On Image Fatigue


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'Photographs do not explain, they acknowledge'. With this aphorism, literary icon Susan Sontag introduced one of the major principles underlying photography. It's one of the most seductive and powerful tools for communicating about the world around us, yet as much as photographs help us to understand, they leave just as much room for misunderstandings and misinterpretations. By their very nature, photographs have only limited descriptive power: they offer but one frozen moment among on-going multifaceted happenings, existing only through the photographer's subjective interpretation of reality. From this perspective, when looking to photographs to offer an explanation, we will find ourselves inevitably disappointed.

And nowadays, as we are subjected to an overwhelming amount of visual stimuli, we are becoming more and more numb to images that portray the horrors of this world, simply because we have seen them before. Images lose their power to shock us by their sheer numbers and repetition, and we're lost in an unfortunate state of 'image fatigue'. We find ourselves, once again, disappointed with photographs.

Yet, as with all cases of disappointment, the fault lies with false expectations. To what extent do we expect that photographs contain all the context we need, and to what extent do submit to image fatigue, making snap judgments on the meaning or value of a photo, before we even understand what it is?

Child-Witches of Kinshasa © Gwenn Dubourthoumieu

Take the work of Gwenn Dubourthoumieu, for example. Some of his images might prompt quick, unreflecting judgment. We see images of wounded, traumatized African children and what appears to be, at first sight, an act of imminent violence and death. While this supposed act of killing might be exactly what should call for our attention, the irony is that this is probably the moment where we dismiss the photo and turn away: we've seen it all before. There is nothing novel in the images which shocks us, which says more about the world we live in than about the quality of the image, really. However by delving deeper into Dubourthoumieu's images, we learn that they belong to the series 'Child-Witches of Kinshasa', shedding new light on the understanding of the images.

In Kinshasa, around 50,000 children live on the streets under disastrous conditions. Accused of witchcraft, the children are tortured and chased away by their families. The photo which illustrates an act resembling the threat of death is in fact an exorcism rite, where prophets cut the child symbolically with a machete and throw her 'devil parts' into the fire. The portrayal that Dubourthoumieu offers us, by choosing to underline the violent outlook of the rite through the use of a dramatic composition and angle, reminds us not to underestimate the significance of the role that the photographer plays in the choices they make about aesthetics and technique.

Child-Witches of Kinshasa © Gwenn Dubourthoumieu

Here, the photographer's vision enables snap judgments by those who don't examine the context of the image. While snap judgments are perhaps responsible for our current photographic malaise, it's precisely this effect which creates our interest in Dubourthoumieu's images: we think we understand, but we don't, so we try harder to understand. It's the multiple layers of seeing that contribute to the strength of the image, and it's the misdirection of this drama - itself responsible for the initial dismissal - which creates our continued interest.

It would be foolish to demand photographers to portray events in a way that includes as much context as possible. Photography is an art-form, after all, often made more powerful by what we don’t see. It is also impossible to expect viewers to painstakingly research every image they come across. What is important, however, is to continue to learn how to look. Photographs have misleading potential and laziness often invites us to accept an image at face value. As the deluge of imagery grows ever greater, the challenge of understanding them all will similarly become greater and more complicated. It's ultimately our own responsibility whether we want to inquire into what is being presented to us or not. Yet, as image fatigue sets in, and we scroll through uncountable images without really seeing, without thinking, the question that may rattle around the back of our brains is: at what cost?

 

see more work by Gwenn Dubourthoumieu