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The Aesthetics of Suffering

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

By Mariam H and Irisa R.

How different photographic depictions of suffering interact with race, class and global power dynamics to form a narrative that we consume. What are we accepting as the truth?

While browsing through countless quarantine memes, videos of Italians serenading each other from their balconies and yet another infographic reminding us to wash our hands, we came across a post by photojournalist Joel Nsadha. In a text post, he called out the contrast between the way the recent pandemic has been reported on in comparison to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

You can see how a quick Google search of both generates vastly different images. The first search generates brightly coloured infographics and a cartoon pathogen floating across various backgrounds. In contrast, the second set of images are confronting and uncomfortable to look at. They make us feel pity and horror.

Googling COVID 19 Crisis:

Googling Ebola Crisis:

Now, we are by no means claiming that this simple Google search is in any way akin to a scientific study; it's barely even an anecdote. However, it begs the question; do we show the lived experiences of some differently to others?

The Appropriation Of Reality

A simple glance at any social media or news feed, tells us that graphic imagery has become a staple in the way we keep ourselves informed. However, there is also an undeniable trend that these graphic images are mostly from the Global South. These photographs feature supposed nameless, voiceless or ahistorical entities without any defining characteristics outside of their victimhood. Using a social constructionist framework, we can understand that these images produce our reality and inform our perception that the “norm” for certain communities is that they are already prone to violence or suffering. So, because of this, we then need even more graphic details to help us truly empathise.

The consistent use of these images also betrays an undeniable power dynamic. Where today’s standard of acceptable ‘poverty porn’ is predicated upon an ‘artificial distance’. This means that the distance between us and the subject allows us to feel secure in how geographically, culturally and socially far we are from what we see. Try to recall how many times we have seen black and brown bodies presented in states of significant distress and anguish. They are all presented as collateral to a distant conflict or disaster, independent of context.

In contrast, try and think of how many times disasters in the West have been depicted in a similar manner. This is reinforced by a study on visual reports of shooting in the US which found that of nearly 5000 newspaper photos, only 5% would be considered graphic in nature. The majority of depictions we see of Western communities affected by disasters, showcase resilience and not pitiful victims, showing portraits of them when they were alive and happy rather than of their death.

Beginning in the 1970s, NGOs have had a symbiotic relationship with the media. They quickly realised that if they broadcast or published images of disenfranchised communities in a state of anguish or distress, that it would mobilise volunteers and encourage donations. However this also continues to perpetuate a dominant social script of the other as a victim and the Global North as the Saviour, or at the very least as an impartial observer. Where graphic images of lifeless people washing up on shores; people in extreme states of distress, or children with hollowed cheeks and bloated bellies are shared.

They are not images of suffering persons, they become images of suffering bodies.

In this careless depiction of them in their death, they are being robbed of their dignity, respect and agency.


We tend to accept photographs as a representation of the truth and not as an interpretation of it. We don’t look at every photograph we see in the same way we would critically analyse written works, cartoons or even illustrations. This perceived transparency gives photographs the illusion of reality, when in fact they are an appropriation of it. Images are always constructed. Everything from the way a subject is framed and lit, to the editing and publishing communicates an idea.

Similarly, photojournalists do not exist in a social vacuum.The photographs are not objective snapshots; they are not a de-territorialised space of political relations, free from the sovereign power of the State, or historical legacies. So, every photograph we see has an undeniable effect on the way we perceive and understand our world.

But, why does any of this matter? Well, images have been found to have a long-lasting effect on our behaviour and the way we interact with social and political issues, even more so than what we read. When this dynamic intersects with race, class or colonial history it reinforces existing asymmetrical power relationships. Think of the consistent use of distorted images of certain countries, and people of colour, that perpetuate “Third World” stereotypes, essentially dehumanising individuals.


Well, yes...and no.

NGOs have found that images depicting graphic forms of suffering, be they physical or mental, are extremely effective ways in encouraging the observer to take action. It is true that images of suffering, particularly in the realism style enabled by the photography medium, can elicit a reaction in the observer that makes them eager to assist.

