BY Lara Pawson in Features | 16 MAY 13
Featured in
Issue 156

Eye Witness

Is it an artist’s duty to bear witness to suffering? Journalism, documentary and the ethics of reporting

BY Lara Pawson in Features | 16 MAY 13

Engaging with durational performance art through the fog of a hangover is not something I can recommend. But since I could choose neither the date of my friends’ civil partnership ceremony nor that of Forced Entertainment’s 24-hour performance of Quizoola! at the Barbican, London, I had no alternative. The day after the night before, I watched the streamed live performance from the comfort of my sofa. Exhausting, exciting, funny and occasionally quite boring, the interrogation-cum-game show had the surprising effect of conjuring memories of my former life as a BBC journalist.

Working as a correspondent in Angola and, later, Ivory Coast, was a long-duration performance of sorts. When a story breaks and you are the sole reporter for a 24-hour news provider, you will inevitably work round the clock. Myriad news programmes want you to file a report or do a live, often improvised, interview – at lunchtime, then mid-afternoon, midnight and maybe five o’clock in the morning. You churn out facts and figures concerning the dead and injured, the hungry and starving, the rebels and the national army, then chuck in some analysis, scattering information like confetti. Exhausting, exciting, funny and occasionally quite boring, the real-life performance of reporting war pushed me close to the edge. I began to wonder if I had lost sight of ‘what it means to become ethically responsive’, as Judith Butler once wrote, ‘to consider and attend to the suffering of others’.1

Ursula Biemann, Sahara Chronicle, 2006-7, video still, discussed by T.J. Demos in The Migrant Image (Duke University Press, 2013)

I was in my late twenties when I set out on the path of journalism, with the noble intention of questioning the powerful and broadcasting the voices of the unheard. How successful I was I don’t know, but between 1998 and 2000, in the thick of Angola’s civil war, I became increasingly uneasy about my role as a foreign correspondent. Standing in the town of Malange – my microphone recording the cries of children who had burrowed like rabbits into the ground, their grandmother’s head a few feet away, sliced off by shrapnel –I always knew that I was brave, but it was during moments like these that I wondered whether I was also a voyeur, high on fear from someone else’s war, flattered by the praise of admiring family and friends back home.

In 2004, I was posted to Ivory Coast just a few months after a French reporter had been shot dead by a policeman. European journalists were not popular in the commercial capital, Abidjan, and I often felt threatened. My bosses in London encouraged me to wear a bullet-proof jacket (not something I’d ever been offered during more than two years covering the war in Angola), but such protection compromised my integrity and sense of fairness, especially when working alongside Ivorian journalists who had no such life-saving luxuries. I chose not to wear it.

From Abidjan, I was paid by the BBC to cover the whole of West Africa. Sometimes the London desk would email me agency copy about a story in, say, Liberia, with instructions to turn it into a news report. I was hundreds of miles away – how could I verify if it was true or not? I might as well have been in Moscow or Beijing. This process of reporting that which I did not know to be true played havoc with my head. Even when I had witnessed an event myself, I began to query the assumed distinction between fact and fiction, and our ability to tell one from the other. Perhaps it was the paranoia that Abidjan induced, perhaps it was the trauma that lingered from Angola’s conflict, but I began obsessing more and more about what was happening beyond the news, dwelling increasingly on the material that was off-mic, outside the frame of footage.


During my time in West Africa, I started to feel paralyzed with doubt about what Butler calls ‘the way in which suffering is presented to us, and how that presentation affects our responsiveness’.2 Except in my case, of course, I was questioning my own presentation of suffering and whether it was, as they say, making a difference. Eventually, I became so pessimistic about my role as a British reporter working for the mainstream British news from sub-Saharan Africa that I decided to stop. I left the BBC in the hope that I could find a better way to attend to the suffering of others. As part of that quest, I began to pay attention to art.

For a long time, all I consumed was Samuel Beckett. I began with his masterpiece, the trilogy of novels (1951–3), which he started writing in 1947 in Paris. This was three years after the city had been liberated from German occupation, but during the continuing excesses of the purge of collaborators and alleged collaborators. As Andrew Gibson notes in his superb little book Samuel Beckett (2009): ‘juggle the pieces, and the Trilogy supplies one with a clutch of phrases for a hauntingly vivid and wastefully well-told war story’.3 Ponder Gibson’s ‘draft inventory’ of Beckett’s ‘fantasmagoric stock-in-trade’:

combustion, detonation, upheaval, crawling, scavenging, ambulances, boots, crutches, rations, ramparts, observation posts, guardrooms, hospitalization, annihilation, loss of limbs, amputation, lightlessness, sheltering in holes, violent encounters in forests, battle-cries, cries in the night, murder, immolation, blackouts, amnesias, extermination, regiments, returnees, war pensions, mutilation, enlistment, puttees, disfiguration, dust-clouds, festered wounds, tyrants, craters, mass burial, cenotaphs, greatcoats, memoirs, mud, decomposing flesh, bodies becoming shapeless heaps or living torches, uprooting, dislocation, and above all, ruins ...4

