Viewer and Victim

“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.

There is also distancing between the fetus and Americans; because of his or her proximity within the mother’s womb, the fetus is “away” or at least hidden from most Americans. We treat birth as if it is “coming into the world” and thus imply that the womb is somehow outside the world in some type of limbo between existence and pre-existence. This causes the fetus to be made invisible and thus we have ambiguity about his or her very humanity.

The final mechanism that I think applies to this hegemony of legitimized violence is the “just world” view.[21] This is the view that the world we live in (or at least the power structure that we live under) is inherently just. Thus the very possibility of societal injustice is excluded from our minds. If the state is sanctioning some type of violence either by bombing Hiroshima or by legalizing abortion it must be just somehow, because our government is just. MacNair points to the phenomenon of slut-shaming rape victims as an example: people blame the victim because the possibility that we live in an unjust rape culture is excluded from thought.

Now I should make it clear that I am merely talking about the aesthetic hegemony that both of these movements have to overcome, not the intellectual, ideological, and philosophic hegemony that they must overcome. This is the fourth mechanism that MacNair refers to as “The cognitive transformation of reprehensible conduct into good conduct.”[22] Graphic pictures are not and should not be used as substitutes for intellectual argument on behalf of these causes. They are the pathos, not the logos of the argument. They do not make arguments such as “if we had not bombed the Japanese, than we would have lost more troops in the invasion” or “if we had not legalized abortion, mothers would be dying from back alley abortions” go away. A rebuttal to such arguments must be taken on the logical level and the photos merely add a healthy emotional element to those arguments. So when I argue that these photos break the hegemony of moral ambiguity, I merely mean on an emotional and aesthetic level.

Photography has an ability to break spatial barriers between peoples; because the images it gives are portable, it allows someone to see others who live in far distant places without ever leaving their own country. Thus The Atomic Café can show Americans the burned Japanese without having to take them to Japan. In the same sense, The Silent Scream shows viewers who have already been born the occupant of the womb without performing a C-section. The graphic imagery breaks the spatial barrier between the viewer and the victim.

Graphic images also breaks the process of dehumanization because of the gut moral revulsion that viewers feel toward them. The viewers’ desire to not see these human beings burnt or dismembered implies that they are seeing these victims as beings with moral worth. Thus they cannot easily dismiss these victims as subhuman and be reconciled with their desire to not see these “subhumans” destroyed.

It is through Chanan’s defense of the integrity of the image that graphic imagery breaks the “just world view” aspect of the hegemony of legitimized violence. One of the greatest arguments that may be hurled against users of graphic imagery is the post modern argument that these photos, no matter how compelling they are, can not represent reality. Chanan’s response would be that subjectivity and objectivity are not exclusive when it comes to photography and that while the pictures of victims are not the victims themselves, the victims they depict have a determinable link to the real world.[23] The singed Japanese bodies depicted in The Atomic Café and the dismembered fetuses depicted in The Silent Scream were real people in the real world who really were killed. The photos are fragments of reality, but still depict reality nonetheless. These pictures’ determinable link to the real world shows that the world we live in is not just, that injustice is a possibility, and it is staring the viewer right in the face.

Now some may argue that graphic pictures have a desensitizing effect and that after prolonged exposure, people become used to them, and the emotional stigma associated with them gradually withers away. Susan Sontag argued this in her New York Times piece, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” that the constant presence of violent imagery in culture causes people to lose their moral stigma against violence. She is particularly concerned with how the torturers in Abu Ghraib seem to gleefully take pictures of their own atrocities and send them to friends.[24] In her book On Photography, Sontag compares photos of atrocities to pornography; she argues that just as pornography eventually dulls the initial sexual excitement of first seeing it, pro-longed exposure to photos of atrocities eventually dulls the moral and emotional outrage the viewer feels when seeing them.[25]

I think this argument holds merit in the sense that it is damaging to watch these graphic images over and over again. One never wants to get to the point where they can watch them while eating popcorn. The imagery certainly should be used sparingly, however I would not take that to the conclusion that they should not be used at all. Humans are ultimately visual creatures and unfortunately they sometimes need visual representation to fully understand the evil of an action. Mere words alone do not do that.

