Rick Poynor | Essays

Should We Look at Corrosive Images?

Detail of the cover of Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag, 2003
The image is plate 36 of The Disasters of War by Francisco Goya

In 2005, as the situation in Iraq worsened, alarming new evidence of the reality of the war emerged. American servicemen unable to use their credit cards to access porn websites, owing to verification problems, were sending digital pictures to a porn site in Florida in exchange for free access. To start with the pictures were just a way of proving that the men were in service and they showed routine scenes of military life. As word spread about the deal, soldiers began to send horrifically violent and gory images to the porn site owner, Christopher Wilson, who put them online in a new site called Nowthatsfuckedup.com. Wilson was arrested under obscenity laws, but avoided prosecution by working out a plea bargain and agreeing to shut down the site.

I didn’t see these images at the time, but later viewed some of them on one of the Indymedia network websites. They are extremely hard to look at. Shot close up, the color pictures show bodies torn apart and pulped like smashed fruit by the power of modern weapons. In one picture, most of a man’s head lies on the ground; a section of his hand, with the fingers still intact, rests nearby. In another, the camera points directly into a man’s face as his brains hang down from the side of his skull; and in another, tattered strands of ligament and muscle trail from the stump of a woman’s leg. She is still alive.

What do images of extreme violence do to us? I can say how I felt scrolling through these photos, waiting to see what would appear next at the bottom of the screen. I felt morbid curiosity, fear, revulsion, dejection and a great emptiness as though my energy and volition were draining away. I couldn’t decide whether I was numb with shock or just not reacting strongly enough. Nor could I shake off the guilty sensation that I already knew what war does to people  to the extent that someone who hasn’t been in a war can ever know  and didn’t need to see it again. Not for the first time I suspected that images like this are so corrosive to the psyche that I would pay some kind of price for exposing myself to these sights. I wondered what other people experience during these moments of self-imposed revelation: do they find the images harder to take? Or easier? I felt dismay at how obscenely straightforward it was to gain access to the pictures, just a few clicks at the keyboard, with no real effort required. What gives us the right, sitting safely at our screens in our living rooms, offices or studios, to dip our fingers into other people’s suffering and gaze at such horrors?

The usual reason given for disseminating violent images of war is to strip away our illusions and make us see the truth. This was the campaigning educational spirit in which Indymedia posted the photos in 2005, and one of the hundreds of comments left on the site since then by visitors proposes their use as instruments of anti-war persuasion: “These pictures should be shown on TV to everyone. Let [them] see what their tax dollars are doing in their name.” Distasteful as it was to present the pictures anywhere in the vicinity of porn (though they were evidently consumed by some as a kind of porn), Christopher Wilson offered the same public-interest defence, quoting from an article in a 1938 issue of Life magazine that showed dead bodies during the Spanish Civil War: “Dead men have indeed died in vain if live men refuse to look at them.”

Nowthatsfuckedup.com offered some of the most disturbing war photos ever to surface in the public domain. Even if you have seen the pacifist Ernst Friedrich’s horrific anti-war book War Against War! (1924), or pictures of atrocities committed during the Rape of Nanking, the Holocaust and the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, they mark the breaking of a new threshold in the public representation of destructive aggression. In their callous, anti-human, bloodthirsty matter-of-factness, the pictures rob the victims of every shred of dignity, treating these ravaged “kills” as dead meat displayed to the camera like trophies from a hunt. News photographers have sometimes taken photos of this kind  such scenes are unavoidable in war zones  but editors and broadcasters usually judge them unshowable, choosing pictures that are easier for readers and viewers to stomach over breakfast or dinner. Iconic images of 20th-century wars, however upsetting, are rarely so disrespectfully intrusive or anatomically explicit and they are often in black and white, which can soften and even aestheticize the horror, a moral problem in itself.