Like one of Beckett’s characters wading through mud, I pushed further and further into the text, delighted by the outbursts of anger, the candid confrontations with horror, the searing humour. The worlds of Molloy, Moran, Malone and the Unnamable reverberated with my own memories of war. From the trilogy I pushed forward – or back, if we consider the chronology – to More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), then on to the more abstract prose in How It Is (1961), Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) and Stirrings Still (1989). Beckett’s oblique, some might say metaphorical, approach was so liberating; I began to view my experiences in the news media as a form of structured madness. How could anyone respond with integrity to the 24-hour news-provider – those clichéd images of suffering at a distance, the back-to-back interviews with a goody then a baddy, a lefty then a righty, and those predictable reports that end with catch-all conclusions?

Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007

When Simon McBurney’s theatre company Complicite staged Beckett’s 1957 play Endgame in London in 2009, I was so struck by its relevance to contemporary Angola that I wrote to them to encourage them to take it to Luanda. It was not to be, but I remain committed to the certainty that Angolan audiences would get Beckett in ways that might elude many in the uk today. Of course, the relevance of his work to the traumatized has been recognized by others: recall Susan Sontag’s staging of Waiting for Godot (1952) in Sarajevo in 1993 and, more recently, Paul Chan’s 2007 production in post-Katrina New Orleans. But what makes Endgame particularly apposite is that Beckett wrote it partly in response to the Cold War, which impacted the lives of Angolans so horrifically for at least four decades. Yet, while humanity hangs on with a thread, the play is also hilarious, not only for its four absurd characters – two without legs living in bins, one who cannot see or walk and remains trapped in a chair, another who cannot sit down – but for their endless bickering in the midst of near extinction. ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,’ says Nell, a line that could have been delivered by anyone living under a dictatorship, when jokes often abound.


In contrast to journalism, which, at its best, presents previously unknown facts clearly in order to make an event public knowledge, the best art – it seems to me – operates in precisely the opposite way, through a process of obscuring and concealment. Hence the enduring power of certain writers including Beckett and Franz Kafka and, more recently, W.G. Sebald. The latter is perpetually circling around something haunting; sometimes he moves in closer, but never close enough to state precisely what it is. Yet still we sense that it is pertinent to Europe’s bloody past.

A few months ago, I visited the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris’s formidable exhibition ‘Art at War, France 1938–1947: From Picasso to Dubuffet’. Comprising more than 400 works by more than 100 artists – among them Salvador Dalí, Antonin Artaud, Max Ernst, Hans Bellmer, Marcel Duchamp and Alberto Giacometti – it would have required several visits to properly absorb. During the afternoon that I spent at the museum, what affected me most was the knowledge that I was standing before a work that had been produced by an artist imprisoned in a concentration camp, forced into hiding, held in a psychiatric hospital or who had lived relatively freely, but nevertheless in a climate of constant threat. ‘Art at War’ provoked more questions about the expression of suffering. Is it an artist’s duty to bear witness to suffering? What are the differences between artists who are a part of that suffering, who are themselves caught up in it, and those who are apart from it?

Recently, while reading T.J. Demos’s The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (2013), I have found myself reflecting on these questions in relation to contemporary art. With his attention focused on artists in Europe, North America, the Middle East and North Africa, the London-based art historian and critic explores three key areas: the strategies these artists have invented ‘to intervene in the cultural politics of globalization’; how they represent what he terms ‘life severed from representation politically’ (meaning refugees and nomads, the exiled and the stateless); and how their work constitutes an oppositional political force to ‘the disenfranchising division of human life from political identity, which defines the status of the refugee’. Over the course of this deft book, Demos discusses the work of many artists including Hito Steyerl, The Otolith Group, Steve McQueen, The Atlas Group, Ursula Biemann and Ahlam Shibli. Most have emerged within the last decade, since Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 (2002), so often identified as having introduced – some would argue institutionalized – the documentary turn. Indeed, Demos regularly refers to Enwezor’s thoughts and practices, while also drawing on the ideas of a range of largely European thinkers, including Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Rancière and Theodor Adorno.

