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The Photograph as Ideology: Who Warrants Grief?

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

In the world of digital culture, we are constantly bombarded by photographs from all over the world. Perhaps what is noble and nuanced about digital media and photography is its ability to bridge distances between real people and events, connecting them with the news across language and cultural barriers. But what is there to say about widespread images depicting real human loss and suffering?

No matter what we intend to read in the news, the likelihood of seeing a tragic headline is (inevitable out of 10). Susan Sontag writes that the "quintessential modern experience" is this exact (over)exposure to tragedy at a distance. Through social media, television, newspapers and magazines, photos of death and disaster find us at every turn.

"If it bleeds, it leads." -Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Series of photos depicting the collection of bodies across Ukraine after Russia's invasion in February, 2022, courtesy of manhai on Flickr, some rights reserved.

How does photography mediate our response to grief? When we are overwhelmed with explosive headlines about death and tragedy around the world, how does that effect our inclination and capacity to respond ethically to human suffering? Academic philosophers, Susan Sontag and Judith Butler explore these pressing questions in their work, Regarding the Pain of Others and Precariousness and Grievability—When Is Life Grievable?, respectively.


Interestingly, Sontag starts by exploring photography itself as a medium that symbolizes death, even for the living. The very act of photographing something entails that the moment captured has passed and been objectified (into memory). The photograph now acts as a middle-man to what is remembered. This media, of course, has incredibly varied effects when spread globally in mass media. Moreover depicted in a fleeting moment, the subject captured in a photograph is playing a role in its death process, which in turn, effectively reduces them to an object frozen in time. According to Sontag, this is where photography's ideological power over life, memory, and grievance lie.

“What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: She is going to die: I shudder… over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.” -Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography


Within this paradox of the image, Sontag describes a relationship between shock and cliché. It stems from the implementation of both objectivity and the existence of point of view, or frame. She explores the process of interpretation from a binary, semiotic position, taking into account: 1) its framing perspective, and 2) the rhetoric, or caption, assigned to it (discussed further in this blog post on The Photograph as War). To summarize the latter, if one such famine is described as 'biblical,' one must ask how such a descriptor may target certain audiences and lead to their stronger emotional reaction. She makes these two points to furthermore argue that the repetition tends to transform images into an ideological icons. We witness this every day in digital culture, with the repetitive and universally understood meaning of various viral memes. Let's not forget the time Pepe the frog was listed as a hate symbol, a prime example of the absurd extent to which interpretation can be shaped and redefined.

A protestor was masked as Pepe the frog during the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. As the Capitol was stormed, attackers sang songs by a musician named after the cartoon character. Photo courtesy of Ted S. Warren/AP (licensed under Creative Commons).



1) Environmental billboard from WWF, 2) Gender bias ad from UNWomen

Media makes proximity and distance reversible and therefore warrants more emotive responses without the need for an interpreter. Therefore, images sometimes act as ethical solicitation. The media acts as media-tor, which can practice the art of persuasion. A prime example of this can be found in public service announcements. The MIT Press discusses this further in an interesting paper, Sonic Proxemics and the Art of Persuasion: An Analytical Framework, and identifies Public Service Announcements as an artful persuasion to empathy. Indeed, a photograph can make or break the reach of a PSA. In her work, Judith Butler takes Sontag's idea of ideological influence and paradoxes within a photograph and applies it to tangible events of unprecedented closeness. Both reference events of forced immigration, the redrawing of sovereign boundaries and war, especially highlighting the importance of imagery in the context of cold, proxy and digital warfare.


To prove my point, the Russian and Ukranian war is now being questionably referred to as the TikTok war. Since the war began, we have seen the exploitation of social and economic dependency unfold in the form of proxy war and digital media strategy. Both Russia and Ukraine have trending social media campaigns to garner support from other countries. Hashtags like #StandWithUkraine defied the distance between proximity and empathy, spreading images that inspired manifestations across the globe.

After much pressure and debate, Italy's eventual response was to cut long-held ties to Russian fuel in the summer of 2022, inspiring the renowned rock group, Måneskin, to write a song titled "Gasoline," which directly addresses Putin as a murderous dictator. Butler attributes this widespread social response to the creation of a precarious, interpersonal relationship made especially possible through the realness of imagery. Precariousness emphasizes that each life is inevitably reliant on others, and therefore forges some level of ethical obligation to stand up and lend a hand (or, in America's case, 31 M1 Abram tanks).

Måneskin, a rock band from Rome, Italy, performs their song, Gasoline, from their 2023 album Rush!, in the Arena di Verona in 2022. The lead singer, Damiano, quotes Charlie Chaplin's final speech from The Great Dictator before announcing their stand with Ukraine and wrapping himself in their flag throughout the performance. The lyrics can be explored in greater detail in this video.

The United States and the EU have been quick to respond to the conflict even at a local level. Even in my hometown, I noticed Ukrainian flags popping up all across the lawns in the United States. After not having visited home since the onset of the war, I was surprised to see this level of outstanding support, but I am not the only one asking why. However, this is not met without controversy. The answer can be attributed to Sontag and Butler's research on photography as a mechanism for emotion-driven propaganda. What perplexes me is that, as much as Christian America has feigned to care about the Isreali conflict, I have never witnessed this level of support from everyday Americans for a foreign nation.

When establishing a ladder of grievability, a hierarchy of life worth grieving, Butler might call to attention the contrasting attitudes towards a similar, but far longer, conflict in the Middle-East. In the following video, Irish MP, Richard Boyd Barrett, beautifully expresses his concerns over the West's double-standard between the Isreali-Palestinian conflict and that of Ukraine. As evidenced by both state and local response, it may be that the West (more easily) grieves for the West. This would entail that Ukrainian life is placed higher on this ladder of grief Butler describes, speculated to be on the basis that Nato holds some responsibility in Putin's growing frustration with Ukraine. There are many factors that influence our ability to empathize with others, including religious and racial demographics. Perhaps most significant to Barrett's argument, Ukraine is not recognized as a part of the third-world Other, but rather as a sovereign, European state. The rhetoric, emphasized by Sontag, opens and closes doors of empathy despite the existence of trusted media coverage over both conflicts.

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