Photography of Victims

views updated

Photography of Victims

Photography is a powerful tool for documenting the fate of victims of crimes against humanity. Contrary to verbal testimony, which may have inadvertently changed over time or been deliberately manipulated, and which is subject to personal interpretation, a photograph is a direct registration of reality or, to be more exact, a slice of reality.

Of course, a photograph is never totally objective, subjected as it is to the choices and interpretations its creator decided to make. But it connects with a past reality in a way that verbal or textual testimony never does. For all the written testimonies about Nazi cruelties in World War II, the photographs taken of the concentration camps after their liberation have a historical directness that is impossible to convey verbally.

It was only with the introduction of fast and portable 35-mm cameras in the 1930s that photojournalists could travel with light and practical equipment to document events throughout the world. Photos of victims of crimes against humanity hardly existed before this period.

Photographs of victims are taken with a few purposes in mind. Strictly, they are made to document the results of crimes against humanity. In this sense they are objective registrations and testimony. At a later stage they can be used as forensic evidence in future war tribunals or criminal investigations.

Second, but more important, they are taken to arouse indignation about situations perceived by the photographer as being unjust and inhumane. The primary objective is to shed light on hidden abuses and to influence and alter public opinion so policy changes will take place. Most photographers go to great lengths and endure physical risks to take such pictures, and undeniably an ethical drive is present in the photographer. This drive emerges from a basic engagement with the less fortunate and victimized people in the world and a strong sense of what is right and wrong.

By choosing to photograph victims, photographers face a moral dilemma: They sometimes feel as if they are preying on the most vulnerable. Elements of voyeurism and sensationalism can creep into their images. Critics often accuse photographers along this line of reasoning. These issues are very subjective, and it is usually the photographer's personal values and taste that decide how they are addressed.

Most photographers and journalists agree that is the photographer's task to portray victims with dignity. A main aim of photos is to arouse not only indignation, but also sympathy and identification. The public is unable to identify with victims who are portrayed as utterly hopeless human beings. The same holds true for photos of a graphic nature. A close-up image of tangled, bloody body parts or decayed corpses can shock viewers to such an extent that they will block the image from their minds. However, the photographer can choose a different point of view and capture an image of a man crying over or a young girl looking stunned at the same graphic scene; such a photo might be taken out of focus or in the distance to be less explicit and shocking. In this way the atrociousness of a crime is not explicitly depicted, but suggested in a manner that is often more powerful. Viewers tend to absorb these kinds of powerful images more easily.

An important obstacle many photographers face is the fact that it is very difficult to document perpetrators at work. From the two largest episodes of genocide in the last decade, those occurring in Rwanda and Bosnia, there exist hardly any images of the perpetrators of those crimes. Only photographer Ron Haviv managed to travel in 1992 with a Serbian death squad (Arkan's Tigers) and document their mission of killing Bosnian Muslims in the town of Bjelina. When these photographs were published internationally and subsequently caused a public fury, the warlord Arkan added Haviv's name to a death list and the photographer was declared persona non grata by the Serbian government.

Sometimes, perpetrators photograph their own acts, for fun, or as grizzly souvenirs, to document their military campaigns. These images are not meant for external publication; mostly they are amateurish in quality. However, when they reach the general public, they are even more shocking.

There are, for instance, gruesome images of Nazis executing rows of prisoners. These were not taken by intrepid reporters, but by Nazi forces themselves. Also worth mentioning are the images captured of executions and cruelties committed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel movement in Sierra Leone. The RUF had employed their own photographer to document their actions. A prisoner managed to obtain the original negatives and smuggle them out of the country. They are currently being used as evidence in the Sierra Leone War Tribunal. On a less dramatic scale are the photos taken by Belgian paratroopers in Somalia (1993) and British soldiers in Iraq (2003) maltreating civilians. They were meant as private snapshots, but somehow found their way into the public sphere.

Some images manage to reach iconic status. Of course, it is impossible to say in hindsight that a certain photo changed world history; however, it is undeniable that when contemplating the Vietnam War, the image of a crying girl, on fire, running down the road after a napalm strike by U.S. forces, often comes to mind. In recalling the war in the former Yugoslavia, one is likely to remember the image of starving camp inmates behind barbed wire. For a photographer, it is the greatest honor to not only have taken images that influenced the way world events unfolded, but to also see these same images reprinted over and over again in history books. It is hoped that future generations will learn something from them.

SEE ALSO Films, Holocaust Documentary


Sontag, Susan (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Voeten, Teun (1999). "Neo-Vulturism in Contemporary Documentary Photography." In A Ticket To. . . . Leiden, Netherlands: Veenman.

Voeten, Teun (2002). How de Body? One Man's Terrifying Journey through an African Country. New York: St. Martins Press.

Teun Voeten