How to represent violence? Through the work of three photographers, our columnist explores this complex question of photography.
Images of violence have long been lightning rods in discussions about photography. Susan Sontag was famously skeptical of them, arguing that such photographs turned victims into spectacles and viewers into voyeurs. Susie Linfield believes just the opposite—that photographs of violence can support the cause of human rights by exposing the need for intervention. Teju Cole falls somewhere in the middle, arguing that making such photographs can sometimes be a “terrible thing to do, but often, not taking the necessary photo, not bearing witness or not being allowed to do so, can be worse.”
Those charged conversations about photography and violence often concern images that depict suffering at the time of the creation of the photograph. That makes sense: Concerns about a photographer’s ability to intervene in an actively violent situation easily arise, as do questions about the public’s capacity to meaningfully respond.
But these aren’t the only photographs of violence that merit consideration. Sometimes, photographers document the scene of a violent event and the people involved in it months or years after the fact. How does the passage of time impact our understanding of violence, and of photography itself?
“Ex-Offenders at the Scene of Crime,” (Steidl, June 2020) a book by the South African photographer David Goldblatt provides one case study. Goldblatt, who died in 2018, was known for chronicling the stark differences in experiences of Black and White South Africans during apartheid. Widespread crime, in his view, is both a product of that country’s history and its present conditions—but nevertheless, he writes in the book’s introduction, he had more questions about the nature of violence: “In fear, humiliation, helplessness and anger at holdups of my wife and myself by men threatening force with knives and guns, I have asked, ‘Who is doing this to us? Who are you? Are you monsters? Are you ordinary people — if there are such? How did you come to this? What is your life? Could you be my children? Could I be you?’”
In 2008, Goldblatt started looking for answers by photographing people who had been accused or convicted of crimes “not in re-enactment of crime, but in stillness at the scene of the crime” in South Africa, and later in England. His role, he said, was not that of a journalist or an activist. Instead, he was motivated “simply out of a wish to know.”
Significantly, Goldblatt’s “wish to “know,” concerns the time preceding and proceeding the act of violence more than the moment itself. In extensive first-person testimonies that accompany each photo, Goldblatt’s subjects explain the events that led to their crime and share the often redemptive stories of what happened next. Posing for the camera at the life-changing scene, Goldblatt claims, was often “cathartic” for his subjects, and appearing in the book presented “an opportunity, possibly for the first time, to tell their story without being judged.”
For much of the history of photography, Gil Pasternak argues, “the majority of influential Western photographic theorists and critics have considered photographs as visual references to absence—to what was in the past and is no more.” Goldblatt’s book, however, challenges that view. It shows that the shadow of the past violent encounter remains with his subjects, but it also points to what lies beyond that decisive moment. In this way, his photographs become less a tool for passive witnessing, and more an occasion for deliberate contextualization. Those often considered irredeemable are recognized instead for their full complexity and humanity.
Kathy Shorr’s book,”SHOT: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America,” (powerHouse Books, 2017) has a similar effect. Like Goldblatt, Shorr photographed people whose lives were changed by violence at the place where the event took place. For her, it was a way to remind viewers of gun violence’s ubiquity in the U.S. “Most shootings happen in normal, banal places. They don’t happen in a house of horrors or a creepy, weird kind of place. Most shootings happen in places we frequent all the time,” Shorr told Blind.
Photographing at the scene was also a way to carry a particular message about the nature of victimhood. While victims of gun violence are typically viewed through the lens of suffering, Shorr instead focuses on her subjects’ valorousness. By appearing at the place where they were injured, victims demonstrate their survival and resilience. “It shows the survivor as the hero, as the person who’s overcome this tragedy,” she said. “The project isn’t about violence; it’s about surviving violence.”
Leonard Correa’s series, “Unfinished Conversation: Reconstructing the Invisible,” offers a different perspective on the aftermath of violence. And that should come as no surprise, given Correa’s unique background: In addition to being a photographer, he’s a former forensic investigator with the Santa Ana Police Department in California. For more than 25 years, his job was to mark and process evidence and take photos at crime scenes. The scenes he witnessed were often bloody and brutal, and they bore an enduring psychological toll that proved impossible to shake. “Everywhere I drove it was always some visual reminder of some tragedy,” Correa told Blind. “So I figured, ‘It’s part of me. It’s not going to go away. I’ll just go find some way to embrace it.’”
For Correa, that meant returning to the locations that so frequently haunted him—but this time, with his camera. At first, he used a Polaroid. Then, a few years later, he came back with different equipment, and photographed the sites again. Working with the Bosnian-born artist Aida Šehović, Correa added hand-written recollections of the violent events he witnessed to the project. The combination of these elements creates a kind of triptych, one that highlights Correa’s personal fingerprint in an otherwise neutral presentation of landscapes.
Unlike Shorr and Goldblatt’s photographs, which center human subjects to help reconstruct violent events, Correa’s photographs are entirely unpeopled. Viewers experience these scenes, therefore, much the same way Correa himself sees them. In doing so, they get a glimpse into Correa’s psyche. In the image frozen and captured by the camera, there is an echo of the way that traumatic, violent moment was originally fixed in Corrrea’s mind.
Correa has since moved to Utah, but he occasionally visits family in Santa Ana. Driving around town, he often sees the places he photographed. But now, rather than purely dredging up painful memories, the sites summon a sense of remembrance and respect in him— “like I’m acknowledging a friend who passed, but not in a sad way,” he said. For Correa—like others who photograph the aftermath of violence—images have helped him process, heal, and ultimately, move on.
By Jordan Teicher