Bearing Witness to Social Suffering: The Emotional and Social Complexity of Social Documentary Photography

Monday, July 14, 2014: 10:45 AM
Room: Booth 57
Oral Presentation
John VAIL , Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom
There is a highly contested debate in the social sciences and the humanities about the artistic bearing of witness to social suffering. If we take the paradigmatic case of social documentary photography, does prolonged exposure of individuals to images of social suffering have de-politicizing effects, dulling empathy and leading to compassion fatigue or does it spark an empathetic imagination and ethical reflection, and thereby stimulate an active solidarity and sense of shared responsibility that constitutes a cultural pathway to an active citizenship. Although we sympathize with the latter judgment, we admit this is based more on wilful optimism than persuasive evidence because, in actual fact, there has been very little rigorous social science research investigating this debate.

We are attempting to partially redress this oversight through on ongoing research project with the Side Gallery in Newcastle, UK.  For over 35 years, the Side has hosted exhibitions of social documentary photography, many of which have been dedicated to exploring large scale social and political transformations with a special focus on social suffering and hidden injuries. For each exhibition, the gallery has kept a comments book and we have coded and analysed a sample of 25 exhibitions across three decades featuring diverse forms of social suffering and distinct subjects.  

We use these contemporaneous comments to trace how the images impacted on individual emotional states (what kind of emotions were triggered, whether particular images generated specific responses). We also explore whether these exhibitions acted as a force for social learning: increasing people’s understanding of social complexity and power; recovering people in the photos as proper subjects, worthy of dignity in their own right; and enhancing knowledge of possible alternatives. Finally, we are interested in whether we can observe how individuals employ distinct ethical, emotional and critical judgments when encountering these kinds of images.