Photographs of violence produce paradoxical responses. On the one hand, the acknowledgement of the crime and confrontation with its gruesome effects is an admittance of the need for social improvement; on the other, repeated confrontation with such images may simply numb us to their shocking effects. Does photography allow us to bear witness to a victim’s suffering, or does it anaesthetise us to the horror?
The photographs in this section show the human drive to witness and document violent events. Weegee’s photographs of curious bystanders in New York depict their morbid fascination with death by unnatural causes. Different series from Italy, Mexico and South Africa all record the dramatic moments leading up to suicides. Originally published as news pictures for local tabloids, these pictures raise questions about the ethics of depicting the moment of death.
The supposed veracity of the camera has often been used to provide evidence of particular social or political issues. Letizia Battaglia used a forensic visual style to expose the Mafia culture of Palermo in the hope of ending the city’s endemic violence. Equally stark is Lee Miller’s photograph of the daughter of the Bürgermeister of Leipzig, dead by suicide at the end of the Second World War. By contrast, Stephen Shames’s portrait of an IRA gunman shows the confrontational sitter in his home surrounded by weapons, as well as domestic objects. Though Larry Clark’s photographs of drug-takers may shock the viewer, they maintain an ambiguity that hints at the photographer’s own involvement in the scene.
The works shown here by Alexander Gardner, Felice Beato and John Reekie are among the earliest examples of war photography. While confronting the general public with the gruesome sightsof the battlefield, photographers would sometimes manipulate the ‘props’ of the scene, such as guns and limbs, to portray their own side more favourably. William Saunders’s decision to capture a public execution in China during the Second Opium War fulfils his audience’s expectation that the enemy is ‘savage’, helping to justify the British military offensive.
Photographic evidence of the Concentration Camps in Poland and Germany was vital in establishing the truth about the Holocaust. The shifting attitudes to capital punishment in the United States of the early twentieth century are conveyed in two sets of photographs from this period. A surreptitious photograph of the convicted murderer Ruth Snyder shows the inhumanity of the electric chair. Around the same time, lynching photographs were printed and circulated as postcards, celebrating these brutal acts of vigilantism. An installation by contemporary artist Oliver Lutz puts the viewer into the frame, forcing us to imagine ourselves as witnesses to the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish man accused of murder but now widely regarded as innocent.