On several occasions, I found myself wishing The Migrant Image had been written before I had become a journalist. It had me hooked early on with the assertion that, ‘the deepest understanding of reality, particularly a traumatic one, necessitates an engagement with the fictional and conflictual aspects of images’.5 Yet, Demos’s claims about what contemporary documentary art can do that the mainstream media can’t are less convincing. Woven throughout his book are criticisms of mass-media representation: Demos rightly skewers journalism’s absurd claims of objectivity and ‘supposedly incontrovertible documentary evidence’, querying the media’s humanitarian approach that is so often mixed with sensationalist images. He argues that the mainstream media’s tendency to portray a particular ‘reality’ often ‘suppresses the journalist’s participation in the unfolding events’.

The Atlas Group/Walid Raad, We Decided To Let Them Say, 'We Are Convinced' Twice. It Was More Convincing This Way_City V, 2005, digital print, 1.1 × 1.7 m

I couldn’t agree more. Although I count myself as an admirer of McQueen’s work, for example, reading Demos prompted me to reassess his 2002 film installation Western Deep. How did McQueen get permission to enter the TauTona gold mines in South Africa? Did he have to give Anglo American a say on the final cut? And did this London-based multinational allow him to film precisely because they knew that the final work of art would be viewed by a relatively limited number of people compared to the reach of mainstream media? If we are going to criticize the mainstream media, which we must, we need to ask equally tough ethical questions of artists. Throughout The Migrant Image, though, there is a pervasive sense that the pursuit of aesthetics trumps ethical dilemmas, as if artists – whose work is consumed largely by a wealthy elite and acquired by museums whose trustees are either the same people or multinationals – are somehow superior moral beings to journalists.

Reading Demos’s criticisms of the media’s ‘fallacies of objectivity’, its ‘overarching narrative’ and ‘omniscient voice-over’, I could not help but apply these same terms to the academy itself. In favour of ‘extending visibility to those existing in globalization’s shadows’, Demos assumes who is ‘we’ and who ‘they’, thereby undermining the book’s central project. Tellingly, while every European or American thinker cited in The Migrant Image is identified by their name alone, Achille Mbembe is described as a ‘Cameroonian political theorist’. The irony here is that Mbembe has spent so much time in the us and France that he may well be more of a ‘globalized’ citizen than any of the other theorists mentioned. Who, exactly, is the ‘we’ here? When, at the end of The Migrant Image, Demos argues that we need more contemporary documentary art ‘to realise alternatives in this intolerable situation’, I found myself shaking my head. No, what we need is to see the art of those he describes as being in ‘the shadows’. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asked 25 years ago: ‘Can the subaltern speak?’6


A couple of years ago, I met Rashmi Munikempanna, who describes herself as ‘an artist who works with images’. We were attending a one-day conference at London’s Goldsmiths College, titled ‘International ngos: Representations of Global Poverty and Development’. It was a depressing event, wrapped up in discussions about international charities and the ways in which they use images of the poor – mainly from Asia and Africa – to raise money. Then Munikempanna took to the platform and, for about half an hour, the conference seemed to be turned on its head. She spoke about her work with PhotoVoice, a London-based charity that teaches marginalized communities the skills of photography and video so that they can speak for themselves. I was struck by the rarity of seeing a young woman from Mysore, southern India, discussing photographs by the homeless in Glasgow, northern Scotland. In my view, they were by far the most interesting photographs we saw all day. Like the photographs of India’s Dalit community, who worked with Munikempanna in 2010, what made these images so compelling was the knowledge that they had been framed and then snapped by ‘the subaltern’. As in the Musée d’Art Moderne’s ‘Art at War’ exhibition, the image-maker’s position as part of the suffering is what matters. It encourages me to reconsider the idea of suffering, and seems to flout presumptions about who might be in the shadows.

To return to Butler’s question of what it might mean ‘to become ethically responsive, to consider and to attend to the suffering of others’, I asked Munikempanna for her response. Does she feel compelled to bear witness to suffering? ‘I do not want to create art for the art world,’ she swiftly replied: ‘It’s a corporate-run world that commodifies suffering and consumes food and wine at private views served by those it claims to represent.’ I thought of another friend, a relatively successful artist in London, who told me that as much as she likes to work with those who are suffering – the city’s homeless and mentally ill – she is under pressure to keep that work a secret from the art world. According to her, such endeavours ruin your reputation as a ‘serious’ artist.

1 Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, Verso, London, 2010, p. 63
2 Ibid.
3 Andrew Gibson, Samuel Beckett, Reaktion Books, London, 2010, p. 120
4 Ibid. p. 119
5 T.J. Demos, The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis, Duke University Press, Durham, 2013, p. xxi
6 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Macmillan, London, 1988

Lara Pawson is a writer based in London. Her new book, In the Name of the People, will be published by IB Tauris in spring 2014