While violent pictures are intended to inform us about the consequences of war, when viewing them we may still experience a sense of the indecency of looking  it was overwhelming as I scrolled down the Indymedia page  because by looking we violate deeply ingrained taboos about what it is seemly or appropriate to see. Staring at the injured and dying at the scene of an accident, for instance, is still widely regarded as unacceptable and we censure people who do this as rubberneckers and ghouls. Yet in the era of the Internet, where access to every kind of extreme image, many of them sexual, is never more than a few seconds away, older notions of decency, dignity and personhood are eroding. Many now believe that anything that is legal can and should be shown, that legality should be decided solely on the basis of whether harm is being done to anyone in the picture (war pictures are an obvious exception), and that we should be able to see anything we care to see without external constraints. The idea of visual taboos, of images that society deems unacceptable on our behalf, offends our consumerist conviction that our own freedom is the most important consideration.

So the violent image confronts us with a dilemma. We need to see it (because it is right to be informed), we want to see it (because we demand to see everything), and seeing it is easier than ever before (because technology makes it so). But none of this tells us anything about what effects these images have on us. Andrzej Werbart, a Swedish psychoanalyst, argues that taboos against images of violence, suffering and perversion play a vital role in sustaining what he calls the “skin ego,” which he defines as “the outer shield of our body image and our inner world.” Electronic technology extends our sensory awareness out across the world (as McLuhan argued), inundating us with images of violence and sexuality, but there is no corresponding expansion of the ego, which lags behind. In Werbart’s view, exposure to so many images of bleeding, maimed and dead bodies can lead to narcissistic regression and cause the disintegration of the skin ego, with traumatic consequences for the psyche as our boundaries collapse.

“When pictures of naked violence, the free outlet for murderous and perverse desires, are perceived as invasive and perforate the skin ego, the entire arsenal of our ancient defence mechanisms is activated,” he writes. “The sense of our vulnerability and our own murderous desires are both so threatening to us that, faced with pictures of this kind, we may react by ‘de-identifying ourselves’, keeping a distance, regarding reality as fiction, de-humanizing others.” I felt something like this myself when looking at the Indymedia images. The pictures, each one torn from its context, puncture your sense of yourself and your own boundaries, where you end and a hostile, violent world begins, and one way to deal with these monstrous revelations is to try to detach yourself, to push them away and deny they relate to your own life far from these terrible events, even though you know the images are real and will fester inside you.

If a picture of violence is to promote the life instinct rather than the death instinct, then according to Werbart, two conditions are necessary. First, it needs to be part of the narrative of a life story, with an emotional and historical context, rather than an isolated fragment  and what could be more isolated, more desolate, than a photo of a body part? Second, it needs to be a form of witnessing rather than merely showing and viewing. Modern media often dispenses with the figure of the narrator to bring the viewer closer to the action, but it is the narrator’s subjectivity, mediating between audience and image, that conveys the experience behind the image  the pain, suffering and meaning  and transforms it into testimony. Werbart concludes that pictures of violence presented in a description of the human condition, which we must all face, rather than as a series of disconnected, disabling psychic shocks, could “contribute to the re-establishment of the ego as a psychic agent of our self-government.”

An essay by the art critic John Berger, written in 1972, when the war in Vietnam was still raging, suggests that even this subtle analysis doesn’t capture the whole problem. In “Photographs of Agony,” Berger, too, proposes that the discontinuous nature of the photograph, a moment snatched from time instead of other moments, disturbs the viewer. People who are present in the situation shown in the picture perceive and understand the event quite differently; each one could be a narrator in the sense that Werbart proposes. “But the reader who has been arrested by the photograph may tend to feel this discontinuity as his own personal moral inadequacy,” writes Berger. “And as soon as this happens even his sense of shock is dispersed.” When viewers encounter many violent photographs, as we all do now, this will be a constant feeling. The picture exists to prick our consciences and provoke action, but if no action related to its origin in a specific political situation occurs, then the picture is depoliticized. It becomes “evidence of the general human condition,” says Berger, accusing everybody  including the demoralized viewer  and nobody. In Regarding the Pain of Others, the critic Susan Sontag makes a similar point. “Compassion is an unstable emotion,” she writes. “It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. [. . .] People don’t become inured to what they are shown  if that’s the right way to describe what happens  because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling.” But surely ever more images must result in an even more profound condition of passivity?

