News Media's Depiction of Human Suffering

M. Johannessen, 16 June 2005

( This essay is based on readings of Susan Sontag, Danny Schechter, Carolyn J. Dean, John Taylor, George Bataille, Leslie Mullen, B. Hoeijer, Gilbert Holleufer, Radford, Tuchman, Sarah Thomas and Enrique Ferrari. )


In the Information Age news media frequently use photographs to depict war, tragedies and suffering which happen around the world. News images strongly shape the world view of the public.
In an era of information overload, the public is being exposed to an increasing amount of images of horror and suffering in news media. Many of these images are powerful and emotional encounters with big disasters happening in distant parts of the world. The problem with these news images is that they so strongly shape the audience’s perception of the events they depict.
Due to new media technology, representations of atrocities and cathastrophies are instantly available to a global audience.
News media’s constructs of reality and news photographs are selections and even distortions of the event they depict. Due to these images status as representations of reality, they need to be critically investigated.

The news trend has developed from a focus on providing information toward a focus on entertaining a media audience. This can be especially problematic when depicting war and human suffering. It raises a range of dilemmas regarding the effects of these images; whether they appeal to feelings of empathy or lead to compassion fatigue. Whether they convey the truth or aim to be “artistic” and spectacular in order to fascinate the viewer. It is also important to ask whether they remain truthful to the subject or transform it into an object for voyeuristic pleasures.
The trend toward obscene depictions of suffering calls for ethical considerations. The degree of violation of human dignity is an important concept when analyzing all of these images.
It is important to look into the problematic aspects of the way news media communicates with its audience, and to ask whether the purpose is to truthfully document reality or to give entertaining, shocking or picturesque news spectacles.

News- a construction of reality

Journalists have an enormous amount of information to consider in the process of selecting ‘newsworthy’ information. Their job therefore requires a lot of sorting of information and decision- making as to whether the information will reach media audiences. In this process, journalists tend to cover the news which seems most sensational and will therefore easily and quickly reach the attention of the audience.
Media audience have a fascination for conflicts, sensations and catastrophes which happen in distant places. The journalist knows that this kind of news sells. The news phase “if it bleeds, it leads” is a guideline in news media which features a lot of conflicts and violence. (Radford, 2003)
In the Information age, media audiences are used to witness death, destruction and massacres on television or in news papers. Sontag says that “creating a perch for a particular conflict in the consciousness of the viewers exposed to dramas from everywhere requires the daily diffusion and rediffusion of snippets of footage about the conflict.” (Sontag, 2003, p. 19)
Journalists are agenda- setters, which means that they select the news and make representations of ‘newsworthy’ events which take place around the world. By choosing what part of reality to represent and how to represent it, journalists constructs reality. (Tuchman, 1978) Also, by choosing images which will represent a certain event or conflict, the news media aims to construct audiences perception of the conflict. Sontag says that “the understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of the impact of these images.” (Sontag, 2003, p.19) The photojournalist has a lot of power when deciding upon and making depictions of war and catastrophes. He strongly influences the way media audiences perceive and interprets these events. Thus he is responsible for any distortions of reality.

News photographs intend to depict what is going on around the world. They strongly shape the memory of these events. Because photographs appeal to emotions, they often linger in the viewers memory. Thus news photographs “affect the structuring of history and memory”. (Dean, 2003, p.91)

Compassion fatigue

Dean defines compassion fatigue as a “numbness explicitly conceived as a form of self- protective disassociation”. (Dean, 2003, p88) He argues that the limits on compassion is an effect of new media technologies and the way they represent war and suffering.
He says that the feeling of compassion is determined by our likeness to others. This means that distance in social situation, culture and race hinders identification and thus to a certain degree compassion.
When watching the photographs from Abu Ghraib people in the western world tend to identify themselves with the American abusers instead of the Iraqi victims. The photographs evokes anger at the abusers rather than compassion for the Iraqis.
Because the media audience in the Western world is regularly exposed to images of human suffering in distant parts of the world, they become less responsive because they are so used to seeing such images. When watching these images the viewer feels that there is nothing he can do about the situation anyway. This causes compassion fatigue.
Sontag says that it is not the quantity of images but the viewers passivity that dulls feeling; compassion “needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” (Sontag, 2003, p.90)
Typical examples of images that cause compassion fatigue are images of big- eyed children who suffer from starvation or from war and political conflicts in developing countries. Instead of feeling compassion, the viewer might feel anger and frustration when looking at pictures of people who suffer. The feeling of passive sympathy for the victim is not necessarily something positive. Sontag says that “our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.” (Sontag, 2003, p.91) She argues that these images should rather make the viewer reflect upon his privileges and how they might be linked to the suffering of others. The viewer ought to see his life in a bigger perspective and be aware of how his wealth might have a connection to the destruction and suffering of others.

