Presence of Absence

The Presence of Absence

Paul Lowe


Images of atrocity are deeply problematic, in that they potentially create a tension between form and content and are often accused of revictimisation, aesthetisation of suffering, compassion fatigue and exploitation. As an alternative, therefore, there is considerable potential in examining images associated with atrocity that do not depict the actual act of violence or the victim itself, but rather depict the circumstances around which such acts occurred. Such images of the absence of visible violence can lead the viewer into an imaginative engagement with the nature of atrocity, and the nature of those who perpetrate it. In exploring this absence, Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ (1963), can be taken to mean that the spaces in which atrocities take place are often nondescript, everyday and banal, and that the people who commit them may appear on the surface to be so as well, even if their interior motivations and rationales are far more complex than that they were simply following orders. Photography, with its optical -mechanical process, is adept at recording such banal facts of the scene, and by inviting the viewer to scan the image for minute details, often generates a tension between such mundainites and the audiences’ knowledge of the potential import of the situation garnered via a caption. This strategy of the aesthetics of the banal has become a common one in contemporary photographic practice, however, the idea that an image that appears on the surface to be of an ordinary scene or person, but which the viewer then discovers contains another, deeper and more imaginative reading, is one that has long been effective.


The media coverage of conflict, disasters and human suffering is full of ethical problems, and the risk of victimisation or exploitation of the subject’s distress is real and present.  Whilst such claims are disputable, as an alternative to graphic images of violence an approach to documentary photography has emerged that focuses on the traces of war rather than its direct effects on the human body. Photographers such as Simon Norfolk, Tim Hetherington, Zijah Gafic, Ashley Gilbertson, Adam Broomberg and Olivier Chanarin turn their attention to the landscapes of war, and to the objects and detritus it produces. By photographing these ‘still lives’ they deal with the complex issues of the ethics of representation whilst simultaneously opening up an imaginative space in which the viewer is invited to engage in a performative interaction with the situation. They also explore alternative vehicles for the dissemination of their work, including books, exhibitions and the web. By exploiting the presence of absence in objects and places, they offer an alternative and powerful route to the documentation of violence.


  • Paul Lowe is an award-winning photographer, whose work is represented by Panos Pictures, and who has been published in Time, Newsweek, Life, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Observer and The Independent amongst others. He has covered breaking news the world over, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela’s release, famine in Africa, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and the destruction of Grozny.
  • He is a consultant to the World Press Photo foundation in Amsterdam and the BBC World Service Trust on online education of professional photojournalists in the majority world.
  • His book, Bosnians, documenting 10 years of the war and post war situation in Bosnia, was published in April 2005 by Saqi books.

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