I feel that to see others suffering as a ‘topic’ – it becomes more difficult to feel empathetic towards those who are suffering. I think this is mainly to do with storytellers who basically exhibit the suffering to us – commonly those who are contrastable, and do not bare the suffering for themselves.
Can bystanders accurately tell a story of somebody’s horrifically sad suffering? It is evident to me that the truth and the sheer impact can be distorted as content is adjusted to accommodate and engage an audience, and in doing so, it can be argued that another human being’s suffering is undermined, or more simply, of less importance.
Specifically art audiences have been praising the photojournalism of Sebastião Salgado in his 2016 book “Migrations”.
‘Mr. Salgado here turns his immense energies to the millions of refugees, exiles, orphans, landless peasants, homeless families, boat people, internees and others who today endure incredible hardships to escape even more extreme circumstances’ is how Michael Kimmelman puts the book into perspective.
However, the moral input of those contesting the art audience dispute – ‘should pictures of suffering ever be so beautiful?’ (2016 p.1) – Well according to probably the most notable criticiser, Jean-François Chevrier, a French art professor, in Le Monde, the book is an “exploitation of compassion” (p2). It is clear that these photographs are aimed to impact an audience of the severe agony that is continuing in the ignored corners of our world, but interpreters including Chevrier see that line that is being crossed in showcasing photographs to be described as “beautiful” and to an extent prompts an ignorance on unmistakable suffering the photographs subjectively present.
It’s one thing for audiences to be deterred from the subjects they choose not to look at, similar to the reactions of Salgado’s photographs, but another significant thing is the ignorance of those more privileged towards those who are suffering – and this is basically everywhere, and usually goes unnoticed. Take a look at Struggle Street. The ‘eye-opening real life in under-resourced Australian communities’ that are ‘raw, honest and unfiltered’ is made spectacle to the intended higher-income audience, with some narrator drawing you in with how a character receives everything from the government and yet is still poverty stricken and has lots of kids and grand-kids, most of which are unemployed and tend to meddle with drugs. To me, there is no narration of hope for these human beings suffering in our cities, just simply poverty porn distorting the sad truths of people into content designed to seem interesting.
And people believe this is the destination of their tax dollars, and believe the spectacle of lives of “druggos” or “deadshits” in their community, before they can recognize how ignorant and insensitive that is.
I liked Ingrid Sischy’s thoughts on “good intentions” and how well it relates to a show like Struggle Street. It’s undeniable that when we watch shows like that we think of how sad it is, and yet we still watch it as it cries for our empathy – and we feel good about ourselves and our intentions – but we’re not actually empathetic. We can sit there and say, “I can’t watch this – this makes me cry” as we continue to watch, and not cry.
There’s always a gap in first hand experiences and what stories tell us – and as our own experiences are authentic, they direct our empathetic emotions towards others. However, instances of other’s suffering shared by storytellers are made difficult to empathise as they are adjusted to become more of a spectacle.
Kimmelman, M. 2001, Can suffering be too beautiful, NY times, p.1-2 available at <http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/13/arts/photography-review-can-suffering-be-too-beautiful.html>
Screen Australia, 2016, Struggle Street Episode 1 of 3, Keo Films Australia, SBS Australia (Network), accessed online at <https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/the-screen-guide/t/struggle-street-series-1-2015/33347/
Kanopy, 2015, Struggle Street Episode 1, Kanopy Streaming Library (description), accessed online at <http://uow.kanopystreaming.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/video/struggle-street-ep-1-3>