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Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Conscientious: The Disaster as Fine Art -- This blog post questions the ethics of what some have called "disaster porn" -- images of other peoples' misfortune that are used for titillation or aesthetic pleasure. Should pictures of dead Taliban fighters, no matter how well-composed, end up in fine arts museums for us to ogle? That such photos serve an important purpose is unquestionable -- we have to document life in all its dimensions. However, there is something disconcerting about taking a stack of disaster photos and evaluating them primarily on aesthetic factors like composition. I lean toward the view that transforming disasters into art is useful and poses few ethical problems; I don't think people should be ashamed of curiosity, feelings, or titillation. It is our behavior that is moral or immoral, not our thoughts; if someone wants to hang a photo of a dead Taliban fighter or a drowned city in an art gallery, then this is no more or less moral than someone who picks up an issue of Bizarre magazine or peeks at the gruesome accident photos on rotten.com. Both are largely harmless, unless there is a real risk of hurting those whose loved ones appear in such "artwork." Most of the time, this risk is minimal and therefore easily outweighed by whatever edification people get from viewing the pictures -- but we should think twice about seriously invading the privacy of the living or inflicting further trauma on survivors.

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