SOMEONE ELSE’S WINDOWS: Picture imperfect

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/20 November) – Nobody can be so coldblooded as not to feel the anguish of the people of Leyte and other provinces hit by super typhoon Yolanda. If our senses aren’t deceiving us, Leyte at least has virtually become a wasteland. The images of human suffering in those places evoke a sense of despair, shock and above all, sincere grief for the survivors who may even envy the dead considering what they must go through.

Yet while the images and stories of misery have galvanized a sense of national solidarity, repeated exposure to them could result in the psychological equivalent of overdose. Such overdose could lead the mind to a state where it tends to eventually regard even the most depressing images as simply more of the same stuff. Watching the victims endure hunger becomes as mechanical as scooping food from our filled plates as we watch the evening news. The level of sympathy dissipates over time; it’s as if we’re just watching a horror movie again and again that the gore no longer frightens us.

Perhaps this is why after 9/11 some experts in the US advised TV networks to minimize showing the footage of that terror attack. I can’t exactly recall how it was worded, but the argument was that repeatedly seeing such scene tends to desensitize the mind to violence in general.

It can be said that this is not the case for those in the field, for example, reporters and relief workers, because they come in direct contact with the survivors. Proximity breeds genuine empathy. But there’s danger in it too, as human reaction to tragedies comes in various packages.

Who can forget Kevin Carter, the South African photojournalist who committed suicide in 1994, months after taking pictures of a wasted African child who had to crawl his way to a UN relief mission in Sudan while being tailed by a vulture? Accounts said Carter killed himself because that image and the other memories of war and violence kept haunting him.

However, the sense of guilt and depression that Carter felt and his subsequent suicide was just one end of the pole. At the other end is the tendency to fully dissociate one’s self from a disaster and similar situations.

A corpse lies buried beneath the debris. Click the shutter and leave and forget the whole thing. A hungry child clutches his mother’s arms, begging for food. Roll the camera and leave and forget the whole thing. It’s just a job. Journalists in particular have mastered the art of rationalizing that detachment is the rule of thumb when it comes to tragedies.

A photographer told me years ago his camera serves as a buffer between him and the emotions of his subjects. The lens captures human drama and stores it in a chip measuring less than a square inch, enough space to contain grief and suffering and prevent it from contaminating the heart and mind the way it did to Carter. Emotions frozen as digital files.

But that – digitizing our capacity for emotions – is precisely another tragedy, maybe worse than committing suicide, although I don’t subscribe to that either. After all, the best photos in the world don’t mirror the technical potential of the cameras but the feelings of the photographers, their vast capacity for compassion and sense of humanity. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at