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Art for Justice not Pulitzer

September 25, 2009
Omayra Sanchez, 13 year-old victim of the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, Frank Fournier

Omayra Sanchez, 13 year-old victim of the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, Frank Fournier

Ever since the evolution of the Printing Press by Johannes Gutenberg, there has been an ongoing debate on the social responsibility of journalists and the role of the media. Art as a weapon of activism is the subject of this article, which has in the past made masses weep, from photographer Frank Fournier’s haunting image of Omayra Sanchez to Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning chilling picture of a vulture waiting to feed on a dying Sudanese toddler.

From its earlier stages, the printing press has been a threat to those in power and the political consequences of a free press are evident in the recent public uproar in the aftermath of the Iranian elections. Information is the fossil fuel of the present century run via social media and democracy is inevitable.

Tracing back in time, the rise of the printing press led to a sort of enlightenment and knowledge sharing experience, which has paved the way for the emergence of T.V and Radio to Internet and the vast category of social media networking sites, like Twitter and Facebook. As communication becomes a strategic stage for many, there is more need than ever before for truth to be reported behind facts, such that press can live up to its ultimate responsibility. Caught within this whirlwind of information exchange, should journalists simply witness and report or could they take on an investigative and more active role to fulfill their moral obligation to humanity?

From the terrifying images of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to the horrifying images of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, the power of still art is invincible. When the power is rightly invested in capturing undying moments from war, natural disasters and crisis situations, the pain of the victims can be felt by generations to come. The world does not need another nuclear explosion or inhumane prisoner abuse; the money spent towards funding war artillery needs to be invested in humanity dying in starvation to prevent another vulture feeding on a dying toddler.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Kevin Carter was not just a photographer, but both a witness and a victim of the suffering.  Carter committed suicide at 33 within three months of gaining fame for his photograph below. His suicide note read,


“I’m really, really sorry…the pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist…I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain… of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners” (Scott MacLeod, TIME).

Several other photographers, like Frank Fournier have often been criticized for their moral roles. In the case of Carter,

“Some journalists in South Africa called his prize a “fluke,” alleging that he had somehow set up the tableau. Others questioned his ethics. “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering,” said the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, “might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.” Even some of Carter’s friends wondered aloud why he had not helped the girl” (Scott MacLeod, TIME).

The International community needs to unite to end this stream of haunting images instead of creating more.

The horrifying images of Hiroshima, Abu Ghraib, Omayra Sanchez and the Sudanese toddler should not be rated and branded with a Pulitzer.

The mushroom cloud rising over Nagasaki, Japan. The city of Nagasaki was the target of the world’s second atomic bomb attack at 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945.

The mushroom cloud rising over Nagasaki, Japan. The city of Nagasaki was the target of the world’s second atomic bomb attack at 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945.

Abu Ghraib prison, Baghdad, Iraq (AP Photo/Courtesy of The New Yorker)

Abu Ghraib prison, Baghdad, Iraq (AP Photo/Courtesy of The New Yorker)

  1. Roxanne Samer permalink*
    September 26, 2009 10:32 pm

    In an ideal world, atrocities such as nuclear war, inhumane treatment of prisoners and child starvation would never occur and no documentation of them would thus exist. That being said, we live in an injustice world with extremely unbalanced centers of wealth, causing many to become prey to the imperialistic and militaristic power of the few. One of the primary ways any first world citizen knows of such atrocities being committed by their own and others’ leaders is through the public circulation of such photographs. While this article gives nods to the “power” of art and images, it ultimately and unfortunately categorizes this power as purely dangerous, failing to recognize its potential for education and provoking political action. Furthermore, it concludes with a call for a world-wide censorship of such photographs.Such a conclusion is incredibly vexing as one imagines a world where visual knowledge is barred when it comes to anything disturbing.

    Summarizing University of Chicago Professor W.J.T. Mitchell, perhaps the most outspoken and articulate academic on this subject, we live in a time characterized by a “sensuous spectrum of image anxiety,” where calls for contemporary iconoclasm, such as the one found at the end of this article, are frequent and yet ultimately ineffective and/or impossible.

    While images can create harmful graphic stereotypes and provoke violence (think of the Bush administration’s relatively recent utilization of Twin Tower photographs to coerce a country into supporting multiple ill-advised invasions in the Middle East), they can also be put into effective political circulation by those wishing to educate publics or subvert norms. One need only think of the hundreds of activists/artists (the Art Workers Coalition, Hans Haacke, Carolee Schneemann Barbara Kruger, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke, the Guerrilla Girls, Kara Walker or Cindy Sherman to name just a few American examples), who have utilized photographic and/or traumatic imagery in countless ways in order to draw attention to various forms of oppression or illuminate oft taken for granted sexualized stereotypes of women and people of color, in order to understand the positive potential such images carry with them.

    As someone unfamiliar with the entire Kevin Carter/Sudanese story, I cannot comment on any moral or immoral choices he might have made on scene or whether his work is worthy of a Pulitzer, but I can say that his photography holds the endless potential to provoke, reminding viewers of our world’s painful past. Photographs such as his own will serve as foils to the history written by the “winners,” by those who would rather forget the starving children in Sudan or tortured prisoners of Abu Ghraib. They will be taken up by artists and activists alike and activated in unimaginable ways, gaining further power to educate, subvert and stimulate critical thinking.

    While I do not believe such a power to be destructible, I do not understand why someone hoping for change would call for such a destruction in the first place. It seems irresponsible and naive. True hope for change is to be found in confronting such images, creating a dialogue around them and putting them into circulation in a conscientious manner.


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