When we think of “disturbing” images, the ones which immediately spring to mind feature abnormality (mental or physical), sex or violence.
These themes represent the tripod on which visual shock is based. That is understandable: The fearsome triumvirate has been so deeply genetically encoded over half a million years of evolution, that we cannot escape its devastating implications. If entropy is the universal law for all inanimate objects, then its opposite is the rule for all living things. The evolutionary urge is to grow increasingly complex, adapt to the environment and, in the case of humans, expand consciousness. Abnormalities threaten our chances of contributing to the survival of the race; sex freed from procreation, offends a primitive biological need; violence reminds us of our vulnerability and impending death, and, by extension, the extinction of our species as a whole.
The sordidness of the argument, however, is that we all share the same buttons which can be pushed in order to elicit a predetermined emotional reaction, ranging from a vague uneasiness to active rage.
The exploiters among us have discovered our buttons and push them with glee. Therefore, sex and violence, it hardly needs reminding, are the staple ingredients of practically all novels, movies and television series.
The interesting question is why the majority of viewers are not only willing to submit themselves to such predictable lust and carnage but actively seek it, like dodo birds that cannot wait for the looming cliff-edge of extinction. The answer, I think, is twofold. Ours is a capitalist, consumer oriented society, for good and ill. And anxiety sells… An anxious, disturbed, unsettled viewer or reader makes for a good consumer. The other reason why we actively embrace emotional disturbance is a bit more philosophical; the closer we can approach a survival threatening situation, without actually succumbing, then the more alive we feel.
Photography allows us to approach the cliff-edge without risk: We can play Russian roulette with a fake gun.
Besides shifting with the passing of time, the disturbing image is inevitably of an unusual scene, removed from our day-to-day experience, which varies among ethnic groups and layers of society. This reminds me of a photographer friend who, on a visit to India, pictured a washed-up bloated animal’s corpse being ravaged by wild dogs, with the pristine beauty of the majestic Taj Mahal in the background. Without questions, the image was disturbing, but although it was widely published in the West, no Indian journal would use it because, over there, it was a familiar, prosaic scene of no interest to anyone. An important point should be injected into the discussion at this stage: Well educated, middle-class exponent of our society have become so comfortable, thank God, in their ascendancy over hand to mouth survival that they are more easily disturbed and shocked by the raw crudity of life outside the fortresses of our countries, or even within it, if the forces of disaster threaten their prosperity and well-being. It is as well to bear in mind that the vast majority of images which we find disturbing would have not the slightest emotional appeal to the vast majority of people in the rest of the world.
Time is also another important factor: Images which were not considered disturbing in the XIX century have since become so. Post-mortem photographs, for example. Today, I venture to say, they are considered rather shocking and brutal in their casual depiction of death. Yet, when made, they were objects of affection. Tempora mutantur. Times are, indeed, changing and the nature of what disturbs changes with them.
In my opinion, however, disturbing images are inevitable and they are always healthy, because even those which fill us with disgust and abhorrence can indicate that we care about moral values, that we are part of an upsurge in human consciousness. They act, paradoxically, as indicators of the state of our society; they are part of the negative-positive essence of art. Those which disturb us personally can be keys to unlock areas of individual sensitivity, to be cherished or rejected as appropriate; Images which unsettle us as photographers, instead, can be viewed as signals that the medium is vigorous and energetic no matter how much we loathe them personally, and bring hopes for both the human race and the medium of photography.