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‘The Arithmetic of Compassion’: Rethinking the Politics of Photography

  • James Johnson

Compassion, theorists from Arendt to Nussbaum suggest, carries an ineluctable pressure to identify with individual suffering. The very idea of a politics of compassion verges on incoherence. Politics typically demands attention to the aggregate and it is just there that compassion falters. This is a problem for critics addressing the politics of photography, who typically presume that the point of photographs must be to elicit compassion among viewers. But a proper understanding of compassion makes this presumption highly problematic. The role of compassion in exemplary writings on the politics of photography reflects a fixation with ‘emblematic’ individual subjects in ‘classic’ American documentary practice, which prevents critics from properly grasping the best of contemporary documentary. The conclusion is that promoting solidarity provides a more plausible, if elusive, aim for the politics of photography.

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1 Herbert, Zbigniew, ‘Mr. Cogito Reads the Newspaper’, in Zbigniew Herbert, trans. J. and B. Carpenter, Mr. Cogito (London: Ecco Press, 1993), p. 16 (copyright Harper Collins Publishers; reprinted with permission).

2 For present purposes, I accept the now conventional dichotomy between art and documentary photography. For a brief, critical assessment of this dichotomy and its baleful effects, see Johnson, James, ‘What to do with Invidious Distinctions?’ Art Signal (Barcelona), Spring 2007, pp. 3744.

3 Rosler, Martha, ‘Post-Documentary, Post-Photography?’ Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975–2001 (Boston, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004), p. 221.

4 Hence, ‘always, in documentary, there is the presumption that understanding somehow might, in the best of all worlds, lead to action’ (Miles Orvell, After the Machine: Visual Arts and the Erasing of Cultural Boundaries (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), p. 100). Compare Reinhardt, Mark, ‘Picturing Violence’, in Mark Reinhardt, et al., eds, Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (Ann Arbor: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 1314.

5 Berger, , ‘Photographs of Agony’, p. 281, stress in original.

6 Berger, , ‘Photographs of Agony’, p. 281. Although a full discussion of this matter is beyond the scope of this article, it nevertheless is important to note that the distinction between political action and support for humanitarian intervention hardly has remained static in the decades since Berger wrote this essay. Although it remains distinct from popular political mobilization in response to war and other forms of mass devastation, observers note that the activity of humanitarian organizations has become increasingly politicized. Those observers disagree about the complex consequences of that tendency. See, for instance, the exchange between Barnett, Michael, ‘Humanitarianism Transformed’, Perspectives on Politics, 3 (2005), 723740, and Stein, Janice, ‘Humanitarianism as Political Fusion’, Perspectives on Politics, 3 (2005), 741744.

7 It is now a commonplace, for instance, that famine is a product not of absolute lack of food but of mal-distributed entitlement to such food as exists. Thus, from this perspective, famine is best conceptualized as a political-economic rather than ‘natural’ phenomenon. See Sen, Amartya, Poverty and Famines (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981). This insight has been extended lately by analyses of other sorts of ‘natural’ disasters. See, for instance, Kahn, Matthew, ‘The Death Toll From Natural Disasters: The Role of Income, Geography and Institutions’, Review of Economics and Statistics, 87 (2005), 271284. Hence, ‘photographs of agony’ of the sort that concern Berger follow not only upon war, but on a variety of what turn out to be man-made disasters.

8 Rosler, , ‘In, around, and afterthoughts’, p. 179.

9 Rosler, Martha, ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’. In Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975–2001 (Boston, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 195,197 (n. 1), 178. Rosler originally published this essay in 1981.

10 Linfield, Susie, ‘Beyond the Sorrow and the Pity’, Dissent (Winter 2001), pp. 100106, succinctly dissects the way critics and commentators unselfconsciously recapitulate the predicament Rosler and Berger identify. She offers a powerful, unapologetically critical analysis of James Nachtwey's photography that nicely deflects the common presumption that the only viable responses to them are equally facile charity or hopelessness. At the same time, she indicts writers for several popular periodicals who resentfully insist that Nachtwey poses viewers that restrictive choice. Unlike Rosler, Berger and herself, of course, the writers Linfield criticizes never entertain the possibility of a political response to war and other sorts of human devastation or, perhaps more importantly, why no such response seems to exist. I return to Nachtwey's work in what follows.