The context of cinema however helps to counteract desensitization. Because of the editor’s ability instill emotion through rhythm and story,[26] the graphic images’ placement in the sequence and musical timing allows the emotional stigma they have to be preserved. However, even if the audience would become desensitized to the emotional impact of the imagery, the moral impact will likely still remain. People may not feel the same emotional horror in looking at the images of the holocaust that they felt when first learning of it, or of looking at images of lynchings when learning of Jim Crow, but they still feel the moral repulsion toward it. The images may not make them mad anymore, but it will make them consider the higher norms of how human beings ought to be treated.

There is also something to be said of the context of the film itself in fighting moral desensitization. The type of entertainment violence in mainstream culture today and in the Roman blood-sport of yesteryear were and are meant to be for the enjoyment of the audience. Documentarians can frame their graphic imagery in a way that is not glorifying violence and is not for the enjoyment of the audience. An example of this being used in narrative would be The Hunger Games (2012) in which the plot is set around a fictional world where teenage children kill each other.[27] The way the violence is edited with its use of ambience makes the gore sobering as opposed to exciting. They are not scenes one looks forward to when re-watching the movie. The context of the film plus its subject matter does not allow the audience to have entertainment from the imagery. While this cannot stop desensitization from repetitive viewings, it can preserve the moral sting of the image.

Both of these documentaries also use juxtaposition to preserve an emotional outrage toward the graphic imagery. The Atomic Café does this early on by juxtaposing the destruction of Hiroshima and the burned victims of the bombing with partying Americans at the end of World War II.[28] Doing so creates an intellectual montage that calls into question the nationalistic presumption that we should celebrate over the deaths of foreigners in war. The Silent Scream does this type of juxtaposition later on in the film when Bernard Nathanson discusses Planned Parenthood’s commercial success through providing abortion. The movie shows imagery of Planned Parenthood facilities intercut with graphic photos of dead fetuses in buckets.[29] Doing so creates an intellectual montage that says behind this facility with its nice slogans is an organization that makes money off dead children.

Something that may limit the impact of the image is the mindset and environment of the viewer. Chanan talks about this in his book The Politics of Documentary in which he states that there is a series of sociological and psychological factors that affect how people view the film.[30] Thus when The Silent Scream came out, one of the criticisms of it was that it was not known whether the twelve-week-old fetus thrashing on the ultrasound could really feel pain. Others criticized it for making the fetus appear larger than it already was.[31] The sociological factor of ableism thus affect how people viewed the film. No one seemed to deny that the fetus was dismembered; their main contention was that the dismemberment was not that bad if it was carried out on someone small.

For both of these films, their opponents will likely accuse the documentarians of “manipulating people’s emotions.” Thus viewers with strongly opposing ideologies will feel offended by the photos rather than convicted. Comparing two films from opposite sides of the political spectrum also helps us to see the double standard that people apply to graphic photos. The leftist who opposes the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will likely agree that the graphic imagery in The Atomic Café is important in revealing injustice, but are more inclined to label similar graphic images of dead fetuses in The Silent Scream as mere emotional manipulation. On the flip side of that, the rightist who views The Silent Scream will see it as a graphic evidence for her cause against abortion, but will view the use of similar graphic imagery in The Atomic Café as an example of “liberal heart bleeding.”


In the struggle against this hegemony of legitimized violence, this “culture of death,” the anti-nuclear movement and the anti-abortion movement as well as other historic movements against violence like the anti-lynching, anti-war and anti-slavery movement have been willing to use graphic imagery to raise moral outrage against the violence they were protesting.

However in the twenty first century, both the anti-abortion and anti-nuclear movements have gradually given less attention that this approach. Blood Money (2009), a twenty-first century anti-abortion documentary does not show any graphic images, and actually makes a point to censor them out at some point.[32] At the same time, Countdown to Zero (2010), a twenty-first century anti-nuclear documentary, does not show the burned bodies of Hiroshima and in fact barely mentions the bombing in moral terms.[33] The reasons for this is likely a fear that it will “turn off” viewers from the message. While this certainly may be true, the fact that people are turned away from a message because its proponents present graphic evidence of evil says much more about said people than it does the graphic image: it shows that people value politeness over moral implication, that when they see the pictures of dead Japanese and dead fetuses, they think “this is really disturbing; what is wrong with the people showing this?” rather than “this is really disturbing, why is this legally sanctioned?” This brings to mind Susan Sontag’s remark about the President Bush claiming to be disgusted at the photos of Abu Ghraib: “The administration’s initial response was to say that the president was shocked and disgusted by the photographs—as if the fault or horror lay in the images, not in what they depict.”[34] People being too squeamish to see graphic evidence of injustice may just do more to reinforce the hegemony of moral ambiguity. Without proper visualization, the victims of these acts of homicide become hidden in the abstract and thus the moral certainty of the cause on their behalf is also placed in the abstract.