We do know that violent images can sometimes change public opinion. The unusually explicit pictures that emerged from Vietnam, often dubbed the first media war, helped to bring about the end of that conflict. The Q. And Babies? A. And Babies poster produced by Art Workers Coalition, based on a photograph by Ron Haeberle of the My Lai Massacre, remains one of the most confrontational images in the history of the protest poster. More recently, the publication of photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, taken by military personnel, scandalized world opinion. There will always be a place for shock tactics, especially when the facts about a particular conflict are not widely known.

It is doubtful, though, that anything positive can come from consuming a continuous flow of obscenely violent war pictures. From both a psychoanalytical and a political perspective, the conclusion is the same: we need to regulate our exposure to violent images. If they are truly to shock us, these pictures must be used sparingly. If they are not going to be used sparingly because technology and ease of access makes this impossible, then we need to impose our own personal restrictions on what we choose to see. Longstanding taboos on what is fit for viewing exist for sound psychological reasons. As Werbart writes, “Only a tolerance for ‘no’, ‘never’ and ‘nothingness’ can create a real place where it is possible for ‘someone’ to exist as a separate individual with his own identity.” And only an individual with a secure identity will have the strength to transform a legitimate sense of outrage into political action and protest.

This essay was first published in Colors Notebook: Violence edited by Fabrica (Birkhäuser, 2008).

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Photography, Theory + Criticism

Comments [21]

Dear Rick,
great post.

Similar to Sontag's cover of "Regarding the Pain of Others", in Argentina we associate Francisco Goya to the essential book "Operación Masacre" by Rodolfo Walsh. Published by first time in 1957, Operación Masacre has been edited several times, always with the same image. In Argentina, Operación Masacre is a canonical book about forces of repression and death, with a cover linked to tragedy in several ways.

You can see about Operación Masacre in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operación_Masacre
Lucas López

Dear Rick,
Our art and design students are doing an exploratory workshop this evening on the Pedagogy of Vision and i am going to make them respond to your blog as an assignment. Hope this will be okay. Your article fits in wonderfully with what we are trying to explore.
Thank you, geetu

Thanks for the link, Lucas.

And glad you found it useful, geetu.
Rick Poynor

Mr. Poynor, this is very interesting, thank you. I have long wondered about the impact of these kinds of images.

You conclude by saying that we need to place our own personal restrictions on what we choose to see. I increasingly wonder how this is even possible--images of extreme violence are everywhere.

I recall that, after the Madrid train bombings, Newsweek magazine published a very graphic full-spread photo which included human remains. I was a subscriber at the time, and this image came straight into my home, courtesy of some editor who decided it should be seen. I found this photo distressing for many reasons. I'd read about the bombings and heard about them on the radio. I didn't feel that I needed visual confirmation, but it was thrust upon me. I also found the photo to be very disrespectful to the victims and the families of the victims. If the person in that photo had been my mother, sister or daughter, I am quite sure I would not want her bloodied corpse splashed across the pages of Newsweek!

But, most importantly, I worry about the impact these unavoidable "corrosive" images might have on the most vulnerable, especially children. I now have a 3.5 year old son, and there is no way I would want him to see this kind of image. I no longer subscribe to Newsweek.

Alas, no matter how hard I try, I will not be able to protect him from the pervasive violent images which others decide we should see. We can scarcely choose not to see them. Some day--maybe, for example, when we are walking through an airport with TVs everywhere--my son is going to see something violent and terrifying. I have no doubt this will happen long before he is really capable of understanding. I know I'll have to try to explain it to him. But, this makes me wish that our society could better respect the longstanding taboos on what is fit for viewing. Our society has become indifferent to those taboos and to the potential negative consequences of violating them.
Rob Henning

Insightful article. Thank you, Rick. While images like the kind the article talks about may not come as a shock to some professionals like those associated with the military, journalism, history, medicine or relief work; designers, graphic designers in particular may find them shocking or 'unacceptable'. As a graphic designer I often wonder why graphic design or graphic designers almost always use idealistic, perfect, aspirational or utopian imagery (even while designing for a cause)? Do we, as designers, live and work in denial and refuse to look at 'hard reality'? Is the idealistic promise of a good, happy, or perfect life often promoted by design (and supported by the imagery used) real or is it simply optimistic, all about looking at the brighter side of things?
Mayank Bhatnagar

Rob, I share your concern. It was being a parent of a young child that started me thinking about how images of violence affect the young. I ended up writing an earlier, longer essay about this subject, "Death in the Image World," which is in my book Obey the Giant. I used myself as a test case in that essay, drawing on my own childhood memories of encountering shocking and revelatory moments of violence for the first time. It is impossible to entirely protect the young, especially now when extreme imagery is so freely available, but it is right to try and you are clearly doing that.