11 Arendt, Hannah, On Revolution (Harmondsworth, Midx.: Penguin, 1973), pp. 7398. One need not embrace the use to which Arendt herself puts this analysis of compassion – a reconstruction of the ‘revolutionary tradition’ – to find it useful in the current context. She may have been drawn to analyse the troublesome role of compassion in politics by her worries about the dire consequences that follow when the political sphere is infiltrated by ‘social’ considerations. However, Arendt's insight into the conceptual structure of compassion is not, in my estimation, limited either by her broad distinction between social and political matters or by her related differentiation of emotion, passion and reason. Indeed, as I argue in the next section, more recent treatments of compassion largely, if inadvertently, sustain conclusions quite similar to Arendt's regarding the political irrelevance of compassion even as they are motivated by quite divergent preoccupations and sustained by quite different premises.

12 Arendt speaks of ‘passion, the capacity for suffering, and compassion, the capacity for suffering with others’, where the latter consists in being ‘stricken with the suffering of someone else as though it were contagious.’ (Arendt, On Revolution, pp. 81, 85.)

13 Arendt, On Revolution, p. 85. In this sense, her conceptual analysis is consistent with recent psychological research. See Slovic, Paul, ‘“If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act”; Psychic Numbing and Genocide’, Judgment and Decision Making, 2 (2007), 7995, and Paul Slovic, ‘Numbed by Numbers’, Foreign (13 March 2007). In the latter report, Slovic insists that in the face of numbers compassion declines precipitously. He writes: ‘When writer Annie Dillard was struggling to comprehend the mass human tragedies that the world ignores, she asked, “At what number do other individuals blur for me?” … Our research suggests that the blurring of individuals may begin as early as the number two … If this is true, its no wonder compassion is absent when deaths number in the hundreds of thousands (stress added).’

14 To the best of my knowledge, Arendt does not explain how compassion works to do this. It is not difficult, however, to see how she might do so. Spelman, Elizabeth, Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1997), pp. 6566, suggests that for Arendt this is relatively straightforward. If I feel compassion for another, I must recognize her pain and respond to it with a kind of certainty that is at odds with the presuppositions of political debate and discussion, namely a willingness to advance and address competing assessments of the matter at hand. Alternatively, one might connect Arendt's discussion to Elaine Scarry's extended treatment of how pain ‘is language destroying’. If compassion consists in partaking of the suffering of another, even such vicarious experience of pain might well undermine one's capacity to speak out ( Scarry, Elaine, The Body in Pain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985)). While I do not explore the matter here, it is possible that both of these factors might operate simultaneously.

15 Here, one should recall the remarks of Rosler and Berger cited above about how photography invites humanitarian gestures rather than concerted political action.

16 Arendt, On Revolution, p. 86.

17 Susie Linfield draws on Arendt's reflections on the relation of pity, compassion and solidarity in ways that intersect with my concerns here. Unfortunately, Linfield does not quite capture the relationship between compassion and pity, even though I do think her call for solidarity is, as I suggest below, just right. It is the tendency of compassion to transmute into pity that makes it imperative to understand that solidarity is a quite distinct alternative. See Linfield, Susie, ‘Memuna, Almost Smiling’, Dissent (Spring 2004), pp. 7277.

18 Arendt, , On Revolution, p. 85.

19 Arendt, , On Revolution, p. 89.

20 Arendt, , On Revolution, p. 85.

21 Arendt, , On Revolution, p. 89.

22 Arendt, , On Revolution, pp. 85, 89.

23 Nussbaum, Martha, Women and Human Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Nussbaum, Martha, Sex and Social Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). Interestingly enough, there seems to be little direct overlap between these writings and Nussbaum's work on compassion.

