To Look or Not to Look: Is that the Question?

By Sarah SentillesOctober 2, 2017

To Look or Not to Look: Is that the Question?
This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 15,  Revolution

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WHAT difference does this photograph make? And what does it mean to look at it?

The man in the photograph — Abdel Hameed Alyousef — sits in the front passenger seat of a car and holds Aya and Ahmed, his nine-month-old twins, dead, wrapped in white cloth, their faces visible. He is on his way to bury them in a mass grave alongside 22 other members of his family, including his wife and brothers, all of whom are reported to have been killed by chemical weapons during an attack in Idlib Province in Syria. Alyousef is not alone. With him are the driver in the front and two men and two young children in the backseat, three of their faces bathed in sunlight. The photographer is there, too, standing outside the car and looking in.

Photographs allow viewers to be somewhere they could not otherwise be, to see what would otherwise remain invisible. The theorist Ariella Azoulay calls photographs “transit visas,” and in The Civil Contract of Photography she insists the camera grants a kind of citizenship that transcends borders. We are citizens not of nations but of images, she argues. We are accountable to one another, responsible for what we can now see.

But what does this responsibility look like in practice?

Photographs of violence are taken after the violence has occurred, and as a viewer, I have arrived too late. Alyousef’s children and most of his family are already dead. Alyousef has already buried them all. This photograph is just one of many photographs of dead and injured children in Syria. Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach. Five-year-old Omran Daqneesh covered in dust and blood sitting in an ambulance. Yet the violence continues. Borders remain closed to refugees.

In early April 2017, this image rocketed around the internet, appearing on the front page of newspapers, multiplied on Facebook and Twitter feeds. President Trump seemed to refer to this photograph when he said to reporters in the White House Rose Garden, “I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.” The next evening, speaking from his Florida estate, he said, “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

Then he launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria. Did the photographs do this?

Discussing the video footage of some of those missiles, watching their brightness light up the night, Brian Williams said on MSNBC, “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen, ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ They are beautiful pictures.” Is the photograph of Alyousef a beautiful picture? The bright white cloth in which his dead children are wrapped stands out against his red shirt. The car door cuts through the frame of the photograph, redacting part of the driver’s head. The sunlit faces in the backseat are overexposed. The photograph seems to have been taken in haste, a snapshot rather than a composed portrait, closely cropped, urgent.

At what should we look, and from what should we look away? For nearly a decade, I critiqued the aestheticization of suffering. I understood visually pleasing photographs of pain to be ethically suspect. But then I read Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance and was confronted by the narcissism of my thinking — how it shifts attention away from the content of the photograph and toward the viewer and her emotions, how it reveals a longing to find an innocent space from which to look, or a justification for choosing not to. The debate about whether a photograph of violence should be beautiful “is more concerned with the clear conscience of the viewer than with the plight of the injured subject,” Linfield writes. There is no unproblematic way “to show the degradation of a person,” she continues. No inoffensive way “to document unforgivable violence.” But that’s not an excuse not to look.

Which raises the question: What obligation do viewers have when confronted by an image like this?

Photographs bring suffering close, but they can also make it feel further away. Photography can generate otherness. “The more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying,” Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, and she’s right to point out the racism at the center of such images. The dead who appear in photographs published by the American media are usually from other countries, and in the rare cases when the dead bodies belong to Americans, they are often people of color. Privacy in death — and maybe even dignity — seems reserved for White Americans.

Whose deaths are shown and whose are hidden? When does visibility contribute to accountability for violence, and when does it perpetuate oppression? In “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” Claudia Rankine writes about the devastating decisions made around visibility. Mothers have to decide whether or not to make the bodies of their dead sons visible. The police left Michael Brown’s bullet-riddled body in the street for hours, even though his mother cried out for him to be covered. Later, a photograph of Brown’s body was published on the front page of The New York Times. The police wouldn’t let Lesley McSpadden see her son’s body, claiming it was evidence, yet, even a casual reader of the news was allowed to look at him.

Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, famously insisted on an open casket to protest the racist violence done to her son. “Let people see what I see,” she said. Hers was a decision that turned the lynching tradition against itself, Rankine argues. While photographs of lynched Black bodies circulated as symbols of white supremacy, Mobley displayed her son’s body to encourage national grief. “I believe that the whole United States is mourning with me,” she said. Who gets to decide who gets to look at whose bodies? Questions about representing Till’s murdered body were in the news again after Dana Schutz’s controversial painting Open Casket was put on display at the Whitney Biennial. You can also visit Till’s original coffin at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where it rests in a small, shrine-like room, the only place in the museum where taking photographs is not allowed.

Looking at the photograph of Alyousef and his twins, I have to keep reminding myself that the children are dead and not sleeping. Like many viewers, I am perhaps used to images of mothers mourning their children; the Pietà, Mary holding the dead body of Jesus, is one of the most iconic and pervasive images in the history of art. It has been transformed from an image of a particular mother and child into a symbol for human suffering, which risks turning other images of individual mothers and their children into general symbols, too. But this is a photograph of a grieving father, and instead of one adult child, there are two small infants in his arms and two little boys watching from the backseat of a car.

I don’t want to look at this image. I wish I hadn’t seen it. I’m not sure looking does any good. I want to turn away. But like questions about the aestheticization of suffering, a refusal to view documentary photographs of violence shifts attention away from the pictured atrocity and toward the emotionally affected viewers, as if our sensitivity indicates something about our empathy, as if our turning away signals our essential goodness. The refusal to look also suggests there is a failure at the heart of what Susie Linfield calls “photographic suffering”: images are not powerful enough — or, perhaps, they are too powerful, too overwhelming — to effect change. So it’s better to close our eyes, better to protect the person in the photograph from our gaze.

But turning away isn’t respect, it’s denial. We know images effect all kinds of change. Trump looked at this photograph — and presumably at other photographs reported to be even worse — and launched an attack. There’s no doubt that images have power. Pornography and advertisements depend on images to make viewers act. If a photograph of suffering doesn’t give rise to a sufficient response, perhaps it’s not a failure of the picture, but a failure of the viewer. What matters is not whether you look. What matters is how you look, what kind of witness you become, what you do in response to what you see.

Reports indicate Alyousef wanted this picture to be seen. He positioned his children so they could be captured by the camera. He did not cover their faces. Like Emmett Till’s mother, he must have known that after seeing the image viewers will not be able to claim ignorance as an alibi. The challenge, then, is to stay open-eyed, awake. To allow myself to be undone. To refuse to let the camera dehumanize. To see, in Judith Butler’s terms, how I am implicated in lives that are not my own. To admit, as Sontag insists, that my privilege is located on the same map as their suffering. To get better at turning intense emotional reactions into political action that stops violence. It doesn’t matter what I feel when I look at this photograph. It matters what I do. It matters what I demand my leaders do.

Grief is political, Butler argues in Precarious Life. She exposes the hierarchy of grief, the fact that some lives count more than others, that only some deaths are mourned. Recognizing all lives as grievable makes war less possible; it’s harder to kill people for whom you will mourn. Photographs can limit grievability, but they can also, like this photograph of Alyousef holding his children, extend it. This photograph is the newest addition to the violent archive, and it won’t be the last. Photographs reveal the range of what human beings are capable of doing to and for one another. We kill each other. Yet, like Alyousef holding his children, we also mourn our dead.


Sarah Sentilles is a writer, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books. Her most recent book is Draw Your Weapons (Random House, 2017).

LARB Contributor

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. Her most recent book, Draw Your Weapons, was published by Random House in July 2017. She earned a bachelor's degree at Yale and master's and doctoral degrees at Harvard. At the core of her scholarship, writing, and activism is a commitment to investigating the roles language, images, and practices play in oppression, violence, social transformation, and justice movements. She has taught at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland State University, California State University Channel Islands, and Willamette University, where she was the Mark and Melody Teppola Presidential Distinguished Visiting Professor. Author photo by Gia Goodrich at VEV STUDIOS


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