Images, Tragedy and Bearing Witness

Photograph Source: David Dellinger – Public Domain

A recent visit to the Museum of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva raised questions about the relation between images, tragedy and bearing witness. Television and social media continue to show images of Russian bombings in Ukraine. Front-line reporters interview victims who have lost relatives and live precariously in fear of new explosions. Hurricane Ian’s devastation is also brought into our homes with the inevitable question to those who have seen their material goods pulverized by winds and water: “How are you coping?” But how are we coping? How are we reacting to the images flashing across our screens? While we are not direct witnesses to the tragedies, we are indirect witnesses through the images via the media.

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing. The particular situation of seeing the devastation of bombings in Ukraine or the stories of the over one hundred people who died and the shattered homes after Hurricane Ian places the seer in the position of being more than a distant, indirect witness to great tragedy.

How are we to react? At the Museum, the permanent exhibition – through images and film, through the lives of those living through crisis and the work of the Red Cross delegates – tries to put the visitor into the work of the ICRC in situations of humanitarian crises. According to its website: “The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum asks a central question: how does humanitarian action affect us all, here and now? 

So the Museum, like the media in Ukraine and Florida, puts us into situations as witnesses to crises. The images are very powerful. But what am I to do? How am I affected? The simplest answer would be to contribute funds to some relief organization. Or, in the situation of humanitarian prevention, to be more sensitive to ecological problems.

We are overwhelmed with images of crises but underwhelmed with answers about what to do. “In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of virtual messages,” Berger noted. And it is the overwhelming images of crises we are subjected to that may place us further from direct reaction. How many times must we see the horrendous effects of Russian missiles before we understand which side we are to be on? How many examples of the horrors of wars and genocides are we to be subjected to before…before what? How many images of the devastation of hurricanes are we to see before we understand the effects of climate change?

The more tragic images we are shown, the more distant we may become from the events themselves. We may become more passive.

And even cynical. Certain reporters seem to relish the hug from the victim, the momentary sharing of some forced empathetic moment before heading back to a luxury hotel and the comforts they assume their privilege. Like the lawyers chasing ambulances in big cities, reporters search for the most tragic story of those who have lost everything, family, home and all to impact the audience. And we can watch all of this from the comforts of our homes.

At the Museum, I read the names of the World War I missing parents who were listed by the Red Cross. I saw pictures and the names of young children who had disappeared during the Rwanda genocide. I admired the stories of those delegates who had gone into prisons to make sure those incarcerated were well treated as well as keeping their families informed of their situation. The independence, neutrality and impartiality of the organization was beyond reproach.

But it is me the witness who continues to question. I can see images and hear explanations. I can watch the news and see the effects of hurricanes and bombings without fully understanding what I am supposed to do. Does being a witness imply a given reaction? Is there something voyeuristic about watching other people’s tragedies in the comfort of home or a museum and thinking “I am so much better off”.

Berger wrote: “It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it [images].” I watch the news. I have been to the Museum. “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” Berger wrote. He was spot on. But beyond the relation between what we see and what we know is the distance between what we see, what we know, and what we do. To that he had no answer.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.