What do we see through the photographer's frame?
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What do we see through the photographer's frame?

Do media images of dead bodies make it harder for you to care?

Last month, an image of a father and daughter rocketed around the internet.

They were Salvadoran and had drowned while crossing the Rio Grande. The photograph showed their bodies on the banks of the river, the daughter’s head tucked under her father’s shirt.

Unlike other media outlets, Vox chose to hide this image behind a disclaimer. Visuals editor Kainaz Amaria told Record producer Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong that photos like this one make her wonder: “How desperate do you need see a group of people or a community in order to start caring?”

Cultural critic Sarah Sentilles, author of Draw Your Weapons, joined them. Photos like this are common, Sentilles said. She takes a screenshot every time she sees a body featured in the news. In fifteen years, she says she’s never seen a white body. What she has seen is images over and over of bodies in water, or parents and children, or even the Abu Ghraib torture photos – which were compared to images of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Kainaz Amaria and Sarah Sentilles speak with Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong about violent images

That’s a story of salvific violence, she says, and we should be aware of what happens when that logic is applied to the suffering of black and brown bodies.

“Because the images somehow feel familiar, or symbolic, they can be read as inevitable," Sentilles said. "They could be read as religious, and they could be read as general, instead of particular. And I think there’s a danger when images of suffering begin to feel familiar that way.”

With images of death, it’s hard not to have an emotional response. And yet both women agree that an emotional response is not enough.

For Sentilles, the appropriate response is political. As an editor, Amaria says, she can’t tell viewers and readers what to think. Her goal is to provide accuracy and context, and to frame the conversation around the subject.

“It’s really up to you to decide," Amaria said. "How are you going to act? Are you going to live differently? That’s up to you.”

Images shape our perceptions, and thus our prejudices. When Sentilles taught a course on photography and war, she would name a country and ask her students to write down all the words that occurred to them – words like rubble, dead bodies, explosion, desert, cave.

She asked her students to think carefully about that.

“What does it mean that when you think of those other countries, you think of destruction and devastation? And how does that narrative about those countries play into militarism? It’s easier to bomb a country if you think there’s nothing there anyway.”

These photographs are not likely to stop. Given that, how might viewers change the way they see these images?

Sentilles suggested that each person be assigned a single image of violence – just one, and then take their entire lifetime to figure out a way that no one would ever have to experience that violence again.

Amaria encouraged viewers to look beyond the frame.

"Really take the time to honor their lives – and understand why this frame exists, to begin with,” she said.