The debate on the ethical limits of art and all its mediums such as photography has always been a controversial topic that has not found a definitive answer yet.
March 16th, 1978: Aldo Moro, then president of Christian Democracy (Italy’s relative majority party at the time) is kidnapped by a group of Red Brigades terrorists (the paramilitary organization responsible for numerous murders and kidnappings during Italy’s “Years of Lead”). He will be murdered at the beginning of May. The Red Brigades disclose the prisoner’s letters and photographs. The picture you see here was the first one to be published on the “Corriere della Sera” (one of the main Italian newspapers) in a controversial editorial. The dilemma: censoring photography or playing the terrorists’ game?
Two years before, in 1975, actress and model Brooke Shields poses nude for Garry Gross photography project “The Woman in the Child”; she is ten years old. Her mother signs a contract which confers the images’ rights entirely to Gross. Six years later, Brooke Shields wants to regain rights over her nude portraits: the result is a legal battle which Gross eventually wins. The picture rights are later sold to artist Richard Prince, who names the photograph “Spiritual America” and auctions it for $151.000. To what extent is what we consider private untouchable?
While the legal battle for the rights is going on, in 1985 the volcanic eruption of Nevado del Ruiz (Colombia) kills 24.000 people. 13-year-old girl Omayra Sanchez is trapped beneath the debris of her house. The life-saving equipment does not make it on time and after three days of struggling, she dies. Photographer Frank Fournier is there and takes a picture of her last moments, in an attempt to give a testimony of her dignity. One year after, he receives the World Press Photo prize but still has Hamletic doubts: is it possible to showcase pain without failing to respect it?
Photography is not a dry documentation of reality for one simple reason: there is a person behind the camera and there is a choice behind every shoot. French intellectual Roland Barthes in “Camera Lucida” reflects on the lasting emotional effects of certain photos, in a more intimate than theoretical work. Every photograph is for him a memorial; he bites into photography like Proust into a madeleine. While looking at an old picture of his mother, he is in search of lost time. Contemplating a portrait of Lewis Payne, sentenced to death for attempted murder of US Secretary of State Seward in 1865, Barthes sees a disturbing temporal paradox “he is dead and he is going to die”.
The debate between photography and ethics is not only never over, but has been transformed and expanded by social media: in June 2014 an Israeli girl created a Facebook page: “With My Besties In Auschwitz”, with hundreds of selfies of Israeli students during their school trips to Nazi concentration camps in Poland. In 36 hours, the page was visited and shared by millions of people, collected more than 12k likes, but also heavy criticism. The page was finally closed, but opened a debate on whether selfies of Jewish teenagers smiling in front of the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” were disrespectful or if they had a certain beauty, as symbols of renewed happiness despite Hitler’s efforts.
Roland Barthes melancholically observes: “ Ultimately, in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes. ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight,’ Janouch told Kafka; and he smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.”