Ethics of looking

The point of Harena Now is to raise awareness of myriad concerns relating to this crisis. This is central to the work.

To do this, I have chosen to create non-documentary images using camera-less techniques to create abstract imagery.

This is borne from my idea that images do not always need to be graphic to instigate a response. Therefore, as well as trying to bring an environmental and humanitarian issue to the fore of public consciousness, I am also investigating how we look at photography, and how we respond to it. There are myriad ethical considerations in how we share and react to photographs.

In her 2010 talk Photography and the Ethics of Looking, Alison Nordstrom (curator and photographic historian) speaks about how our cultures, our friends, our family shape our own moral and ethical compass.

She says that in the Second World War, Life magazine chose not to reproduce photographs of dead soldiers. A decision taken by the editorial/publishing team as a collective but probably also driven by personal views.

Nordstrom also mentions how online photo sharing companies have had to provide counselling to those employed to monitor them. Due to the nature of some of the pictures, they were considered too damaging to bear witness.

As a former medical photographer I can understand how upsetting pictures of graphic mutilation can be, especially if a viewer is not mentally prepared to cope with what they may see.

Yet as a former journalist, there is also the argument that not to share images and enable people to be educated and informed, and decided for themselves is also a dangerous game.

Whichever route taken, to censor or to show, the content, the way it is disseminated, the context all play a huge role in how the image and its story is understood. Even then, personal beliefs can still colour the outcome.

Deciding on how, where and when to publish graphic pictures has been an issue since the beginning of photography. But as it has become much easier to share work worldwide via the internet, terms such as compassion fatigue have found a place in photographic discourse.  

Director of Communications and Engagement at World Press Photo Foundation David Campbell challenged this phenomenon even exists in his 2012 paper (first draft) called, The Myth of Compassion Fatigue.  

In it he points out Susan Sontag’s change of stance from supporting this idea in On Photography to her questioning its veracity in Regarding the Pain of Others (2012; 7) 

In the first book she claimed “concerned” photography had “done as least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it” (1977: 21). This implies that it simply cancels itself out, which would back up Campbell’s point that compassion fatigue is not real. 

By the time Sontag writes Regarding the Pain of Others, even though she still calls viewers of “concerned” photography “voyeurs” (2003: 38) she has started to question her assertions from 30 years previous. She asks: “What is the evidence that photographs have a diminishing impact, that our culture of spectatorship neutralises the moral force of photographs of atrocities?”(2013: 94).

In her 2012 book The Cruel Radiance, Susie Linfield described how postmodern photography critics have swayed the public’s view of documentary photographs, expressing the thought that to avert one’s eyes is “considered a virtue”.(2012: 12).

But if we choose to blind ourselves to harrowing documentary photographs then I believe there is potential for my abstract images to provide a different frame through which audiences can deal with distressing or concerning topics. 

For those who cannot bear to look yet still want to know perhaps my work, which has itself turned away from harrowing detail, can nurture action through a more persuasive and gentle means.


CAMPBELL, David. 2012. ‘Myth of Compassion Fatigue’. p. 7. Available at: [accessed August 1, 2018].

LINFIELD, Susie. 2010. The Cruel Radiance. London: The University of Chicago Press.

NORDSTROM, Alison. 2010. ‘Alison Nordstrom: Photography and the Ethics of Looking’. Available at: [accessed August 1, 2018].

SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. London: Penguin Books.

SONTAG, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin Books.