Suicide and Starvation: the role of the photographer

As one would expect, there are many powerfully shocking images being exhibited at the National Theatre for the Press Photographer’s Year 2010. The politics, conflicts and disasters of 2009 and early 2010 have ensured this: earthquakes in Haiti and Indonesia, ongoing war in Afghanistan, armed combat in Pakistan, an election campaign in Britain.

But the photograph which makes me baulk has nothing to do with world-historical events. It is Gareth Iwan Jones’ shot of a man falling (no. 49 in the slideshow): halfway between bridge and ground he is sprawled in the sky, his tee-shirt pushed up by the rushing air to cover his face. The caption: “an unidentified man in his fifties jumps to his death from the Avonmouth Bridge on the M5 near Bristol”.

The overwhelming grey tones of the bridge and the serene green fields beyond lend the image a deceptive stillness; and as the initial brain freeze of shock and horror palls I realise how much more effective the image is for being a single, still frame. An eerie truth becomes apparent: when the photograph was taken the man was alive, but he would be dead within seconds and nothing could have stopped that.

This is at the root of what distinguishes Jones’ picture from the rest of the photographs: it is an image of the culmination of someone’s suffering. Desolation and distress are ubiquitous in this exhibition – the only (partial) exceptions are the Sports Folios and the Portrait section – but every other shot is taken in the aftermath of disastrous events. The man’s anguish is coming to an end, and that of his family is about to begin – yet until he hits the ground everything is suspended. And in the photograph he will never hit the ground.

Manifest is the terrible magic of the camera: it is an eye whose blink inscribes in light whatever is before the lens, an eye that is at once intelligent and brainless, an eye that acts upon and is acted upon equally. As a photographer, you can make things look a certain way, but essentially you are always working with what is in front of you – and the decision of whether to take the photograph at all is therefore paramount.

What is the role of the press photographer? From the gamut of images being exhibited at the National Theatre we may deduce that the press photographer raises awareness, helps open up discussions involving difficult or overlooked issues, illustrates news stories and captures important moments.

And should Gareth Iwan Jones have taken this photograph? At best, his shot has the potential to open up a much-needed discussion about male suicide (the suicide rate for men in the UK remains over twice that for women, says the Office of National Statistics) – but the image alone cannot do this; it needs contextualisation. Instead of an insightful adjunct, however, this photograph is accompanied by a caption whose second half cites the 20 mile queues along the M5 caused by the man’s suicide. But even a death that happens in a public space and causes hours of queues on a Bank Holiday weekend deserves sensitive treatment. Exhibited as it is at the National Theatre with such a caption, earning Jones recognition in the “live news” section of the prestigious Press Photographer’s Year competition, the photo takes on an opportunistic aspect. Almost all of the other photographs have captions which demonstrate an awareness of people and emotions, land and environment; it is galling that this is absent in arguably the most perturbing picture of the exhibition.

This brings to mind another disturbing and high-profile photograph which elicited similar discussion in the early 1990s. Kevin Carter’s shot of a starving, collapsed Sudanese child with her face turned down into the dusty ground, a vulture stalking her just feet away in the background, won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 1994 – and provoked a barrage of criticism. The charge was lead by the St Petersburg (Florida) Times, which claimed that Carter may as well have been “another vulture on the scene”. But the myopic argument of this paper and so many reactionary blogs – that Carter should have helped the child instead of photographing her – is utterly redundant.

Carter went to the Sudan because he felt that the famine and civil war there were being internationally overlooked; his image, in the words of Time magazine, “immediately became an icon of Africa’s anguish” and alerted the world to the crisis in the region. He did much for the plight of the Sudanese by keeping a cool head and sending his photographs to the New York Times. Carter, haunted by the images he had captured all over Africa and overwhelmed by personal and financial worries, committed suicide shortly after receiving his Pulitzer.

Am I asserting, then, that Jones should not have done on the micro what Carter did on the macro? Yes and no – I believe that Jones’ image, displayed as it is without context at the National Theatre, is occupying territory – the eggshell terrain of press photography – which should be denied to it. Carter’s image, though just as perturbing, nonetheless served a very apparent purpose, and its context in papers and magazines evinces this. The themes of time and death in Jones’ image are philosophically fascinating, and have great potential to stimulate a media discussion on suicide – but it needs to be handled rather more sensitively than its caption would suggest.

This brings us to the wider question of whether it is right to use an individual’s suffering to serve a purpose, even if this purpose is the amelioration of the subject’s own condition, and this is one of the difficult ethical questions at the crux of what it means to be a press photographer. The utilitarians among you may cry yes and the deontologists no, but my answer is that context is paramount and a balance must be maintained between what is achieved and what is lost, because we should never pretend that there is a “single way to suffer; there is no timeless and spaceless universal shape to suffering” (Arthur and Joan Kleinman in their 1996 article, “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images”).

Kevin Carter’s image is easily available online by typing “Kevin Carter Pulitzer Prize 1994” into a search engine.

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