24 Nussbaum, Martha, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of the Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 297454. See also Nussbaum, Martha, ‘Compassion and Terror’, Dædalus, 132 (2003), 1026, and ‘Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion’, Social Philosophy and Policy, 13 (1996), 27–58. Notice here that Nussbaum treats compassion as an emotion and so departs from Arendt quite quickly.

Nussbaum’s claim that emotions and reason are inextricably if variously intertwined is not unique. Especially helpful in this regard are Rorty, Amelie, ‘Varieties of Rationality and Varieties of Emotion’, Social Science Information, 24 (1985), 343353, and Spelman, Elizabeth, ‘Anger: The Diary’, in Robert Solomon, ed., Wicked Pleasures (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).

25 Nussbaum, , Upheavals of Thought, pp. 306, 321.

26 Nussbaum, , Upheavals of Thought, p. 414.

27 On this point, see Nussbaum, ‘Compassion’, p. 37 and Waldron, Jeremy, Liberal Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 228.

28 Nussbaum, , Upheavals of Thought, pp. 398–9, 401, 435.

29 Nussbaum, , Upheavals of Thought, pp. 401, 403, 422.

30 Nussbaum, , Upheavals of Thought, p. 301.

31 Nussbaum, , Upheavals of Thought, p. 321.

32 Nussbaum, , Upheavals of Thought, pp. 409, 453, stress supplied.

33 Nussbaum, , Upheavals of Thought, pp. 420–2. See also Nussbaum, ‘Compassion and Terror’, p. 16.

34 Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others (New Year: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). Of this book, one sympathetic commentator recently has observed: ‘What is now most striking about Sontag's argument is that it is not so much about photography but about compassion, an emotion and an ethic that photographs can awaken or undermine.’ See Solnit, Rebecca, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. 231.

35 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, pp. 26–7.

36 This seems to be a continuing worry for Sontag: ‘To suffer is one thing; another is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them.’ ( Sontag, Susan, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977) p. 20.) Sontag makes this remark in the context of personal reflection on the deadening effects that viewing photographs of Nazi prison camps had on her as a child. In that context, it surely is unobjectionable. But she quickly moves on to accuse social documentary as a whole of being morally anæsthetizing. In that context – presumably of adult viewers – I find her anguish astounding, as though the burden resides in being subjected to images of suffering rather than in the existence or persistence of actual suffering.

Arendt would agree with Sontag on the importance of discriminating between authentic and facile forms of compassion. As she observes: ‘We call compassion what I feel when somebody else suffers and this feeling is authentic only so long as I realize that it is, after all, not I but somebody else who suffers.’ ( Arendt, Hannah, Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken, 2003), p. 148.) From this perspective, the prospect of anæsthetizing effects that worries Sontag seems singularly repugnant. But our opprobrium would most accurately be aimed less at photographers than at those viewers who take images of suffering as an excuse for succumbing to self-pity.

37 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, pp. 1, 125–6.

38 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 99.

39 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 101.

40 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, pp. 40–3.

41 Some readers may find this characterization unfair. But in the ‘Afterword: Thirty Years Later’ to her Against Interpretation (New York: Picador, 1996), p. 309, Sontag admits to being ‘a barely closeted moralist’.

42 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 42.

43 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, pp. 60–1.

44 Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, pp. 78–9; Salgado, Sebastião, Migrations: Humanity in Transition (New York: Aperture, 2000). See also his earlier project – Salgado, Sebastião, Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age (New York: Aperture, 1993).

45 The most egregious instance of such complaints is Ingrid Sischey, ‘Good Intentions’, originally published in the New Yorker (September 1991) and reprinted in Herron, Liz and Williams, Val, eds, Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850's to the Present (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996). For similar and more recent, if also more nuanced, criticisms of Salgado, see Orvell, Miles, After the Machine (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), pp. 97113; Danto, Arthur, The Abuse of Beauty (Chicago: Open Court, 2003), pp. 112113; and Kimmelman, Michael, ‘Photography Review: Can Suffering Be Too Beautiful?’ New York Times, 13 July 2001, p. E27; Stallabrass, Julian, ‘Sebastião Salgado and Fine Art Photojournalism’, New Left Review, No. 223 (1997), 131160; and Levi Strauss, David, Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics (New York: Aperture, 2003), pp. 311, 42–50, each defend Salgado against such complaints in persuasive, if still critical ways.