The problem of "pornographic" images of suffering

The term “pornography” is used as a metaphor to describe images of violated, degraded and suffering bodies.
When talking about “pornographic” images, Dean refers to “the emotionally charged relationship between spectator and representation of suffering a as a problem of misplaced or compulsive eroticism and aggression.” (Dean, 2003, p. 102) She says that such images are “neutralizing” and obscuring the horror they depict and that they can “become a focus of fascination or pleasure for both erotic and aggressive drives.” (Dean, 2003, p. 102)
The French philosopher George Bataille (1897-1962) talks about the close link between suffering, eroticism and death. He talks bout the effect of “ecstatic and intolerable” images of pain as “a mortification of the feelings and liberation of tabood erotic knowledge.” (Sontag, 2003, p. 87)
When watching diabolic images, people are confronted with deep human fears; the fear of death and pain. Watching these images thus has a potential effect of being a form of catharsis for the viewer, defined in the dictionary as a “cleaning of the emotions, especially pity and fear, described by Aristotle as an effect of tragic drama on its audience.”
Shocking images of cruelty, suffering and death can thus release some emotional tension in the viewer. Some people’s fascination for ‘obscene’ images can be linked to the deeply human emotions that these images convey. Sontag says that “the obscene is a primal notion of human consciousness." (Sontag, 2003, p.38 )
Dean argues that “the display of human suffering no longer necessarily generate empathic identification, but instead an often eroticized objectification of pain”. (Dean, 2003, p.91)

Some of the photographs of the torture in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq are contemporary examples of such “pornographic” images of the degradation and objectification of the body. These images of naked, tortured and violated bodies are to a certain degree pornographic. In these images, suffering, eroticism and death are linked together.
Dean says that depictions of violated bodies are “pornographic” when the images don’t “reveal the tragically annihilated presence of dignity but reduce men’s sacred bodies to objects of excitement, pleasure and domination and thereby further violated the dead or demeaned.” (Dean, 2003, p.91)
The images from the Abu Ghraib prison are examples of this. In one of the photographs two American military officers are standing behind a pyramid of violated bodies that they have tortured. They are smiling proudly and looking at the viewer, reflecting the viewers position of looking at the tortured and degraded bodies. For these two people, the human bodies in front of them are merely objects. Also for the viewers of the photograph, these violated bodies are objects. The two people behind them smiles to the viewer, as if saying 'What a spectacle! Let’s watch it together!' Thus the viewer is watching the suffering bodies together with the abusers, adding to the degradation and violation of the bodies by being passive viewers to the spectacle of “pornographic” suffering.
This brings to mind the obvious moral dilemma in watching such images.

These images express a power relationship between the media audience in the Western world who are in a strong and dominant position; represented by the two strong, smiling and arrogant Americans as opposed to the suffering Iraqis.
The photograph distinguishes between us- the strong and privileged viewers and consumers of news media and the others- the oppressed and degraded; the victims who are transformed into objects of fascination and horror and deprived of their humanity. This power relationship is also very clear in the picture of the American woman England holding a leash attached to an Iraqi prisoner who is laying on the floor. As an American she represents the US superpower who has the force to invade other countries and cultures and abuse the people. In this photograph she demonstrates the American superiority and hatred toward those regarded as the enemy.

Another problematic aspect of the photograph is the western audiences identification with the American, and the required obligation of the conscience.
It communicates the notion of the people in the Western world as strong and powerful as opposed to “the others”. This division should evoke some reflections about justice and human equality and of the power structure in the world generally.
The photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison don’t evoke empathy for the victims as much as disgust and anger of the abuse.
The human beings in these images are reduced to commodities, being exposed in the vulnerable position of intense suffering. It is problematic when such images are met by a passive audience, who watch distantly and with fascination. The moral dilemma that they represent is the “deadening of emotions that drives the desire to see more and more.” (Dean, 2003, p.102)
It leads the desire to be shocked, entertained and horrified.