Still the use of graphic imagery in activism is not dead in the twenty-first century. A famous example would be the Wikileaks video that reveals soldiers in Iraq targeting and killing journalists. Such footage is said to have motivated the Iraqi government not allow the Obama administration to extend their occupation date in Iraq.[35] In pro-life activism there is an online film found on that shows a montage of dismembered fetuses intercut with footage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to give it both a prophetic flair as well as to connect it with historic injustice.[36] However these activists are considered outside the establishment of their own movements. The mainstream pro-peace and pro-life movements are very careful to keep the use of graphic imagery in moderate use, which is beneficial in light of Sontag’s argument, but it will be hard for these movements to break the hegemony of legitimized violence if they pursue a total abandonment of graphic evidence.

Some may, at the end of all of this, still claim that The Atomic Café and The Silent Scream cannot be compared because they come from different ends of the political spectrum, one taking on a left wing cause (anti-nuclear) and the other a right wing cause (anti-abortion). This objection takes the political spectrum too literally. “Left wing” and “right wing” are merely metaphorical terms, not literal directions; the political spectrum and the division of movements is itself a cultural construction, a type of hegemony, one that should also be challenged and done away with. It is the most dastardly grid of intelligibility ever constructed, because in appearing to show the range of ideology, its very nature presumes that certain ideas should never go together and thus puts an invisible block on certain views. May the similarities between these two documentaries spark a movement to assault that hegemony as well! May society see that the victims in both of theses documentaries are both real victims in a real world of lethal ageism and jingoistic nationalism. May we have a new generation of documentaries that reveal all of the victims of legalized homicide, not just breaking the spatial barrier between American and foreigner or born and preborn, but the spatial barrier between Left and Right in our minds that irrationally segregates the advocates of life and peace.



[1] Matthew Brady Studio. Private Gordon. 1863. National Portrait Gallery. <>. Albumen silver print, 3.4”x2.2”. Accessed July 28, 2013.

[2] Rafferty, Kevin, Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty, and Rick Eaker. The Atomic Cafe. New York: Docurama, 1982.

[3] Dabner, Jack D, and Bernard N. Nathanson. The Silent Scream. Brunswick, OH: American Portrait Films, 1984.

[4] Chanan, Michael. The Politics of Documentary. London: British Film Institute, 2007. Hard Cover. PAGE REF. NEEDED


[6] Sontag, Susan. “Regarding the Torture of Others” New York Times 23 May 2004 late ed.: electronic

[7] Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: Toronto, 1973. Hard Cover

[8] Murch, Walter. In The Blink of An Eye. Los Angelus: Silman-James Press. 2001. Paper back. PAGE REF NEEDED

[9] MacNair, Rachel. The Psychology of Peace:an introduction. Westport, Connecticut London: Praeger, 2003. Hard cover. PAGE REF NEEDED

[10] (“japs” political cartoons, need at least one to cite)

[11] (internment camps citation)


[13] (“collateral damage” used to describe warfar, need at least one instance to cite)

[14] (humanity of fetus -> ambiguity despite biology, need reference to one instance to cite)

[15] (Roe v. Wade citation + cite section where “nonperson”)

[16] (where is fetus called “parasite,” “trash,” “potential person,” “it”? Please cite at least one document stating these terms)

[17] (“japs” political cartoons, need at least one to cite)

[18] MacNair, 4.


[20] Rafferty, Loader, Rafferty, and Eaker, TIME REF NEEDED

[21] MacNair, 6.

[22] Ibid., 20.

[23] Chanan, 4.

[24] Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others.”

[25] Sontag, On Photography, 20.

[26] Murch, 20.

[27] (Hunger Games movie citation needed)

[28] Rafferty, Loader, Rafferty, and Eaker, TIME REF NEEDED

[29] Dabner and Nathanson, TIME REF NEEDED.

[30] Chanan, 55.

[31] (criticisms of fetal size citation needed)

[32] (Blood Money movie citation needed)

[33] (Countdown to Zero movie citation needed)

[34] Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others.”

[35] Greenwald, Glenn. “Wikileaks Cable and the Iraq War.” Salon 23 October 2011. electronic

[36] ( citation needed)

#volume2issue4 #unjustwar #abortion

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