Throughout history, art has often been for the rich, to showcase their importance, wealth, beauty and lifestyles. This can be seen in Ancient Egyptian wall paintings, Roman and Greek Statues and portraits of royalty throughout the 15th – 18th centuries (Jones 2014).
Today however, with the ability to showcase ourselves using modern technologies like mobile phones and social media, it seems that the focus of art has gone in a different direction. Now, instead of artworks depicting kings perched on their thrones, we see ‘artworks’ that showcase suffering (Szorenyi 2009 p.94). Desperately starving children being a very common one.
Suffering is often something quite foreign to many of us who have grown up in the Western World. So, when we see the exploitation of people’s suffering in art, it can often bring about a mixture of unpredictable responses from audiences. Some of these responses can benefit those in suffering, and some of them may not which raises the questions as to whether is beneficial or detrimental to see people’s suffering in art?
A common argument is that showcasing suffering in art can create awareness amongst audiences about issues in which they otherwise had little idea about (Oliver 2010 p.119). Creating awareness about others suffering can be beneficial as it can initiate practices of redress for those in suffering and also inspire a social action that could ultimately improve the life of the portrayed victim of suffering, or possibly the lives of many (Simone 2010 p. 47).
This is because looking at horrific scenes of suffering, like the ones featured above, forces us to confront the reality of what is taking place in the world around us. Ignoring people in suffering is part of the problem, and we owe it to ourselves and the victims to look at them and see what our decisions and actions as a global community has allowed happen (Ingram, 2015).
While seeing suffering can create an awareness in the audience, there is a great deal of debate about ethics and effectiveness of the images of suffering (Szorenyi 2009 p. 93).
Sebastiao Salgado, a world-renowned photographer turns peoples suffering into breathtakingly beautiful artworks. His works which can be seen below, showcase images of starvation, famine and poverty. Salgado has captured and presented these images in such a way that allows the viewer to see them as extremely beautiful works, even though the reality of what is going on is actually is anything but beautiful.
Giving suffering a false appearance of beauty is dangerous. Even if the artist has the right intent, these images run the risk of trivializing the issues surrounding suffering and can make suffering seem as if it has a place in our society through their beauty (Simone 2010 p. 56). Furthermore, it can also be argued that if audiences are gaining an awareness form this images, they are gaining a false impression of what poverty or suffering may be.
To add to this, overly beautiful representations of suffering can become harmful as the beauty and the ascetic of the images are often so strong, audiences will fail to see the intelligence and capabilities of those individual captured (Unite for Site.com 2015). Instead, these individuals will no longer be seen as individuals, but ‘one of the many who are helpless’.
This brings up one of the other main arguments into why seeing suffering in art is detrimental.
One of the major issues with viewing artwork of people suffering, especially here in Western societies is that it can actually remove us form the other suffering more than what we already were. Unlike photojournalism, artworks are there simply to be viewed and interpreted differently by each individual who sees them, they are not necessarily on display to give context and education on the issues being depicted (Simon 2010 p. 46).
By missing the context and knowledge surrounding images of people suffering, we are left as nothing more than people spectating and not acting to help those in suffering. This can invoke what is known as a ‘white spectatorship’ which involves a privileged audience spectating and getting an emotional kick, with no intent to help, out of the less fortunate (Szorenyi 2009 p. 94).
While displaying suffering in art is an approach into opening the Western world’s eye into some of the hardships others around the world are facing, it is clear that using suffering for art has many opens the door to many ethical issues.
Ingrim, M 215, ‘Sometimes we need to see horrific images like that Syrian boy’s body on the beach’, Fortune, viewed 31 March 2016, <http://fortune.com/2015/09/02/refugee-images/>.
Jones, J 2014, ‘Poverty lines: where are the poor in art today?’, Guardian, 30 December, viewed 31 March 2016,
Oliver, SA 2010, ‘Trauma, bodies, and performance art: Towards an embodied ethics of seeing’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 119-129.
Simon, RI 2010, ‘Idolatry and the Civil Covenant of Photography: On the Practice of Exhibiting Images of Suffering, Degradation, and Death’, Images: Journal of Jewish Art & Visual Culture, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 46-56.
Szorenyi, A 2009, ‘Distanced suffering: photographed suffering and the construction of white in/vulnerability’, Social Semiotics, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 93-109.
Unite For Site, 2015, Ethics and Photography in Developing Countries, Unite For Site, viewed 31 March 2016, <http://www.uniteforsight.org/global-health-university/photography-ethics>.