46 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, pp. 78–9.

47 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, pp. 79–80.

48 Sontag, , On Photography, pp. 31–48.

49 Sontag, , On Photography, pp. 34–5, 47.

50 Sontag, , On Photography, pp. 33, 40. For some of the work Sontag criticizes, see Arbus, Diane, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (New York: Aperture, 1997).

51 Sontag, , On Photography, pp. 36, 42.

52 Sontag, , On Photography, pp. 34, 42, 58.

53 Sontag, , On Photography, pp. 32, 33, 41.

54 Rosler, , ‘In, around and afterthoughts’, pp. 324–5.

55 Orvell, Miles. American Photography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 115. See also the conception that documentary photographs convey an ‘individuated aggregate’ in Robert Harriman and John Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy (Ann Arbor: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 53–67, 87–92, 163.

56 Lange came to documentary work from a successful career as a portrait photographer. In her recent biography of Lange, historian Linda Gordon suggests that she democratized the practice of portraiture by photographing working people with the same artistry and technique she had used on her wealthy clients. Moreover, Gordon stresses that Lange quite consciously came to focus her photographs on individuals because she believed that that was the most effective way to generate an active political response in viewers. And while Gordon does not draw an explicit connection between Lange's political views and her photographic strategies, she does note that Lange embraced a staunchly individualist politics. See Gordon, Linda, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), pp. 213224, 136.

57 See Nachtwey, James, Inferno (London: Phaidon Press, 1999).

58 Cruickshank, Douglas, ‘James Nachtwey's Inferno: Pictures from an Exhibition – in Hell’, (10 April 2000).

59 Nachtwey, James, ‘Afterward’, Inferno, p. 470.

60 Nachtwey, , ‘Afterward’, p. 469.

61 See, for instance, Salgado, Sebastião, ‘Migrations’, in Sebastião Salgado et al., Migrations: The Work of Sebastião Salgado (Occasional Paper No. 26: Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, University of California, Berkeley, 2002), p. 6, and Salgado, Sebastião, ‘Workers’, in Ken Light, ed., Witness in Our Time: Working Lives of Documentary Photographers (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), pp. 111112.

62 ‘A Tragedy the Size of the Planet’, Guardian, 28 May 2001, G2, p. 10. This article is a partial transcription of a dialogue between John Berger and Sebastião Salgado. It is hard to know with confidence what Salgado means here, given that English is at most his third language. I gloss ‘only’ as ‘merely’, and not therefore as holding out the prospect of starting with compassion and supplementing it with some additional motivation.

63 For purposes of argument, I follow Miles Orvell, After the Machine, p. 101, and focus on the way Salgado's images appear in ‘book form since that is the more permanent and universally available medium of publication and because it offers in many ways a more complex presentation of the materials than the exhibition’. Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, pp. 121–2, first concedes something like Orvell's point, then immediately takes it back, noting: ‘Still, at some moment the book will be closed. The strong emotion will become a transient one.’ Yet of what performance or exhibition or text is that not true? Sontag does not say.

64 Salgado describes this approach in ‘Workers’, pp. 112–13. There he insists that he does not pursue a single ‘good’ picture or even a number of good pictures, but seeks to produce a sequence of images that, in combination, he ‘can use to communicate something’. As a result, when viewing his work, “each picture has a strong and often striking individuality, but gains a function only within the whole, a sequence of many sequences.’ The impact of this strategy, ‘of his suggesting links, through sequences of pictures and sequences of these sequences … is the perception of something ungraspable within the frame’ ( Stallabrass, , ‘Sebastião Salgado and Fine Art Journalism’, pp. 146, 154). Likewise, the ‘relations among the images in Salgado's ongoing essays reveal a conflicted and often concealed history’ (Levi-Strauss, Between the Eyes, p. 44). These observations, prompted by Salgado's previous project on labour, clearly apply to Migrations as well. Indeed, Salgado is quite explicit that his work on migrations emerged in part from observations made during his work on the earlier project.