Incidentally, I made a point of not providing links here to the pictures first posted at Nowthatsfuckedup.com (if indeed they can still be found online) so that they can't be viewed casually without careful thought and some effort.

Mayank, you make a really interesting point about the essentially positive and upbeat nature of graphic design as we tend to conceive and practise it. My feeling is that a "designer" way of looking at things, if we confine ourselves to that, leaves out many fundamental aspects of human experience by striving to tidy everything up and make it bright, cheerful and appealing. The more design can embrace the complexity, uncertainty and darkness of human experience, the richer it has the potential to become as a description of reality. I find this psychological and existential complexity in some of the graphic design and image-making influenced by Surrealism that I have written about elsewhere.
Rick Poynor

Is design supposed to be a "description of reality?" Designers are not journalists. Aren't we usually hired, and paid, by clients who want us to communicate a particular message? And isn't that message often something cheerful and optimistic? Look how great this product is, it'll change your life. Look at this beautiful new car; you should buy it. Look at what a wonderful place this University would be for your children, spend your tuition dollars here. Look at this wonderful ballet we're putting on, please buy a ticket.

If Halliburton hires us to design their annual report, they might ask us to present a cheerful sunny picture of how well they did in the years since the Iraq war began. We're not about to populate their report with grisly photos of Iraqi war victims! We are not going to do that for our client even if the truth is that their role in defense contracting DID lead directly to death and violence in Iraq.

Of course, we might refuse to have Halliburton as a client and instead take on a human rights NGO client. Then maybe we'd be able to present a realistic image of how war violates human rights. But, chances are that this NGO might want to, instead, present a positive image of how its efforts are improving human rights.
Rob Henning

I wish I could edit that comment. On re-reading, it seems confusing. What I mean in the Halliburton scenario is that, if they hire a designer to present a sunny picture, that's what the designer has got to do. He/she cannot instead opt to fill the report with grisly war photos, even if the truth is that Halliburton WAS directly involved in death and violence in Iraq.
Rob Henning

Rick, thanks for your insightful reply, I truly appreciate it specially as it gives me a lot of food for thought! Shall look for your article.

Rob, you make a good point and I am there with you, I make a living out of doing pleasing layouts with pleasing imagery! Perhaps that's exactly the role we designers are supposed to play: of providing 'happiness' to end users in a world which is far from perfect if not occasionally sad or depressing!
Mayank Bhatnagar

Rob, obviously I'm not suggesting that the side of a cereal box, or even an annual report, could be a place for deep design inquiry let alone the depiction of the horrors of war. But there are all kinds of clients, projects, genres of design and outlets so why shouldn't design sometimes be a place for more searching kinds of investigation? (It is.) Visual communication, in individual pieces and en masse, does indeed provide a description of reality, though this might be, and often is, highly circumscribed.

As for the designer as a kind of visual journalist or reporter, this is a concept that the eminent Dutch designer Jan van Toorn has proposed. I discuss that idea too in Obey the Giant.
Rick Poynor

Rick, thanks for your thoughtful and gracious replies. I do understand what you are saying. And, I generally think designers should be trying to get at truth or reality--even as we are required to do highly circumscribed work. Yes, there are many different situations in which we can and do work. The idea of designers functioning in a journalistic kind of role is intriguing and I think I'll seek out your book to read more about that, as well as the original topic of violent images. Relative to the former, the idea that strikes me immediately is that journalists do not always necessarily get it right. And I wonder if designers functioning in a journalistic way would be any better equipped to get things right. Perhaps that's another topic.
Rob Henning

Dear Rick.
I got your book several years ago and till today refer to it as Obey the Image. It had provoked thoughts about whether our constructions of reality are simply repetitions of images that we see. This article makes me think that perhaps it is in breaking these patterns that we experienced some degree of freedom from visually imposed models of ideal forms, behavior and aspirations. It could be a desire for freedom from imposed visual ideologies that is driving the range of expressions we are seeing now in the public domain. Or a need to collectively experience the power of emotions that imagery can generate- as much pain as pleasure.

