Are pictures of suffering still effective in raising emotions in our society? Have we all become desensitized by the images of violence and death and victimization we see everyday, on TV, on the internet?
Yes and no. I think pictures can still affect us. A picture of a single starving child is still much better at encouraging people to be generous than figures on the debilitating reach of malnourishment throughout the world.
But I think our attention spans have shortened to the point that we no longer think about what the pictures mean (I mean, this is why I use short paragraphs). This is not to say that we think or feel nothing. We feel our initial reaction, our gut instinct of awe or sadness or pity as our mind processes the situation represented by the picture. Look at this photograph:
What was your reaction upon seeing this photo? Mine was initially, 'Oh, another starving child, how sad.' My attention was divided between this and the text and what the professor was saying, but it still seems to provide support for the "we are desensitized" theory, right? As the picture continued to stay up on the Powerpoint, however, I kept looking at it. And then I saw the vulture.
I was transfixed by horror. All I could think was 'Oh my god.'
But if the professor had put the picture on the screen and flipped to the next slide with a few words, leaving it up only for a few seconds, I wouldn't have understood the context. Then again though, isn't that the kind of environment we usually see these pictures in? On TV, with the anchor or a narrator speaking, and some sort of text every now and then, a quick flash of a picture in between to highlight the subject? Or online in an article, surrounded by text and flashing click-me ads?
Maybe we don't really look at the world around us anymore, and the same applies to these photographs. We're too engrossed in ourselves and the people around us, and even the world around us - but all in the form of our mental construction of these things. You could argue that everything we see is a mental construction, that's true, but my point is that we see what we expect to in pictures, not what's actually going on.
So I have an assignment for you. It's probably easiest to do online, when you have some control over the pictures you see. Next time you see a photograph that invokes some kind of gut reaction in you, stop and look more closely at it. Notice the details, ask where this was taken, who it was taken by, what the situation was, who the people are. Find out not just what the photographer took a picture of, but what she meant to show.