In life and in depictions of life, when is it better to look directly at instances of suffering, and when to turn away? When is looking a form of violation, and when is it a moral imperative? As the documentary image proliferates, so, too, does a discussion that has preoccupied feature storytelling: When it comes to images of violence and brutality, what needs to be seen to be believed, and which representations can’t be justified? Major news outlets now air images of death and suffering as matters of course; in a culture of mass documentation and dissemination, images that exist exist to be seen. Social-media platforms put kitten frolics and beheading videos on an equal footing. “Viewer discretion” and trigger warnings only grow more elaborate, even as they become superfluous: Who now sits down in front of any sort of screen, at any time and with even the most benign intentions, unprepared for some form of visual assault?
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