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Monday, December 6, 2010

True sympathy or self-conceited use of suffering?*

(c) Time
Often it's hard to differentiate between the two because there is only a very thin line between the sensitive portrayal of suffering and self-conceited use of suffering to further one's own agenda.

How many times have you seen a sorry picture of a mal-nourished child scraping a trash liner for food? Or an image of a sad small puppy with big eyes wandering on its own looking for a home? Or of a woman violently beaten/burnt/abused by her husband's family? Undoubtedly, such photographs move us, expose us to the reality we'd rather not see. They sadden most of us, but what purpose does that saddening serve?

Do you overcome your sadness after a while and then sit back with your feet up on the table, sipping a warm cup of tea and watch something 'lighter' on the television? Maybe if you are a little more sensitive, you dial up the appealing charity/shelter/organisation and arrange for a donation of £5 a month so that a child in the third world can go to school. Not that I'm feeling Scroogey now that Christmas is around, but does either sympathy or donation make any real difference?

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it is much easier to sypathise with suffering than with thought. We think we are sensitive if we can see a grotesque image of suffering and feel sad. However, that does not even scrape the surface of sensitivity that all of us are capable of. Real sensitivity lies in sympathy with thoughts and ideas.

Not such a long time ago, Time magazine ran a cover with a photograph of a mutilated Afghani girl. Bibi Aisha became known internationally through this cover after having suffered at the hands of her husband and the Taliban. But what I am more interested in is the discourse the image is situated in. The photograph ran with the tormenting headline 'What Happens if we Leave Afghanistan'.

All that the image did was create global sympathy for the conditions in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. In a very obvious juxtaposition of America as the 'saviour' and Afghnistan as the 'victim' and 'site of violence and terrorism', Bibi Aisha was flown from Afghanistan into America and offered free plastic surgery to repair her nose and ears. I, for one, saw no point in that action.

The second image taken after Bibi Aisha had been 'repaired' was more disturbing because a single look at the photo shows how she is being used a poster image by America to further its propaganda and agenda of violence. The plastic poster status accorded to her is clear with the layers of foundation and blush and lip gloss so clearly visible on her face.

And this is precisely what makes me sceptical of the intentions of images of suffering. There are millions of suffering women in Afghanistan, women who have suffered not only under the Taliban regime but continue to suffer because of the war on terror. Paying for one woman's flight and plastic surgery can't make up for the suffeing caused by the Taliban and only superficially denounced by America as an excuse for further violence in the region.

*A second version of this post was republished on the Scavenger

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