The Impact of Shocking Photographs


Do you think shocking photographs will eventually desensitise viewers?

Answer by: Gurinder Osan, Photo Editor, Press Trust of India

In my opinion, no. On the contrary, I would say that we need to see these images for the following reasons:


Images depicting violence should be shown, seen, and reacted to. For instance, victims of domestic violence or racism, the horrors of war, our wilderness in distress, and our planet on the verge of collapse… If I do not see them, then how will I become aware? What is my call to action and how else do I see the world outside my bubble?

However, like everything in this world of duality, there are two sides to this debate too. The photographer as a witness, reacts and records based on his or her perception. Similarly, viewers of the image also perceive them depending on their knowledge and intellect, coloured as it might be, by their past experiences and understanding, as well as their socio-cultural values, among other factors.

So, at what stage do I start analysing the eventual impact of my image? What all do I capture? Am I to prejudge the impact of my image on potential viewers or just shoot as I deem best, honest and fair?

If it’s violence, then do I edit my choices? Do I document as it is or make attempts to camouflage it, sugarcoat it, or deliberately ignore it? Or, do I present it in a way that still captures the essence and makes the viewer react at a subliminal level, without necessarily being in the face?
Personally, I prefer the latter, as I believe that when depicted as is, it tends to objectify, leaving nothing to the viewer’s imagination, to process or imbibe.


There has been criticism directed towards photographers, in the face of violence. Do they become voyeurs? Do they take advantage of the misery of others? Do they gain or benefit at the cost of their subject?

Stanley Forman’s Fire Escape Collapse is a B&W photograph that captured the fall of a woman and her niece from the fire escape of a burning building, which gave way during their rescue. It was published worldwide and lead to hostile reactions by readers, labelling the image as pandering to sensationalism and an invasion of privacy. The photograph, however, successfully prompted authorities to rewrite fire escape safety laws in Boston and across the U.S. Forman won the 1976 Pulitzer prize for Spot News Photography, as well as the World Press Photo of the Year.

There are many such examples—Arko Datta’s image of a Muslim tailor pleading for his life, during the Gujarat riots; Kevin Carter’s image of a vulture stalking a dying Sudanese child, during famine; and Nick Ut’s child victims of napalm bombing. There are violent images that have been captured using a cellphone, and shared on social media. All these examples affirm that violence should not be hidden under the carpet. There will be that half, amongst viewers, who are sensitive and will react, get mobilised, and act.