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Is There an Ethical Way to Capture Pain?

By Amrita Bhatia

The two documentaries I discuss in this article are ‘Survivors’ and ‘Still Recording’ screened as a part of the ‘17th Festival du Film et Forum International sur les Droits Humains’ (FIFDH), held in Geneva from 8th to 17th March, 2019. In this span of 10 days, the FIFDH screened films related to human rights violations and showcased debates among diplomats, NGOs, survivors, artists, activists, journalists and others on the same.

Capturing conflict, pain, and suffering on camera is perhaps the most morally-challenging task visual artists face. Generally seen as a medium to express your own self, the task of showing what others feel puts the artist in a rather precarious position regarding ethical questions of what to record and show. At the same time, one does wonder how these moments will be recorded in history, if not via the advantage of audio-visual medium today. Two questions now become important: first, is the purpose of these documentaries to record a set of events and experiences as a part of recording history, or is it to spread awareness in the contemporary world? Second, in considering who is watching them and how the films are made, how ethical is it to record people as they experience pain?

The two documentaries look at different instances of immense affliction. Still Recording records the violence caused by and during the civil war in Syria after the Arab Spring of 2011. We see this primarily through the eyes of two young men — one, a dutiful soldier and the other, a rebel full of revolutionary zeal. We see bombings, death, conversations, and their daily lives from their physical perspective. The few times that subjects interact with the audience are very powerful, almost conversational, but not seeking sympathy. Survivors explores the Ebola epidemic of 2014 in Sierra Leone, and the protagonist is the driver of an ambulance. Apart from driving patients, he is involved in rescuing people where he physically carries a patient by himself. He is ill-treated by the authorities, but is eventually acknowledged and remunerated for his efforts.

A commonality between the two is that the interviews are always shown as an attempt for survivors and spectators to express their discontent, as against asking for help and mercy. Interviews were always shown in a square frame, as if telling the audience to only focus on the facial expressions of the interviewee. As in other media, we only see a version of reality; in Survivors the visuals of an ambulance driving through markets, lanes, residential areas becomes a visual used repeatedly as a lens into something more than the epidemic – the surroundings, the environment, the “normal”. 

It is probably too strong a criticism to say that visual media does not take into account the ethics of filming faces and identities of people involved in these painful experiences. Far from taking into consideration concepts like consent and permission, I wonder if there is a loss of empathy on the end of the people behind the camera. As we see in popular media today, there is a degree of desensitisation that can be accredited to wide availability of images that show violence. Anthropologists Patricia Spyer and Mary Margaret Steedly, point out that “visual media technologies not only “select” particular audiences but also “train” those audiences in specific modes of spectatorship and enjoyment”; these videos seem to be aimed at eliciting a specific response from the viewer that is beyond disdain and pity — empathy. The context of the screening significantly impacts audiences. If it is people in similar situations of political turmoil, or publics unaware of the same, is the purpose being met? If it is people in privileged spaces and positions of power, do they really need to see harsh visuals to be able to understand the extent of a problem?

This brings us back to the question of the ethics of filming individuals who are, in that moment, experiencing pain, and also the beautification of the same. The debate around aestheticising these visuals is rather tricky. While on the one hand it does help to question what constitutes as beauty and would it lead to more hunger of such scenes, on the other hand, aestheticising would contribute to enhancing the moral and political context of the visual, and evoke “desired” responses. In the two documentaries mentioned, there were few scenes in which suffering was romanticised or made into a spectacle. The documentaries both attempted to personalise and depersonalise people in the frame — we are shown scenes of crowds and commotion where we can hardly see faces, but also shown close-ups of people injured, moaning in pain, or dead. 

In some cases, the audience is told a short backstory, but others remain estranged bodies. Both can become spectacles in their own way, but spectacles don’t always have to be celebrated; they have the potential to set the wheels running for changing situations of those (very real) people. These responses are probably the kind that directors of both movies hope to extract. At the same time, art historian Hans Belting talks about the fact that responses are constantly evolving, and visual media provide answers that would only satisfy a few, at a given point in time. How these responses are created generally depends on the question of ‘how’ the subjects of an image and the image itself are being portrayed and created, as Belting puts it  — “The how is the true statement, the real speech of pictures.” The contract of the visual presentation is no longer simply between the subject and the artist, but also includes the audience.

On a side note, there was also a very apparent non-inclusive representation in both documentaries. We often associate civil war with soldiers fighting, young men rebelling and other masculinist images of bloodshed and war, what is often left out of these representations is the aspect of gender. Still Recording did not show a single woman’s perspective on the happenings in her homeland, whereas issues such as sexual assault, trafficking of young girls, and radicalisation of women have been rather common instances. In the movie Survivors, we see women in two forms: either mothers whose labour pain is filmed and then valorised, or nurses complaining about bad working conditions and low wages. Apart from one woman’s interview, we hardly see them as agents who are facing the epidemic as it is. Our sources of knowledge in both movies are two men. This makes me wonder if the makers of these well-received documentaries even acknowledge the gendered paradigm of these socio-political events that occur, or if we still live in a world where the masculine experience is deemed as the human experience. Is this ignorance not violent?

Maybe, instead of asking what is ethical or unethical, a conversation about the visuals being helpful despite being unethical would provide more closure. Having said that, a response to the question of ethics and portraying pain could be that these films say something rather powerful, perhaps something that should be more impactful than the violent incidents portrayed. That much of this was shown as the “default” for Syria and Sierra Leone. That this is the “normal” and the mundane everyday.


This article was first released in the first print publication of the Graduate Press. Download the Spring 2019 print edition here.

Title image by Riya Sarin.

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