Vivid portrayals of individual persons suffering can increase empathy towards the subject, and generate what is known as “the identifiable victim effect”. However, the power of this phenomena is fleeting. For example in 2015, the famous image of Syrian-Kurdish boy Alan Kurdi, lifeless on a beach. The image became a symbol of the refugee crisis and resulted in global attention, and also led to a spike in Red Cross donations. But these figures returned to their usual levels within a week. This is a common trend: there is viral graphic image, there is a short burst of flurried activism, and then it's done. But this consistent use of exploitative and detached imagery of suffering starts defining specific nations and usually subjecting people of colour, or in the case of Africa, an entire continent, to stories of victimhood.

On the public’s part, sharing this kind of image may come from a desire for solidarity or raising awareness, however exclusive use of these images can result in the creation of a disempowering discourse. Which means that a rich and diverse country is reduced to a singular narrative, defined by suffering. There is a distinctive power relation in being able to make one story the definitive story of a population.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, perfectly encapsulates this by saying, “the consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition for equal humanity difficult, it emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar".


We cannot reject all displays of human suffering; it is not realistic, and more importantly fails to recognise the value in giving communities that tend to be silenced, a voice.

However, these images of suffering need to be captured in a way that maintains the dignity and autonomy of people. The right of the public to information should not supersede the rights’ of subjects to their privacy and dignity. If the images are something we would find disturbing or invasive for ourselves and our families, then we need to acknowledge it would be for others too.

The majority of us are not in a position to determine which photos get captured and published, but in the age of social media where we can share a post within seconds, we do have a part to play. So, we need to ask ourselves: is this image going to tangibly benefit the victim and their community? If the answer is yes, then the image should be contextualised and purposeful. There must be a reason we are being allowed to view something so private in a person’s life.

It can be hard to do this every time we come across a graphic image and the ethical considerations aren’t always very clear. So it is crucial that we use our own judgement, because as viewers we are not simply passive participants. We need to always remind ourselves of this and remain critical of their intent and the effect that both the images and our own actions in response to viewing them have.


More to read;

Azoulay, A., (2008). The Civil Contract. New York: Zone Books.

Bhan, A., (2005). Should health professionals allow reporters inside hospitals and clinics at times of natural disasters?. PLoS medicine, 2(6), p.471.

Calain, P. (2013) Ethics and images of suffering bodies in humanitarian medicine. Social Science & Medicine. [Online] 98278–285.

Carville, J., (2010). Intolerable gaze: The social contract of photography. Photography and Culture, 3(3), pp.353-358.

Chandler, D. (2001) The road to military humanitarianism: How the human rights NGOs shaped a new humanitarian agenda. Human rights quarterly. [Online] 23 (3), 678–700.

Adichie, C, N. (2009). The danger of a single story [video file]. Retrieved from:

Dahmen, N.S. (2018).“When the media cover mass shootings, would depicting the carnage make a difference?”. The Conversation. Accessed at:

Dahmen, N.S., (2018). Visually reporting mass shootings: US newspaper photographic coverage of three mass school shootings. American behavioral scientist, 62(2), pp.163-180.

Kozol, W. (2014) Distant wars visible : the ambivalence of witnessing . Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Markham, T. (2011) The politics of war reporting Authority, authenticity and morality . Manchester, England ;: Manchester University Press

Maier, S.R., Slovic, P. and Mayorga, M., (2017). Reader reaction to news of mass suffering: Assessing the influence of story form and emotional response. Journalism, 18(8), pp.1011-1029.

Mitchell, J., (2000). The Ethics of Photojournalism. Studies in Christian Ethics, 13(1), pp.1-16.

Newton, J. H. (2012) The burden of visual truth : the role of photojournalism in mediating reality . [Online]. New York ;: Routledge.

Powell, P. A. et al. (2018) The effects of exposure to images of others’ suffering and vulnerability on altruistic, trust-based, and reciprocated economic decision-making. PLoS ONE. [Online] 13 (3), e0194569.

Richard Mohr (2010) Responsibility and the Representation of Suffering: Australian Law in Black and White. e-cadernos ces. [Online] 7 (7), . [online]. Available from:

Silva, M.F.S. and Eldridge II, S.A., 2020. The Ethics of Photojournalism in the Digital Age. Routledge.

Slovic, P., Västfjäll, D., Erlandsson, A. and Gregory, R., 2017. Iconic photographs and the ebb and flow of empathic response to humanitarian disasters. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(4), pp.640-644.

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