Compassion fatigue : Exercise #2

Read the articles ‘ Walk the Line’ by Max Houghton ( Foto8, issue 23,pp.143-4) and ‘Imagining War’ by Jonathan Kaplan ( Foto8 ,issue 23,pp.142-3)

Core resources Foto8#23_Kaplan&Houghton.pdf

Write down your reactions to the authors’ arguments.

Jonathan Kaplan is a surgeon who occasionally works in war zones. He alludes to the similarity between surgeons and photojournalists , who both in order to understand and learn , need to be physically present and directly involved. He discusses the reality of war injuries that are far removed from the ‘idealised image of the body’. He is also a photographer whose graphic B&W images of amputees’ were excluded from a proposed book on land-mines , a choice he agreed with, he believes in boundaries. When deciding on the suitability of images to include in publications ethical considerations must be made, thought given to what is acceptable for public viewing. Kaplan’s ‘violent images’ were felt to be too graphic and could diminish the remainder of the book , evoking not an emotional and thoughtful response but one of revulsion and horror. Faced with horrific images it becomes easier to try and forget , pretend the barbarity of war does not exist. Often what is not shown is more powerful and thought provoking.

Max Houghton is the co-editor of Foto8 and she discusses the unenviable dilemma that picture editors face when choosing images to publish stating ‘ it becomes clear that the very ethics of photography is at stake’ . She draws attention to the paradox that whilst ‘dead American soldiers are a no-no for the US press , … the image of a war-battered American soldier sweeps to victory at the World Press Photo Awards’ . What may be considered shocking is inevitably influenced by cultural , social or individual mores. Houghton felt the publication of the decapitated heads of Saddam Hussein’s sons by the Guardian in 2013 crossed an ‘invisible line …personal to me’ . This image was especially abhorrent to Houghton because European cultures ‘do not regularly behead its subjects’ . As Susan Sontag points out ‘the quality of feeling , including moral outrage , that people can muster in response to photographs of the oppressed , the exploited , the starving , and the massacred also depends on the degree of their familiarity with these images’ (Sontag ,S. 1979 p.g 19)

Houghton further discusses the apparent contradictions between what is perceived too horrific to contemplate any further and what is acceptable, ideology will certainly influence these choices . A plea to consider the family of the man photographed by Richard Drew as he leapt to his death from the World Trade Centre , know as The Falling Man ( see here ) , was made by an American academic at a conference discussing pictures of atrocities, yet a similar appeal was not made to consider the family of a dead Taliban soldier. The image ( see here ) by French photographer Luc Delahaye could be considered almost beautiful, a piece of fine art , yet this is an image of someone’s deceased son, husband or brother , does his family not deserve the same respect asked for on behalf of the Falling Man ?

Despite there being a danger of ‘compassion fatigue’ due to ‘ the proliferation of … images of horror’ ( Sontag, S. 1979 p.g 19) there are occasions when it can be justified to publish such images. The editor of the Observer made the decision to publish a graphic and distressing photograph taken by George Phicipas of a young Kenyon mother dying , bleeding to death , in front of her small son . Originally published by the Daily Telegraph in B & W it was re-published a few days later in colour , which makes the image even more shocking to view. Tracey McVeigh , an Observer journalist , searched through body bags to identify and name the victim , in doing so the woman became more than just another unknown victim of violence , she became an individual whom the viewer was able to identify and empathise with , understand a little about her life , not just her death. Despite the graphic nature of the image it was not used gratuitously and as such I feel the editors decision was perfectly acceptable.

There is a link here to McVeigh’s article
Phicipas image is here

Houghton concludes the piece regarding the alleged use of people with Downs Syndrome as suicide bombers by al-Qu’ida , the resulting images of severed heads were not published ‘ a line was drawn’ . Despite the growth of the internet which allows the sharing and viewing of grotesque imagery I believe the media need to maintain a moral code when making their editorial decisions before publishing in order to protect their integrity.


‘ Walk the Line’ by Max Houghton ( Foto8, issue 23,pp.143-4) and ‘Imagining War’ by Jonathan Kaplan ( Foto8 ,issue 23,pp.142-3)

Sontag ,S.(1979) “On Photography” . Penguin Books , London ,England.

Accessed 7/11/15

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