65 Maynard, Patrick, The Engine of Visualization (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), pp. 9497, 106–9.

66 ‘[D]epictive perception … involves a complicity that mere representation does not: that is, participation through reflexive imagining about our own perceptual activities … When we look at a picture depictively – for example, a photographic picture of something – we imagine our own actual looking, and that is an aspect of our action that we may find fulfilling, enjoyable, uninteresting, unpleasant, distasteful. This is what makes a picture graphic.’ See Maynard, The Engine of Visualization, p. 109, and cf. Berger: ‘Photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious’, Selected Essays, p. 216.

67 Salgado, , ‘Migrations’, p. 3.

68 Salgado, , ‘Migrations’, p. 8. Thus, David Levi Strauss is right in suggesting that Salgado ‘works in the realm of collective subjectivities’ ( Strauss, Levi, Between the Eyes, p. 49).

69 It is important to reiterate that I am neither concerned here fully to explore Arendt's thought nor fully to reconstruct her views. On the matter of solidarity alone, this is a large, complicated task. See, for instance, Reshaur, Ken, ‘Concepts of Solidarity in the Political Theory of Hannah Arendt’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 25 (1992), 723736. Reshaur identifies four distinct conceptions of solidarity in Arendt. The possibility I extend here is what he terms ‘inclusive’ solidarity.

70 Arendt, , On Revolution, p. 88.

71 Arendt, , On Revolution, pp. 88–9.

72 Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 195, xvi.

73 Rorty, , Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, p. 192.

74 Rorty, , Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, pp. 93, 190.

75 For a succinct statement of the view of principles of the sort that I believe Rorty rejects, see Rawls, John, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 83.

76 Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and Social Hope (Harmondsworth, Midx.: Penguin, 1999), pp. 7290.

77 Arendt, , On Revolution, p. 89.

78 According to Arendt, principles operate in politics quite differently from motives. ‘Principles do not operate from within the self as motives do … but inspire, as it were, from without’ (see Arendt, Hannah, ‘What is Freedom’, in Beyond Past and Future (College Park, Md.: Meridian Books, 1963), p. 152). For Arendt, then, the difference seems to be one of location. What is at stake here is not the Kantian distinction, to which Rorty objects, between such emotions as pity, benevolence and compassion that are seen as ‘empirical’ and principles or moral obligations that are taken to be rationally grounded. Instead, we are differentiating between emotions and sentiments as psychological dispositions and principles as linguistic – or as Rorty might prefer, rhetorical – tools (see Rorty, , Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, pp. 192–198).

79 My discussion here is indebted to Nozick, Robert, The Nature of Rationality (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993), especially his opening chapter, ‘How to Do Things with Principles’.

80 Nozick, , The Nature of Rationality, pp. 4–5.

81 Rorty, Richard, Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 185.

82 Nozick, , The Nature of Rationality, pp. 133–5, 172–81.

83 Rorty, , Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, p. 192. See also the remarks on solidarity scattered throughout the interviews gathered in Rorty, Richard, Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006), pp. 32, 61, 74–5, 104).

84 Castles, Stephen, ‘The International Politics of Forced Migration’, in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds, Fighting Identities: Race, Religion and Ethno-Nationalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002).

85 Salgado, , ‘Migrations’, p. 2.

* Department of Political Science, University of Rochester (email: ). Earlier versions of this article were presented to audiences at the University of Florida, the University of Maryland, the University of Oregon, Ohio State University, Columbia University, University College Dublin and the University of Richmond. The author is grateful to all who offered comments, however sceptical, on those occasions. Caroline Kobick provided both excellent research assistance and friendship. He thanks Mark Reinhardt and Susan Orr for their comments and encouragement, and expresses his debt to three readers for this Journal for demanding greater clarity and to Albert Weale, who took a chance that other editors might not have taken. This paper is for Douglas Milano-Johnson and his ongoing effort to master his camera.

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