In times of conflict, some of the most painful images to emerge are those of children as victims. The poet Susan Sontag discusses the ways in which we empathise with the suffering of others in conflict zone in her book Regarding the Pain of Others. Photography in particular has played a major role in capturing these images and journalism as well as social media makes them accessible to a global audience. While one might endlessly debate the meaning and purpose of these images, they play a significant role in shaping our understanding of reality.
An example is Nick Ut’s iconic and Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Phan Thi Kim from the Vietnam War in 1972. The image shows the young girl, aged nine, running naked on the road after suffering severe burns caused by an attack. In that instance, the picture revealed and confirmed to the world the horrors that were going on in Vietnam but also prompted President Nixon to question its authenticity.
Faiza Butt, an expat Pakistani artist living in the UK, articulates some of these very questions. In her latest series of works titled ‘Erosion’ portraits of children are drawn on to backgrounds that depict slices of agate or marble. Her style, which renders the subject in a pointillist technique, further echoes the source of her images, often newspapers or other media. These show faces of resilience but also those that are very young, as can be seen in ‘Erosion 6 and 7’. Her artworks further challenge the immunity that is caused by the daily barrage of gruesome images by decontextualising and repositioning them in visual culture, attempting to reframe and lay emphasis on the person in the picture.
Reflecting on the places in the world that are currently erupting, whether it is Gaza, Syria, Iraq or Pakistan, one finds no dearth of material presenting the horrors of war and its impact. The question is how the image can be directed into an emotional or psychological understanding of the suffering of another.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 16th, 2014