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Viewer and Victim

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“The Scourged Back,” so dubbed by Kathleen Collins, is an image that pops up in the mind of most people when thinking of American slavery. A nineteenth century photo of a man sitting in a chair with his whiplashed back turned towards the camera was the horrific image of America’s historic injustice used by abolitionists to prick the consciences of their contemporaries and lay forth a visual case against slavery.[1] The same could be said of the Associated Press’ iconic photo of a young girl being burnt by napalm in the Vietnam War. Such imagery contributed to the unpopularity of the war among the general populace. So with this power of imagery to contribute to social change, one must ask how documentary uses graphic imagery to reveal acts of injustice, particularly acts of legalized violence. Two documentaries that attempt such an incorporation would be The Atomic Café (1982)[2] and The Silent Scream (1984)[3]. What is interesting is that these two films come from different sides of the political spectrum. The Atomic Café is an anti-nuclear documentary while The Silent Scream is an anti-abortion documentary, yet both of these films use graphic imagery to uncover the injustices they respectively oppose.

The Atomic Café has graphic pictures early on, showing two singed Japanese bodies lying on the ground, piles of bodies under rubble, a skull burned black, as well as survivors with burns on their skin. The Silent Scream’s graphic pictures are later on. They show pictures of aborted fetuses in buckets intercut with footage of Planned Parenthood. The most controversial element of the film is when Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a former abortionist and NARAL founder turned pro-life convert, shows ultrasound footage of a twelve-week fetus being dismembered. The reason both of these documentaries show such graphic imagery is not because of some sick fetish, but rather to break the hegemony of moral ambivalence that surrounds these issues.

Literature Review

I will attempt to incorporate several different theories from four authors: Michael Chanan, Susan Sontag, Walter Murch, and Rachel MacNair. Chanan’s work, The Politics of Documentary, is a defense of documentary’s ability to convey reality against the criticism of postmodern thinkers who claim that documentary is no different than any other narrative in its representation of reality. Chanan’s main argument is that the characters and setting in the documentary have a determinable link in the real world, whereas the characters in regular narrative are fake. Chanan concedes that photographic images are subjective, but he claims that they are also objective due to their tie to the real world. He rejects that objectivity and subjectivity are mutually exclusive when it comes to photographs. Images are like fragmented pieces of reality that, while needing context, can still be trusted. This will be important to my work since both of these documentaries are politically charged, and thus the integrity of their images will naturally be made suspect.[4]

I will also rely on The Politics of Documentary’s section on how the interpretation of an image can change based on the individual viewer. In that section, Chanan examines how the jury interpreted the video depiction of the brutal beating of Rodney King in a way that still found the police not guilty.[5] This will serve as a valuable comparison for how the audience might view the graphic imagery in documentary.

I will be drawing on two works of Susan Sontag: her New York Times piece “Regarding the Torture of Others”[6] and her book On Photography.[7] In both of these works, Sontag deals with graphic imagery and their relation to desensitization. This theory will be worth considering in regard to what risks documentarians take morally when using graphic pictures.

My reason for using Walter Murch’s book In the Blink of an Eye is his theory on how editing can manipulate emotion.[8] This would address Sontag’s concern about people’s emotions being dulled by graphic imagery. Documentary’s cinematic quality would be able to preserve the emotional impact of the image because of how it is edited.

Dr. Rachel MacNair’s book, The Psychology of Peace, will be the one work I draw on that does not have to do with film. Dr. MacNair describes the psychological elements that cause society to legitimize violence against certain groups. Such a work will be helpful in showing the psychological reasons why society legitimizes violence against both pre-born children and the Japanese. This will give us a sense of what I will term “the hegemony of legitimized violence” that both the anti-abortion and anti-nuclear movements are trying to overcome.[9]

Arguments: hegemony, desensitization and viewer’s interpretation

I will be using The Psychology of Peace to examine the psychological underpinnings for the hegemony of legitimized violence. Dr. MacNair lays out four different mental mechanisms that cause societal violence. For the sake of this essay, I will look at three of them and apply them to both the use of the atom bomb as well as the legal killing of the unborn. One mechanisms is dehumanization, the refusal to recognize certain people as human beings with the same moral worth as other human beings. For the anti-nuclear movement, the dehumanization they have to counteract is the jingoistic nationalism that discourages people from having any type of sympathy toward the citizens of an “enemy nation.” The fact that Japanese citizens look different than most Americans also adds to this dehumanization. During WWII, there was rampant racism against the Japanese. This was evident in popular culture where political cartoons of “Japs” depicted Japanese people as strange-looking with big teeth and cartoonish features.[10] This is also evident in the federal government which flagrantly disregarded the civil liberties of Japanese Americans by holding them in internment camps on the west coast.[11] MacNair explains how dehumanization can be expressed through language that attacks the humanity of victims.[12] An example of this in all warfare, including the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is the term “collateral damage.”[13] The word “damage” is usually meant for harm done to property. If it is ever applied to people, it is usually meant to refer to an injury like “a damaged arm.” To use the term “damage” to describe civilian deaths is to denote at best that these people were “hurt” rather than killed and at worst that they are somehow comparable with the buildings in the surrounding area and therefore snuffing out their lives is merely “damage.”

The pro-life movement also has to counteract a form of dehumanization: the lethal ageism that bases the moral worth of human beings on their stage of development. This idea within our culture is that the humanity of the fetus is treated with ambiguity despite the biological evidence that affirms it.[14] It is also evident in the court system in which the Supreme Court declared pre-born humans to be “non-persons” in Roe v. Wade.[15] Thus this ageism is not only prevalent in society but is legitimized by the State. The fetus is excluded from the community of legal protection in which other people older than he or she are included. This dehumanization is also fostered by language. The fetus is called a “parasite,” “trash,” a “potential person” and is often referred to as “it” when described with a pro-noun (implying the fetus is an object).[16] Even the term “fetus” (which is simply Latin for “little one”[17]) itself is sometimes used to advance dehumanization due to its alien sounding nature. The somewhat alien appearance of the fetus also adds to this ageism since it makes it harder for the public to identify with the unborn due to difference in appearance.

Another mechanism that causes societal violence is “distancing”.[18] This is a kind of “out of sight, out of mind” approach in which we isolate ourselves from the violence inflicted on others. Physical distance adds to this since it limits our sight from what is going on. MacNair gives an example of this in the Vietnam War when a bomber was shot down and held hostage by a native. There was a point when the native dropped his rifle and the bomber actually gave the gun back to him. He did this because there was a group of children following them and the bomber did not want to have to kill them. This is rather contradictory considering the fact that his bombs were very likely killing children anyway. Yet the fact that he was facing those children up close as opposed to bombing them from far away changed his disposition toward killing them.[19]

The mechanism of distancing can be observed in the vast spatial difference between Americans and the Japanese. The victims of the bombing were in Japan, far away from the United States. Thus the burnt Japanese were out of sight and made invisible. Unfortunately this caused people to give the matter less thought because it was not affecting them. The spatial difference can even be seen in the relation between the bomber and the bombed. In The Atomic Café, the captain of the plane that bombed Nagasaki is interviewed about his experience in the bombing and all he talks about are the clouds and smoke.[20] He makes no mention of the people because he could not see them.