Posted by: kate m. | November 28, 2021

Ethics in the Photos of Willoughby Wallace Hooper 

I was curious to know more about Willoughby Wallace Hooper after seeing his famine photographs from India between 1876-1878. Googling his name, one of the top results is the title of an article from an India-based website: “Who was the photographer who took these dehumanising images of the Madras famine?” That title bluntly asks a question similar to my own: Who was Hooper, and what was his motivation in taking these disturbing photographs of the dying?   

The motivation question came to my mind first, due to the fact that some of his photographs appear to be carefully constructed, with the individuals facing the camera, some people sitting, some with arms wrapped around others, the kind of positioning one associates with traditional, ordinary family portraits. Hooper’s images are anything but. In this image available through the Getty Museum, the individual seated in the middle is so sick and emaciated that it’s difficult to believe he or she is still alive. What was Hooper trying to accomplish by asking individuals in such a horrific situation to essentially “pose” for him?

It was actually difficult to find information about Hooper via Google, the article mentioned above with the pointed title wound up providing the most details. Written by Sujaan Mukherjee for Scroll.in, the article coincidentally opens with a mention of Kevin Carter, the same photographer discussed in great detail in KJ Brown’s “Regarding the Pain of the Other: Photography, Famine, and the Transference of Affect.” Both writings touch on the role of the audience when viewing such images of individuals in extreme suffering, where death is presented as an immediate certainty. Her article ends with “it becomes essential to account not just for the photographer’s actions but the entire technological and state apparatus that is involved in framing and circulating images representing the most extreme of man-made human situations.” 

Hooper was a member of the British military, rumored to have had an unfeeling attitude towards the people he photographed. Whether true or not, if the photographer’s intent is apathetic, or even malicious, is the viewer of the image also apathetic and/or malicious? This question is applicable to both Hooper’s photographs, and Carter’s, taken a century apart. I think the photographer’s intent and the viewer’s reaction can be separate entities, and can vary greatly. It’s possible for a person to visit that museum to see Hooper’s images, and to view them as “artworks,” as an image put on paper, and that there isn’t greater complexity. Brown takes a similar stance in her essay, where she sees the role of the audience as having potential for othering. Then there are unintentional audiences, like a photograph of a deceased Syrian child on a beach, an image which permeated news outlets and social media. The way a person chooses (or doesn’t choose) to view photographs of famine, suffering, death is a separate issue from the photographer’s intent.     


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