The photograph reveals only a single grotesque or comic moment, I thought, not the person as he really was more or less all of his life. The photograph is a perverse and treacherous falsification. Every photograph - whoever took it, whoever is pictured in it - is a gross violation of human dignity, a monstrous falsification of nature, a base insult to humanity.

Thomas Bernhard


There are only two forces that carry light to all corners of the globe, the sun the heavens and the Associated Press down here.

Mark Twain


There are several names for it and it is often seen as a subset of photojournalism, documentary, or war photography. Some call it the photography of agony (John Berger), some call it shock-pictures (Susan Sontag) and some in the public sphere call it violence porn. In this essay we will call it the photography of concern after the Magnum agency's phrase "the concerned photographer" that was coined by Cornell Capa who defined it as "describing those photographers who demonstrated in their work a humanitarian impulse to use pictures to educate and change the world, not just to record it." Despite, or because of their humanitarian impulse, these are pictures that have been available in the stock photography marketplace for many years and continue to be sold today on the internet through various sources, both reputable and not. One sometimes sees these photographs of the poor, the disenfranchised, the dying and the dead on envelopes asking for money with a letter inside that provides an explanatory narrative; one sees them in news magazines that cover a recurring famine or a new refugee crisis and there is always an accompanying caption or story that also provides a narrative usually tied to the current political scene; and sometimes one sees them in the context of fine art in a gallery/museum, with the inevitable explanatory essay or artist statement that follows the narrative tradition but in a higher academic key.


The most famous and the most reproduced of these images in the history of photojournalism was taken by Steve McCurry in 1984 and is usually titled "The Afghan Girl." The picture depicts Sharbat Bibi who was twelve years old at the time and living in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Her parents had been killed during one of the many bombing missions by the Soviet Air Force then involved in a deadly guerilla war with radical Muslim extremists, funded partially by the USA, in an attempt - ultimately successful - to destabilize the Soviet regime. In effect Afghanistan became a proxy war between the superpowers that would continue on long after the defeat of the Soviets. Like many pictures that become iconic it works on many levels at once. On the face of it is is, as it was first shown by National Geographic in June of 1985, illustrating the refugee crisis then in the midst of overwhelming the region, particularly in neighboring Pakistan. The image presents a startling one of a beautiful girl who is staring down McCurry

This essay is about how these photographs work in their various contexts - and just as importantly how they fail to work.