.
50,000 killed in this place.
The killers enjoyed themselves.
I am one of 4 survivors.
My entire family was murdered.
I was shot.
Later that night I regained consciousness Ð
I was under a pile of bodies.

I visit sometimes
because I feel more comfortable
being among the dead
than the living.

Copyright Adam Nadel

Rather than my trying to explain the reasoning and goals behind Mr Nadel's project, it would be most effective for me to simply quote for you sections from the artist's statement that was distributed at the showing. I should also add that I find many artist's statements not particularly useful but, clearly, this one deserved to be read and digested along with the exhibition.

Regarding the so-called "voyeurism of trauma photography", as Mr. Nadel puts it, he says:

".....Journalism can be like advertising - try to draw people in and keep them looking at your product. With this mentality, why would a photographer not expect that the more sexy and graphic, the more easily accessible the more likely their images will get maximum exposure......"

He goes on to say:

"I am not saying this is the ultimate reason why images are chosen for publication, but it's a significant and powerful one that results in a very particular relationship between the viewing audience, photographer, and subject. These are the forces that make it harder for the viewer to sympathetically connect with the individuals in the images. The photographer is in the same situation.

How do you get around this? I am not sure. But, at the heart of the work (my project in question) what we are discussing is the creation of a relationship between the viewing audience, photographer, and photographed that allows for clear and direct communication about war's violence that is intentionally non-sensational, at least visually, and allows for emotional and intellectual engagement."

Regarding the integration of text with his images he says:

".....As important is the need to create a caption that could not be separated from the portrait. By doing this, the words of the people in the photograph, not of an editorial desk, are the caption for the image. The sitter directly suggests meaning for the viewer. The bedrock is that the photograph's message can't be changed or altered without diminishing the impact of the portrait/testimony. Their strength is in their unity......"

He continues, ".....There is debate over the role that 'captions' play in fundamentally defining the meaning of a photograph. I do not endorse the view that words are ultimately responsible for a photograph's meaning, but I do believe that a very powerful partnership can be formed between pictures and words that not only improves the message, or should I say focuses the meaning, and allows the viewer an opportunity to directly engage, both emotionally and intellectually, with the individual in the portrait."

Regarding this strategy he states "....I am sure there are many people who think empathy or "spectatorial sympathy" creates a whole new set of problems. I just don't know how to escape these issues while still working within the photographic medium. I am trying to find ways to minimize the medium's negatives while still providing the audience access to the hardships most in the west have the luxury of avoiding."

Indeed, an artists statement that truly guides one through the thought processes involved with the creation and presentation of the images.

Some of the work displayed at the exhibit can be seen here, although the exhibit has since been expanded to include not only images related to the atrocities in Rwanda, but also those in Bosnia and Darfur.

These are immensely powerful images that spoke to me in many ways.