The photographs from Abu Ghraib prison raises the problem of the viewer’s perspective as a “voyeur”. The photographs make the act of horror and the suffering of the violated bodies into a commodity for “voyeuristic” pleasures. (Dean, 2003) Watching these images involves a further degradation of the victim’s bodies, being displayed in their most profound suffering.

Goya- a comparison

Goya (1746-1828) made an etching series of eighty pictures called “The Disasters of War”. This series of images depict the barbary of war; bodies being dismembered and desecrated. They depict the dehumanization of war. Through these pictures Goya criticizised the acts of war.
Goya’s etching series was made between 1810 and 1820. The images refer to the Peninsular War between Spain and Britain against France in 1808 till 1014.
Some of the pictures in “The Disasters of War” have a resemblance to the photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and are therefore interesting to compare.
Goya depicted the violation and distortion of the human body.
In relation to Dean’s theory of “pornographic” images of suffering, Goya’s images convey a reflection of the “pornography” of suffering caused by war. They also problematize the position of the viewer by using captions to commenting upon the images. They are asking if the viewer really can look at this. The captions reflect the moral ambiguities in watching the images.
The distorted bodies in Goya’s images intend to shock and wound the viewer. As in the photographs of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison, the images do not evoke feelings of empathy and compassion in the viewer as much as feelings of disgust.

The picture called “Tampoco” (“Nor this”) has resemblance to the photograph of England holding a leash attached to an Iraqi prisoner because they both depict the victim and the sadist. They clearly show the power relationship between them as well as the dehumanizing effect of war.

The picture called “Se aprovechan” (“They Equip Themselves”) has resemblance to the photograph of the Iraqi prisoner laying on the floor, because of their depictions of the naked violated body as well as the abusers. They both show the horror of human degradation and human cruelty.
The suffering depicted in these images are “pornographic” due to the degraded, violated and objectified human bodies.

The picture called “Enterrar y callar?” (“Bury Them and Be Silent”) has resemblance to the photograph of the pyramid of Iraqi prisoners because they both show multiple naked and suffering bodies. Whereas the photograph from the Abu Ghraib prison shows the proud abuser in the background, Goya’s picture shows to shocked viewers watching the horror, reflecting the position of the audience.

The problem of suffering and beauty

When portraying peoples suffering, the news photographer sometimes tends to enhance the image and make it more “artistic”.
Some images of suffering are depicted due to aesthetic qualities. The resemblance to art images aim to catch the eye of the viewer. Photographs with elements of beauty are often emotionally powerful. This raises the question of whether suffering depicted as something beautiful evokes more empathy in the viewer or if it distracts the viewer from feeling empathy.
The beauty in a picture can seduce the viewer, that is, evoke his fascination for the picture as an object without really caring about the conflicts it depicts.
Susan Sontag says that “A war photograph seems inauthentic, even though there is nothing staged about it, when it looks like a still from a movie”. (Sontag, 2003, p. 69) The beauty in a photograph can distract the viewer, who is seduced by the picturesque image, admiring it instead of caring for the subject it depicts. Beauty can also distract the viewer from experiencing the image as truthful and authentic.
An example of this is a photograph from the school carnage in Beslan, Russia in September 2004 (see attached under). It was printed in The Observer on the 12th of September 2004. The photograph shows a woman with her dead child. The picture is theatrical and has aesthetic qualities because of the position and expression of the woman. Thus, the suffering it conveys is transformed into a beautiful and picturesque image even though it is nothing beautiful in the real situation. This way the photograph is ambiguous.
The photograph is voyeuristic. The viewer is watching the grieving woman passively, fascinated by the aesthetic elements in the picture. This leads to a moral issue of the viewer’s right to watch images of people in pain. It also raises the question of respect for these people and their human dignity.

Another example is a photograph of a man carrying a wounded child in his arms. The child has been hit by a bomb in Iraq on the 8th of April 2003. The beauty in the picture derives from the strong emotions it conveys; the man is rescuing the suffering child. It is a dramatic situation; it is emotionally engaging because of the man’s effort to save the child.
The viewers do not receive any information as to whether the child is dead or alive. An aesthetic element can also be found in the colors of the image.
The media audience is seduced by the drama, the tragedy and emotions in the photograph.

