The impact of photographs, particularly photographs of violence and suffering, has long been debated. In the essay In Plato’s Cave Susan Sontag describes how photographs from the concentration camps of World War Two physically affected her; she was shocked and horrified by what she saw. But she says that we become desensitised to images of suffering if we see too many of them, over-saturation causes their impact to diminish and they become banal. Sontag says ‘photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised – partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror.’ (1977 P19) This suggests that photographs of war, natural disaster and other humanitarian crises make the events seem familiar but remote. We are aware that they are happening but we also know they are happening somewhere else so they actually make us feel safe and secure rather than shocked and impelled to take action. Although I generally think this is the case, I recently came across some advertising campaigns that made me think again.
In 2014 Amnesty International commissioned an advertising campaign to raise awareness of humanitarian crises and the abuse of human rights taking place around the globe. The posters were installed in 200 locations across Zurich. The advertising company (Pius Walker, creative director) came to the conclusion that people find it easier to identify with issues if they are presented to the audience in a local setting. I think this cleverly disrupts the desensitisation that Sontag talks about. The adverts bring the crises much closer to home, reducing the feeling of ‘safe distance’ that a similar image in a newspaper might produce. The adverts depict a person or people, acting out some of the global issues that Amnesty International campaign against, but the individuals are superimposed into the location in which each poster is installed. This creates an illusion that the subject or subjects, and the human rights abuses they signify are located in Zurich.
Photographs of global crises are taken and disseminated to inform people and hopefully encourage them to take action that will relieve the issue. Although the prevalence of shocking photographs can reduce the impact of images of atrocity I think the Amnesty International adverts have an impact because they are photographs. Sontag describes how photographs differ from other forms of figurative visual representation (such as drawing or painting). She says ‘photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it…A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened.’ (1977 P5) This is because of the particularity of a photograph. A painting or drawing of a person could be based on a number of different people or have derived solely from the artists’ imagination, but a photograph of a person depicts a real person. Sontag borrows some of her ideas about ‘photographic truth’ from Roland Barthes seminal photography essay Camera Lucida. In this text Barthes says the things depicted in photographs are not ‘optionally real’ as they are in paintings, but ‘necessarily real’, he says ‘in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.’ (1980 p76-7) I think this is key to the power of photography; its ability to make you acknowledge that something is really taking place somewhere in the world. The Amnesty International campaign was effective because it suggests that the abuses are really happening whilst bringing the ‘somewhere in the world’ closer to home.
The adverts harness the ‘realness’ of photography to create the illusion that the viewer isn’t actually looking at a photograph at all. We know we are looking at something that has been ‘faked’ but the moment before we identify and unravel the illusion, we are shocked by what we see. The notion of photographic truth is used and disrupted at the same time.
As I was researching for this blog I found some other advertising campaigns that also use illusion, installation and the close proximity of the image to cause an impact. I would be interested to know which you think are most successful and why.