As much as any form of expression, images do have an effect on the audience that interacts with it and the wider debate is perhaps about the degree and the nature of actions that images provoke. Mayank also touches on this. Last week, in the seminar on the Pedagogy of Vision, we explored the relationship between agency and vision. A student noted that we do tear a poster out when we find its content offensive, in the same way that Rob decided to stop having Newsweek delivered to his home. Your article gave our class a provocative entry into a conversation about the ethics of visual production.

Am waiting for the class to respond to your article. It is a class of six students and they are part of a larger module we are developing on gallery practices. For a course that we ran some years ago, we had tried getting a film that you mentioned in Obey the Giant- it was called Can I Own Myself and was mentioned in the chapter called Power to Translate that I am re-looking at as I write this. Thank you once again for the many thoughts you have shared on image, gender and the public realm.


An insightful post Rick but I believe a point that you might have not given enough attention to is the sublime presence of ideology in the act of viewing images from this particular conflict. The whole ideological framework that sustains the narrative on the iraq and afghanistan conflict are devoid of an apparatus that could allow an individual to respond to its senseless violence and industrialised man slaughter in a meaningful way. Projected and defined in terms of a neo-liberal democratization of the third world and executed on a principle of realpolitik and hegemony, the real horrors of these wars and the human rights catastrophe that they embody have been rendered impotent in the larger narrative. The mainstream media has done a poor job in creating an alternative story opposed to the goverment's version of events and perhaps the truth can emerge only in this perverse and alienated fashion, sent out by the men fighting these wars and suffering directly from its horrors, in return for porn.
An individual lacking a narrative and ideological apparatus with which to respond to such traumatic imagery will by force turn passive (if that's the right word).

Dear Sir,
Thanks a lot for this article, being a design student and an amateur photographer, this article evoked many thoughts and made me reflect on it.
I was looking at the pattern in which these images are presented. First of all they were published on a porn site which desensitized the issue itself, as viewer is going to visit this place with completely different mindset. Though i completely agree with you that we need to restrict ourselves, but it is not only about what images you see but also it is about where you see them.
I also want you to ask you a question. ' do you think its also about the way media is filtering these images in a certain way which is manipulating the viewer?


I understand what you mean when you speak about being bombarded by the images of war and violence and it's effects on our psyche but the fact remains that we are surrounded by such imagery. How can we evade it? I agree that we have become passive to this violence in some sense and we would like to keep our children away from it but what about when they watch cartoons on television? The plot of Tom and Jerry is a cat trying to kill a mouse and failing miserably, where he many a times bangs into walls or nails get hammered into his head or he gets sliced into four pieces and so on.

It makes you think about the ethics of image making and the responsibilty that comes along with it.

Your article brought about a lot of debates and questions in my mind largely about rights and responsibilities, form and narratives and as a creator (art and design student) what is the implication of my work.

The world has become a very small place through the internet but there is a lag , a distance in the transfering of information because of filters such as social taboos and media restrictions.
The beauty of this small world is that I have access to these bites of information.
War pictures are routed in reality and that is the power that they hold on us, that is what draws me and gives me the right to view these images: the desire and the right to know the truth. Not only me but all of us have the right to see images that are speaking of a reality that exists out there. That it might have an adverse effect on the psyche is a fear that we all have but this is where I guess responsibility as a social being steps in.
But I do not think blocking out these images completely is an answer.
At another level what am I doing with this truth is passive absorption, I agree.
If you come from the thought that a visual product should ideally provoke action I understand that a constant repetition of these images lulls our sensitivity to these images, disengages us making us passive. But there is also hope that an overload might provoke someone to do something about it, such as yourself.
I do believe that when images like these are infrequent they have the capacity to disrupt and dislodge which might result in action.