Another example is a picture of a six year old boy who is being rescued after a six- story, 100 year old building collapsed at midnight on June 9, 2004 in Dhaka (see attached under). The photograph has aesthetic qualities. The viewer is fascinated by the body of the child; it is beautiful, almost superhuman. It looks half human, half sculpture. The picture gives the impression that they are digging up an old sculpture. This is due to the color of the boy’s skin and the posture of his body.
The image says: look; what a spectacle! But is doesn’t convey any information as to whether the boy will live or die. This is the moral dilemma in the depiction of suffering in this photograph: it intends to shock, fascinate and entertain rather than telling the truths about the catastrophe.

Sontag says that “Photographs tend to transform, whatever their subject; and as an image something may be beautiful- or terrifying, or unbearable, or quite bearable-as it is not in real life”. (Sontag, 2003, p.68) News photographs are often distorting reality by giving us a different impression of a situation than the reality of it is. The photograph from the carnage in Beslan gives an impression of a calm, profound, harmonious and beautiful atmosphere, although that is far from the reality of the situation.
The photograph of the boy who is being rescued after a building collapsed is interesting due to the theory of “ the shock of stillness”. Norton Baktin says that “the shock of stillness” is a reason why photographs fascinate; they freeze the action of one short moment. They choose the most picturesque moment. This is partly why the photograph fascinates the viewer.
In the book called “Regarding the Pain of Others” Sontag talks about “the dual powers of photography- to generate documents and to create works of visual art.” (Sontag, 2003, p.68)
Mixing these two ideas can lead to ambiguous photographs which strive to resemble art at the same time as they claim to be truthful.
When a photograph seems too manipulated, the viewer doesn’t believe in it as much. It becomes inauthentic. The emphasis on aesthetic qualities and resemblance to art images is a powerful way of catching the viewer’s eye and to fascinate. This raises the ethical consideration of the right to create grossly spectacular images from victims of atrocities. It also raises ethical issues considering the transformation of reality into a picturesque spectacle for a global audience.


News media tend to depict scenes of horror in order to provide fascinating visualizations instead of informing the audience and help them gain understanding of the catastrophe. They seem more concerned with providing entertaining and spectacular images than providing informative and truthful images.
News media’s depiction of human suffering is therefore problematic due to the notion of human dignity. As Gilbert Holleufer, an officer in the Red Cross says: “These men and woman are not mute symbols of suffering: they are thinking, sentient individuals who have their own lives, their own hopes.” (Holleufer, 1996, p.2)
These depictions are also problematic due to their effects on the audience; images of human suffering can cause compassion fatigue in the viewer. They can also be a tool for voyeuristic pleasures of watching “artistic” or obscene images of suffering and death. News media’s depictions of bodily pain has references to images in the art world, such as Goya’s etchings of the horrors of war.

BIBLIOGRAPHY/ Further readings:

“Regarding the Pain of Others” (2003) by Susan Sontag, Penguin Books, London

“Media Wars, News at a Time of Terror” (2003) by Danny Schechter, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, INC. UK

“Mass Communication Theory’ (1983) by Denis McCuail, SAGE Publications Ltd, London

“Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media” (2004) by Danny Campbell

"Empathy, Pornography and Suffering" (2003) by Carolyn J. Dean from A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies

“East Timor and the Politics of Bodily Pain: a Problematic Complicity’ (2004) by Anthony McCosker, Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, March 2004 pp. 63-79

“Truth in Photography: Perception, myth and reality in the post modern world” (1998) by Leslie Mullen

“The News Bias: distorting reality and feeding fears” (2003) by Radford. From the Reader: Communication in the Information Age, UWS

"The Future of Journalism" (2002) by Lumby. From the Reader: Communication in the Information Age, UWS

“Circulating Meaning 1: Making News” (2001) by Louw. From the Reader: Communication in the Information Age, UWS

"The Discourse of Global Compassion: The Audience and Media Reporting of Human Suffering"(2003) by B. Hoeijer

International Review of the Red Cross (1996) by Gilbert Holleufer

“Dark Visions, The Etchings of Goya” (1996), Sarah Thomas, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

“Goya, Complete etchings, Aquatints and Lithographs” (1962), Enrique Laufente Ferrari, London


Goya’s images found on the Internet:

Abu Ghraib images found on Internet:
(have also been published in news papers)

Other images found on Internet:,schanberg,64027,6.htlm

Image from Beslan: published in The observer, 12. September, 2004

Image from Tsumani: published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8. January, 2005

Beslan, Russia, September 2004:


Boy being rescued in Dhaka 2004:

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