“An Ethics of Unidentifiable Suffering: Spectatorship, Responsiveness, and Photos from the War in Syria”

I had a marvelous time at the Photography and Its Publics symposium in Prato, Italy this past April, and I’m thrilled to be included in the edited volume that the organizers are putting together.  Here is the abstract:

Despite the intractability of the war in Syria, a curious optimism saturates its visuality.  So far unfounded but renewed with every documented atrocity, this optimism manifests as a certainty that photographs will inspire global publics to action on behalf of the war’s casualties.  Journalists, activists, government officials, academics, and even the combatants themselves locate the power of these photographs in their capacity to prompt spectators to identify with the suffering and loss they depict.  This model presumes that: images of dead children, like the casualties of Assad’s chemical weapons or Alan Kurdi, will remind spectators of the love they have for their own; the truck abandoned on the side of a Hungarian highway with the bodies of 71 migrants inside will spark a visceral empathy; and the antiquities destroyed by ISIS will provoke outraged mourning for a common cultural heritage.  Here, however, I aim to trouble this faith in identification, not simply on the grounds of its limited efficacy, but because it begets a form of spectatorship that privileges emotional response over ethical consideration, encouraging solipsism rather than meaningful attention to the suffering of others.

I begin with a consideration of the spectatorial challenges unique to the visuality of the war in Syria, a stochastic and unbounded conflict, and argue for a shift—both methodological and conceptual—away from the investment in identification.  This approach informs my analysis of the photos that have provoked the most intense optimism, as I parse out what kinds of identifications they invite and foreclose to provide a fuller account of the ethical and political consequences of this approach to images.  Rather than suggesting, however, that ‘better’ photos would facilitate ‘better’ identifications, I contend instead that a substantive spectatorial ethics for this conflict need not be predicated on identification at all.  Drawing on philosophical traditions of hospitality (especially apposite because the war has displaced more than ten million people), I conclude with a reflection on how hospitality might be translated into spectatorship.  Whereas spectatorships based on identification seek to refashion suffering others into familiarity, hospitable looking makes no such demand, responding to the sight of suffering even, or especially, when it seems incomprehensible.