To show or not to show

The possibilities and limits of shocking images in documentary filmmaking

What are the limits set to the images that a documentary can offer to the eyes of spectators? And, besides the legal constraints, are there limits in the first place?

This is far from a purely rhetorical question.

Kirsten Johnson’s critically-acclaimed documentary, “Cameraperson” (2017), consists entirely of footage that was previously left out. Talking about the ethical dilemmas inherent to her profession, the cinematographer behind impactful documentaries such as “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Citizenfour”, recently stated “it comes down to the depiction of violence. Many of my Syrian filmmaker friends who make documentaries are in a debate with each other about how much violence they must show or not show and how it affects political consciousness. Showing so much overt violence can be revelatory, informative, exploitative, or even a form of visual terrorism. The depiction of violence can be exploited in powerful ways to manipulate the perception of events”.

The possibilities and limits of using shocking images of violence and tragedy to “tell the truth” to the public have given rise to much debate in the history of photography, even before the documentary cinema. The photographer and documentary filmmaker Raymond Depardon (2006) wrote that sometimes he felt ashamed of his profession: "Photographers are a bit like thieves, vultures, and voyeurs”. This issue is central concern when it comes to the discussion of ethics in documentary filmmaking, 

This also emerged from a recent study of the Center for Social Media at American University significantly titled “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work”. The study, which explored the ethical issue through interviews with 45 documentarians, has generated considerable discussion in the film community.

One of the key point is: filmmakers must focus on protecting the well-being of both film subjects and actual viewers. Nevertheless, questions of ethics remain situated in an evolving historical context.

Bill Nichols wrote in a 2006 paper for the International Documentary Association: “Documentary conventions change. With those changes, judgments about what compromises trust or violates another’s humanity will change as well. […] What should be done is a question to answer in the particular moment, using basic guidelines rather than rules. Art recoils from rules and a documentary ethics will do so, too”


As it emerges from this brief overview, the issue of how to handle images of violence and tragedy in documentary filmmaking is not a new one; however, the extent of the ethical conflict that filmmakers face has intensified as a result of changes in the international media ecosystem. Nowadays, troubling images raising ethics-related questions are rapidly spread across different media platforms thus making the problem of violence and truth-telling central not only for documentary filmmaking but to our society as a whole.

This is why the issue of how to treat graphic images when filming a documentary will be at the core of our Documentary Summer School this year.


The 2017 Documentary Summer School will explore the issue of violence, shocking images and truth-telling in documentary filmmaking. In doing so, it will compare two different approaches which can be traced within documentary history and theoretical reflection:

  • The first approach maintains that to serve a higher goal such as ‘getting the story told’ or ‘exposing injustice’ one might justify the incorporation of images that could hurt or upset audiences. In such cases, the cinematic image becomes evidence and the filmmaker must adjust the ethics of filmmaking to the specific context in which he or she operates. We can find written documentation of this approach in some of the essays by filmmakers and scholars collected by Joran Ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer in “Killer Images”, an exploration of cinema’s relationship to violence – both as accomplice and as critic of political violence.
  • The second approach is concerned with the so-called “counter-effect of violent media imagery” or, in Susan Sontag’s (1977) words “images transfix. Images anesthetize”. This means that “the photographed images of suffering do not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them” (Ibid.)


What is the purpose of showing tragic and violent images in our media-driven culture which is oversaturated with depictions of cruelty? How does the spectacle of the sufferings of others in the media affect us? Can those pictures make us more engaged with the pain of others? The answers to those questions are still debated, and Sontag herself returned to this topic in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) to take a fresh look at what violent images do to a viewer’s psyche. "Such images ... [are] an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers. Who caused what the picture shows? Who is responsible?" Therefore, Sontag raises the issues of responsibility and authority.

Analyzing film clips through the contributions of scholars and filmmakers, we will discuss those ethical questions, the guidelines used by filmmakers from all around the world and how those guidelines can help filmmakers keeping up with the challenges posed by the new media landscape. 

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