Sharing the pain of others: to what end?

The way images of victims of war are circulated in our digital world is very different from the way it happened a few decades ago.

Sontag (2003) asked if representations of suffering and war have a different impact depending on where they are disseminated. So now I wonder how the iconography of war re-mediated via social media changes the way we are affected by it?

Staring at a photo of a Syrian-Kurdish toddler found dead on a Turkish beach on a Twitter feed is obviously different from looking at a Robert Capa photo from the Spanish civil war in a museum, a book or a newspaper. But how does this different context affect our engagement?

Our smart phones allow us to quickly switch from an image of war to a tweet about something completely different. Social media enables us to access and mix content in different ways, opening content to a range of interpretations in a variety of digital contexts. In some instances, the gravitas of such images is lost.

Social media is basically a sharing industry (Meikle, 2016, p. 27) so it is important to think critically when such images are retweeted over and over again, becoming a sort of viral currency rather than something to reflect upon. So much of our social interaction is banal and it becomes more about maintaining connections than about conveying information and meaning (Rettberg, 2016, p. 22).

Sharing a certain image also means that the image becomes part of our constructed self-representation to the virtual world. In this regard, Chouliaraki (2013, p.3-4) talks about a move from an ethics of pity to an ethics of irony and “the emergency of a self-orientated morality, where doing good to others is about ‘how I feel’ with Twitter journalism being one of its manifestations. This means that when we tweet a photo of another Syrian boy, this time alive, in the back of an ambulance, or share it on a Facebook wall, we also perform an act of self-expression and public self-representation.

Finally, does sharing those images of distant suffering create a sense of social responsibility, to borrow the words of Chouliaraki (2006), or is it merely an act of self-representation? The answer is potentially both, so we need to approach the matter with a great degree of critical perspective: when sharing the pain of others (as with anything else to be honest) the context of the sharing matters greatly for the meaning.


  1. Ausra Raulusonyte

    Hi Manuela,

    This brief but very into-the-point entry drew my attention. I found it very intriguing to think about whose representations are those shared representations of the suffering ones. As in whom do they represent, what the intentions of those who share particular imaginary of suffering are, and how do those who see a shared content see this person who shares it as well as how deep they actually get into understanding the problem behind the imaginary.

    I thinks it’s also a kind of interdisciplinary question. Psychologists would definitely have a word to say about representing yourself by using social media to re-share particular posts; those posts might have sensitive contents and by sharing them a person might also build up a particular representation of himself/herself as being empathetic, kind, caring, you name it…

    I am looking at Meikle’s text right now as well. In page 4, he explained that sharing on social media does not only allow you to create, re-create and share media as you like, but it actually makes your content visible to others. I think this aspect of instant visibility may affect the users significantly, considering the role of need for social acceptance as well as self-presentment.

    I think Chouliaraki’s ideas suit here very well in your text. Sharing development representation materials or supporting a development project in order to actually show or even create who you are, can be seen as some kind or trend in society in general.

    Thank you for this opportunity to learn and to get into thinking after reading your post!

  2. Maxi

    Manuela, I enjoyed reading your blog post, particularly because I never thought of what sharing these photos says about our self-representation before. I wonder though what images of suffering Westerners tend to share – those of ‘others’ or those of people looking like themselves? And what would this say about them/us?

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