Portraits of Pain: Should We View Images of Injustice Toward Others?
You can now see nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, among others, on the Internet.
You can also watch two American journalists suffer brutal deaths by beheading.
But should you?
Over the last few days, a copious assortment of nude celebrity photos have been making their way around the internet, including photos of America’s darling Jennifer Lawrence, which were obtained by a hacker exploiting Apple’s iCloud storage system. The photos were never intended for public viewing, and some were even recovered after having been deleted.
Also gracing the pages of the net are gruesome photos and videos documenting the beheading death of freelance reporter Steven Sotloff at the hands of the Islamic State. The extremist group ISIS threatened to execute him in a previous video, one that included the equally barbaric beheading of freelancer James Foley.
The Internet is an incredible creation. It connects humans across the globe in an instant. It gives a voice to those who otherwise may have never had an outlet for their stories. It provides the most powerful tool for human collaboration since language first formed.
But it also allows us to easily consume injustices served onto others.
There is really no comparing the scale of injustice between the leaked nudes of celebrities and the snuff films produced by the ISIS fighters. The pain of a family knowing their loved one, an innocent, suffered a violent death for simply being from the wrong country at the wrong place at the wrong time, is incomparable to the temporary humiliation of having explicit photos of yourself circulated around the Internet.
Though the situations are not equal in scope, the explosion of individuals attempting to access these images allows us to raise a question pertinent to both: Is it wrong for people to view images which are directly or indirectly intended to cause harm to others? Can we truly be passive observers to images not meant to portray injustice, but to inflict injustice?
In the case of the leaked celebrity nudes, actor Seth Rogen offered a simple but poignant take on the situation.
“Posting pics hacked from someone’s cell phone is really no different than selling stolen merchandise,” he said.
He’s right. The photos and videos are the property of the women who took them, and were to be viewed by their intended recipients. Any use beyond that is akin to stealing a person’s cellphone, or their car, and using it for themselves.
“But wait,” begins the rebuttal. “I didn’t steal the photos — I simply viewed them.”
This makes the viewer complicit in the crime. Just as we have decided as a society that purchasing stolen merchandise is wrong, does it not stand to reason that intentionally viewing photographic property stolen from others is also wrong?
To speak of the theft of one’s personal photographic property only begins the discussion. What truly causes the injustice to those who have been robbed is not the theft of the photo, but the theft of their privacy, the theft of the intimacy they intended to share with a particular individual. There is no price tag attached to a person’s intimate moments.
In the case of the celebrity nudes, it is obvious why individuals seek them out — the photos are nudes of beautiful, famous women.
But what of the beheadings?
The executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff are drawing major views. The controversial video sharing site Liveleak, known for hosting videos of graphic war zone and drug cartel violence, warned users of site slowdowns due to an “abnormally high volume of traffic” following the posting of Foley’s execution. The site has since decided to ban future beheading videos.
This is not to shame, or condone, those who find a morbid fascination with the moment of death.
The executions were not simply films depicting death. The videos are wrought with ISIS propaganda. The journalists were forced to condemn their homes before having their throats slit and their heads sawn from their torsos. All of this was available in beautiful HD, complete with ISIS graphics.
There is an argument that these films should be viewed, so that the brutality of ISIS can be understood to its fullest, most disturbing extent. Through exposure to the visceral images of the journalists’ deaths, the idea posits, perhaps the world will be shocked into paying attention to this rising threat.
There is value to that argument, but not in these instances. ISIS wants us to watch those videos.
The videos are not documenting an injustice; they are intended to perpetrate one.
From the orange, Guantanamo Bay invoking jumpsuits worn by the journalists, to the forced condemnation of President Obama and the United States they issued, the videos were intended to shame us and to scare us.
To view these videos is to participate in the exploitation of innocent men in their final moments. To view these videos is to give ISIS a soapbox to preach atop.
Remember Foley and Sotloff by looking up their work. Read their articles, get familiar with them and get angry that their talent and passion was ripped from this world in such a violent and unjust manner.
When we view images that are intended to cause pain for the subjects, we become complicit in the injustice.
The anonymity of the Internet allows us a comfortable distance from which to exploit those unfortunate enough to find themselves victims to documented injustice. Where there is anonymity, there is not accountability.
An individual’s character is never so candid as when no one is watching.
Show your character. Don’t exploit those who have been victimized by the Internet’s penchant to never forget.