Posted by: ahmed22k | December 12, 2015

Images of Suffering

I loved our Night at The Museum. What fascinated me were some of the parallels we can see between images of suffering in the world today and images of suffering from the 19th Century. Famine exists in the world today. Hungry people, emaciated children, and starving communities are the results of misallocation of food resources and exploitation of labor, amongst many other things. This is a reality; just not our reality.

As human beings, we tend to insert our own narratives onto images in order to relate to the subject. And we relate to images because of familiar details. However, what happens when we are confronted with an unfamiliar image? What happens when we come face to face with an image of suffering that is unsettling; it may be familiar, but the image is too far removed from our reality.

The truth of the matter is we tend not to address images that make us uncomfortable.  Take this image of “UR-Mutter” by Adrian Piper. It belongs to a series containing eleven photographs with different titles but of the exact same image- a blown-up photograph by photojournalist Peter Turnley. Piper is drawn to photojournalist Turnley’s images because it is a secular “Madonna image stripped of any spiritual connotations.”

ur mutter

  • Ur-Mutter #2
  • 1989
  • Photo-montage; created with silk-screened text.

This image alone is confrontational, verging on accusatory, making it uncomfortable to look at- but only to a degree. If I were to see it in a newspaper, I would want to look at it, but I would also want to look away. I would probably pay more attention to the story and text accompanying it. But what happens when photojournalism is adopted by an artist and becomes a word of art?

UR-Mutter uses the formula of red text superimposed on the photograph with different phrases. At first, I felt that the artist has appropriated a photojournalist’s work, and the labels are confining the image to a particular message. Before examining the relationship between words and text more closely, I believed Piper to be reducing the mother and child to just their suffering. In fact, the mother’s expression felt not only sad but full of anger and pain. I felt Piper was accusing the viewer by creating art to be displayed in galleries and museums. But was/is that really the case? Was Piper making the subjects ‘objects’ of observation or conversation?

Now I feel this image evokes sympathy and empathy from the viewer, AND subtly blames the audience, or rather, makes the feel accountable (to an extent) for the situation photographed.“Urmutter” means Earth Mother in German, but some students from class interpreted the title UR-Mutter, as “Your Mother” in English, as if one is muttering the term.

After reading Piper’s interviews, she is clearly emphasizing the African blood that runs in all of us. She wants the rest of the world to be aware of how we are contributing to the suffering of others in third world countries, especially those in Africa. (Notice “We made you” is written over the mother’s hands). Nevertheless, there is more complexity to the image than the titles suggest.

Some of these titles include, “We made you” (UR-Mutter #2 in the MHCAM’s work), “fight or die” (ex. “UR-Mutter #3”) and “Relax. We don’t want what you have” (ex. “UR-Mutter #4”).  Granted, the titles such as “We Made You,” emphasize the subject’s role as a mother, but the word “we” allow her to become the symbol of all struggling mothers, who must “fight or die” in order to feed their starving children. This mother represents collective suffering. But this woman is so much more than a mother. There is more to her than the icon of Somalian female suffering she has become.

After talking to Professor Martin, I could see how she sees the text as more than just labels, they actually open up space for discussion. What is the result of such an artistic endeavor? The combination of image and text does indeed “create a nuanced and confrontational effect in order to elicit a viewer’s response” (Piper). Relying less on the shock value of the image presented allows the viewer to really think about the complexity captured in one snapshot.

In The Critique of Pure Racism: An Interview with Adrian Piper, Piper explains that her technique of combining text and image exhausts “the range of available conceptual interpretations.” This allows the subject to be free of some bias by “peeling off one pseudo-rational categorization after another, so as to finally leave one with the bare experience of the subject itself, which is a universal icon” (95).

Normally a person is desensitized after looking at the same image repeatedly. However, by using the same image with a different title, Piper is forcing the viewer to look at the picture in a new light and reconsider the purpose of such an exhibit. It is hard to ignore the suffering. Though she becomes the face for Somalian mothers struggling, she also able to retain her identity (to an extent). It bothers me that the woman remains nameless, anonymous, but Piper is emphasizing the strong presence of the mother in all eleven images. When viewed within the context of the entire series, beyond individualistic suffering, her individuality is highlighted. Thus, the viewer is made to see the futility of categorization.

The woman fills up the space, and takes over the composition, pushing the boundaries while being framed or rather limited, by the size of the paper and the medium of photography itself. This is just one perspective, one side of her story- with this particular child (he/she is less visible but present, nonetheless). He/she is seen in relation to her, and despite the emphasis on the mother, I believe it is impossible to reduce her- and even her child, to the confinements of words.

The various words provoke us to do the same; to reject labels and accept this woman and child are real human beings, they have various roles in society as survivors, as fighters; they are more than images and words will ever be able to encapsulate.


1) Piper, Adrian. Out of Order, out of Sight. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996. Print.

2) Piper, Adrian. “Cornered: a Video Installation Project” Transcript from Theory in Contemporary Art from 1985 (2005), pg. 186

3) Piper, Adrian, Maurice Berger, and Jean Fisher. “The Critique of Pure Racism: An Interview with Adrian Piper.” Adrian Piper: A Retrospective. Baltimore, MD: Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1999. Print.

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