A Picture Might Say A Thousand Words, But…

Week 3: Looking At Others: mediated suffering and ‘poverty porn’

A single photograph has the ability to evoke the deepest emotions, generate conversation and change, transform a story into something that is newsworthy and eye -catching. On the other hand, it also has the potential to cause harm and unwanted distress. We are bombarded with emerging news stories every single day. Although it may be the job of journalists and media editors to break away from all the competition in order to grab our attention, but is it necessary to expose the public to images of suffering? I would like to say no, but unfortunately it seems we only seem to notice or even care if there is photographic evidence of an issue or crisis.

As discussed in the lecture, suffering may be visible, but not seen. So, who suffers more when faced with an image of suffering? Is it the victim presented in the photograph, or is it the viewer? Of course it should be the victim, but is that how we react when we are confronted with these images? When we do see an image of suffering, we immediately feel empathy for those in the photograph. Whilst we sit there thinking about how bad we feel about what we’ve seen, we tend to forget that the victim is actually suffering and for the most part, they need our help. Personally, I think the reason we react in such a way is because we are desensitised to what is happening overseas. We aren’t used to seeing images of people suffering. We’re so used to amusing memes popping up on our Facebook page that when we something more serious, we don’t know how to appropriately act and respond.

So, what is the morally acceptable response of seeing suffering presented throughout the media? Is it okay to feel sorry for those in these images who are suffering? Boltanksi (1999) argues that spectators can actively involve themselves and others by talking about what they have seen and how they were affected by it. When these controversial and devastating images are presented to us, there is no denying what is said throughout the media is true and actually happening. These images encourage us to not only sympathise with the victim depicted in the photograph, but ultimately the issue at hand.

A prime example of this was the use of a controversial image of a young Syrian refugee who was found washed up along a Turkish shore. Not only did the photograph generate conversation about the devastating refugee crisis, it also brought the use controversial images throughout the media to light. Whether you saw the raw photograph or the censored version, the image itself was a powerful representation of the refugee crisis (Franklin 2015). It made us think about how serious the crisis was, and still is, and the lengths individuals were going to get away from harm and danger.


The controversy that also surrounded this image involved it being shared all over new and traditional media. Some users and viewers found the image too graphic and confronting to be on their television screen, the front page of their newspaper or their news feed. Although this image represented the reality of the refugee crisis, the real question we should be asking ourselves is whether those that published the uncensored image used it for the right reasons. Did certain media outlets use this image of suffering as a tool to draw more attention to the refugee crisis or as a click bait strategy to gain more views or to sell more copies of their newspaper?



Boltanski, L 1999, Distant suffering: morality, media and politics, University Press, Cambridge.

Franklin, TE 2015, ‘How a single photograph may be changing the way the world thinks’, Vice News, 5 September, viewed 3 April 2016, <https://news.vice.com/article/how-a-single-photograph-may-be-changing-the-way-the-world-thinks>

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s