Sendong Tragedies, Power of Images and Aestheticizing Suffering

A picture paints a thousand words.

We heard that phrase numerous times in our lifetime. True to a certain extent. Yet, a thousand words may still remain silent on certain truths.

Sendong typhoon sent netizens into a frenzy. The power of social media manifested again. In a short time, various organizations collected millions of Pesos to help citizens of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro. This is one of the best aspects of social media. Yet, there is one aspect that has been bothering me for some time. And I have no answers to the questions and issues that I will bring up.

In posting tragic images, where do we draw the line? Yes, tragic images touch us, it brings to the worlds the pain and suffering that the Filipinos underwent because of this typhoon. But, is it right to share, propagate and immortalize these images? These are private sufferings of the people of Iligan and Cagayan De Oro. Social media and even our traditional media (TV and newspapers in particular) use and re-use these tragic images, without permission from the people represented in their worst suffering. If we can ask them, would they want us to spread images of their despair?

Historically, photography has always been a powerful medium in moving the world. The image by Nick Ut of the Napalm Attack in Vietnam is one of the most powerful images in photography’s history. It was also one of the images that swayed public opinion in going against Vietnam War, which eventually added pressure to end the war. Images are just that powerful.

Napalm Attack by Nick Ut, 1972

I have always been impressed with this photograph. But I view this photograph under the telos of history. I now realize, as tragic photos and videos haunt us left and right, that there are certain ethical concerns which documenting tragedies and sufferings overlook. Before, there was always a certain period of time that distances us from viewing a photograph. Even if it was just a day or so, a photograph was historicized. Now, with the immediacy of publishing photographs, tragic photos rub us the wrong way. We know that these people are not so far from us, and are suffering right at this moment. Is it right to photograph them as we do? And share these photographs as we are all guilty of?

Kim Phuc, the girl from the Napalm Attack, was fortunate. She lived. They found her a couple of years ago, alive and happy, presently living in Canada. She formed a friendly attachment with the photojournalist, Nick Ut. But not all stories are that fortunate.

This brings me to Vulture Stalking a Child by Kevin Carter. This image was just as powerful as Napalm Attack. But it was received very differently by the public. This photo was published in The New York Times in 1993 and won Carter a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. The success did not silence the critics of Carter. He stated that it took him 20 minutes to get the settings correctly and his critics took that negatively as he did not help the child while doing this. A few months after winning the Pulitzer prize, he committed suicide.

In a way, his guilt is our guilt. A lot of us, do not help, a lot of us just view. We take photographs and share it everywhere, to everyone we can reach. Voyeuristically, we look at such tragedies and we feel better about our own situations. The child became an iconic image of the suffering and starvation in Sudan. Yet, such image and immortalization did not help the child, or anyone for that matter. It encapsulated suffering and isolated it. It was a tragedy on so many levels. And we continue that tragedy.

Vulture Stalking a Child by Kevin Carter

I remember these images as I watch TV and see photos and videos about Sendong on the internet. We, Filipinos, are voracious in our appetites for such tragic and graphic images. Photographs of dead children are shared and propagated in social media and labelled as “share if you care” or something to that effect. Do you really care if you share such images? In the long run, do we not cause more hurt and pain to these people–seeing their families, friends and loved ones dead or broken by the typhoon?

We might get donations due to pity extracted by these images, but for how long? In time, do we not grow numb as we aestheticize tragedies? This is not a tragic play, we do not watch it, we experience it in the present. We should give them dignity in their suffering. Are we really helping them as we represent and immortalize their tragedies?

As I said, I have no answers to the questions and issues that I am posing. But it is worth thinking about. We go on, we rebuild and grow from this tragedy. Yet, are we really growing as a nation? Images are powerful and these are the images that we are creating for ourselves. We need to think about on where do we go from here.

For donations to Sendong Victims:

One for Iligan

On Napalm Attack:
Girl in Iconic Vietnam War Photo Brings Message of Hope
Vietnam War ‘girl in the picture’ reunited with journalist who saved her life
Picture power: Vietnam napalm attack

On Vulture Stalking a Child:
Vulture Stalking a Child
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF KEVIN CARTER Visiting Sudan, a little-known photographer took a picture that made the world weep. What happened afterward is a tragedy of another sort.
Kevin Carter: The Consequences of Photojournalism


Apparently, this is also my 140th post. Do I celebrate when I wrote about tragedies?

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2 thoughts on “Sendong Tragedies, Power of Images and Aestheticizing Suffering

Add yours

  1. congrats portia very disturbing article. it really make sense on how photos are powerful and abused by many. i ll be one of your followers, God bless and more writings .

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