In his talk at the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at the University of Utah, Farmer remarks on the lack of attention given to such human rights abuses, focusing on the lack of access by a majority of the world's population to health care. While most activists point out the already clear apathy reflected in the international community regarding current affairs and human rights abuses such as the growing inaccesibility to social services, increasing "developing world" debt, and violent conflicts such as those in Darfur, Farmer instead asks why?
He presents a photo of a Haitian woman named Lorieze who, unable to receive assistance for the growing pain in her breast, finally received surgery and treatment at the Partners in Health facility in central Haiti. Lorieze's post-mastectomy photo appeared in a photographic exhibit at Harvard University. Several visitors complained about the photo, stating that it was offensive, demanding that it be removed. Farmer asks, "What about this photo, I wonder, prompted such an extreme reaction? It can't be just the depiction of a breast. Is it the suggestion of disease, surgery, pain, and other things we prefer not to think about? Or is the deeper history that the photograph expresses, if we only know how to decipher it?" (Farmer, 172)
Farmer's approach deeply reflects the sentiments of Sontag. Much can be said about this photo, but, as Sontag says about the video on the internet showing David Pearl's brutal executation at the hands of religious wackos in Pakistan, "It is easier to think of the enemy as just a savage that kills, then holds up the head of his prey for all to see." (Sontag, 70) If you look too closely, analyzing the context that gives a photo or video life, you may discover some piece of information that you were intentionally or subconsciously avoiding.
To analyze the historical and institutional structures that permitted Lorieze's breast tumor to consume nearly 100% of the healthy breast tissue is to reveal much of what's wrong with the world today. On the other hand, Sontag points out that such images "carry a double message. They show a suffering that is outraegous, unjust, and should be repaired. They confirm that this is the sort of thing which happens in that place. The ubiquity of those photographs, and those horrors, cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward - that is, poor - parts of the world." (Sontag, 71)
Perhaps people are more comfortable with certain famous pictures, for example those from World War I, because they represent something that happened in the past, and, to most of the people still living today, the 1930s are the distant past. Other photographs such as Lorieze's depict modern violence -both structural and physical-, but they nonetheless seem distant. In our society, we have terms associated with the description of the multiple worlds that people seem to pretend exist on earth. For example, "1st world" vs "3rd world" or the equivalent, more politically correct version, "developed world" vs "developing world". These terms push inequalities (healthcare) and violence (Darfur) literally into another world. In this alternate world, these problems are in no way linked to our lives. Sontag argues that images perpetuate this form of absolvement, but I disagree. The fact that people refuse to look at these pictures or to ask why demonstrates the strength of this separation of worlds and the power of images to bridge the gap.
Assuming that I'm right that images help mend the gap, the final analysis that must be made is whether or not the effectiveness of images is compromised by their abundance. Sontag asks, "Does shock have term limits?" (Sontag, 82) Will images of children with swollen bellies and flies on their crusty lips at some point cease to arouse sympathy in viewers? With growing inequalities in the world, leading to more disease, poverty, and violence, media is called on more and more to draw the sympathy of the "developed world". Technology has certainly helped to facilitate this increased demand through better international access to literature, film, and images. As technology improves and, as the word about international social issues continues to proliferate, people are beginning to become desensitized to the pleas of "the other". The problem is that as need for sympathy increases, more images must be circulated; as more images are circulated, less sympathy is available. Sontag's solution is simple: The reason that sympathy dies off after intensified exposure is that "compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translate into action, or it withers." (Sontag, 101)
I made a mistake over spring break. I embarked on a cruise to the western Caribbean with my family, ports of call: Haiti, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Mexico. In Haiti, the approximately 100 acres of real estate that we were permitted to explore was owned by Royal Caribbean. It was beautiful: turqoise water, densely-forrested mountains, padded recliners, and tropical drinks abounded. Around the compound, I observed a ten-foot high fence, topped off with barbed wire. There was only once entrance to the compound, which was guarded by Haitian soldiers with big guns. At the one end of the wall, it turned from concrete to steel fence. Upon closer inspection, I noticed dozens of Haitians from the real Haiti hanging on the fence, intently focused on the wealthy cruise passengers inside. I thought about how appropriate it was that even when we visit Haiti we maintain barriers between "us" and "them" in much the same way that our structural adjustment policies and other foreign policies maintain barriers between "us" (developed world) and "them" (developing world) on the grander scale. While lined up to board the tenders to re-embark the ship, a woman behind me in line proclaimed upon observation of the men, women, and children latched to the fence, "that's terrible that we should have to see that kind of stuff on a cruise".
As long as people are unwilling to face the deeper meanings that come with images of inequality and violence, you can be assured that the images maintain their potent effect. If such images were to become commonplace, it would signify that they are being recognized "as part of what a society chooses to think about, or declares that it has chosen to think about." (Sontag, 85) Whether they are afraid of the truth behind the image or their own helplessness in rectifying the issue, many people apparently would prefer not to have to think about Haiti or any other problems of the "developing world". People have certainly seen a great deal of these images, but because nothing has been done to alleviate the suffering of the "developing world", or at least there's no clear light at the end of the tunnel, the sympathy of the "developed world", which is difficult to arouse in the first place due to the nature of the historical truths that accompany suffering, remains at rest.