Dear Rick,

The subject matter around which the article revolves is of poignant interest. Images always leave a lasting impression on one's mind. And these images are just a click away these days due to technological advancements. War images are abhorrent in a way, and at the same time fail to showcase the reality. The bloodshed postulates a variety of questions in the minds of the audience that remains unanswered. According to Carl Jung's theory of Quaternity, these images evoke the four basic human types i.e. Thinking, Intuitive, Feeling, and Sensation.

Also these days on social networking sites like Facebook, I find some abhorrent war imagery, and the way, people comment on them clearly shows how sensitive human minds are. In the morning as soon as I opened my page, I saw an image of an aborted child on the netwoking site. It makes me wonder, why would people want to show the picture of an aborted child on a social netwoking site without being sensitive enough to understand the impact it leaves on the mind and heart.

One question I kept asking myself when I was reading this article was "what kinds of corrosive images are we talking about?". I found it hard to keep one image in my head to refer to when reading this article. There are so many kinds of violence; so many events, motivations and effects that consist of violence. But what we see in most of the images referred here are the forms of violence. I see the debris, the waste, the aftermath, what is tangible and photograph-able. Sometimes a caption or a passing comment mentions when and where these images came from but we are left to complete the picture of how in our own heads. Then these images cannot stand for themselves. They cannot complete a story in our heads about a real-world event, which is their intended use (as opposed to violence in fiction, in humour). They merely add to our catalogue of the forms of violence.

Thank you for this batch of comments. They came thick and fast so I’m guessing you are part of the same student group — Geetu’s class perhaps?

Njoshi, this is a good point about ideology and I think it connects with what I was saying about the need for a narrative to give meaning to a violent picture of war. I mention emotional and historical context and we should certainly extend this to include the ideological context. A few days ago, I watched the documentary Winter Soldier, shot by a group of filmmakers in 1971 but not released widely on DVD until 2009. It shows a meeting at a motel in Detroit where Vietnam veterans came together to talk publicly, with astonishing frankness, about the atrocities they had witnessed and committed. Their testimony leaves you with many horrific mental images and there are also some disturbing photographs in the documentary, which are more than justified in this context. There are two moments when the ideological basis of the U.S. presence in Vietnam is powerfully exposed. An Indian American draws attention to the essentially racist behavior of the U.S., making a direct comparison between the treatment of his people and the slaughter of the Vietnamese, and an African American vet makes the point about white America’s racism in even stronger terms.

True to ideological form, the investigation was largely ignored by U.S. mainstream media and the film disappeared from view soon after release. I would recommend it to anyone interested in these issues.

Mitwa, I agree about the context. Anything appearing in the media will appear to be legitimized by its presence there. Clearly there is often media bias, but I’m not talking about deliberate manipulation so much as the inadvertent effect these images have on the viewer, the way they reduce us to passivity, whatever the broadcasters’ intentions, and even if these are positive. As John Berger writes, the depoliticized picture provides yet more depressing “evidence of the general human condition.”

Sindhu, you ask what kinds of images we are talking about. I give some examples of extremely violent images at the start of the essay and I mention historical examples later. My particular focus here is on images of war.

Ruchadhayarkar, Prerna and Ritika, clearly we should not disconnect ourselves from the world we inhabit and we would find it hard to do so even if we wanted to. Many would argue that we have a responsibility as thinking citizens to keep ourselves informed. But we are not obliged to give our attention over and over again to images (of any kind) that act to reinforce negative and damaging states of mind. Once you know what a mangled body looks like there is no good reason to keep looking at pictures of mangled bodies. What we need to understand are the personal, local, political and ideological narratives in which this violence occurs.
Rick Poynor

Thank you Rick. For your time and for the many thoughts you have given to the students to consider.

I was reading Barthes' Image, Music, Text when i came across this passage -
...the traumatic photograph (fires, shipwrecks, catastrophes, violent deaths, all captured from 'life as lived') is the photograph about which there is nothing to say; the shock photograph is by structure insignificant: no value, no knowledge, at the limit no verbal categorization can have a hold on the process instituting signification...Why? Doubtless because photographic connotation, like every well structured signification, is an institutional activity; in relation to society overall its function is to integrate man, to reassure him.
I thought it added a new and complementary dimension of insights to your interrogation on the effect of war images on the public.
Are these images from Iraq thus corrosive as well as impotent?

Jobs | July 23