A particular scenario that Freud covered in his psychoanalytic research was titled, “a child is being beaten”. The Doctor analyzed a common pleasurable dream of a child being beaten as a way of internalizing the Oedipal drama.

photo by Greg Marinovich

The faults of the Oedipal drama aside, what has always stuck with me is the abstraction of the common scenario, to the point where it becomes an archetype. In the phrase, “a child is being beaten”, is the simultaneous abstraction of any child, coupled with any aggressor. The passive construction allows the past tense of the verb to be considered in the present. It does not matter who is beaten by whom, or why. This is an abstract, but reoccurring beating, a scene that has happened countless times before, and is likely happening now. This is a historical beating, in the Heideggerian sense: any particular beating becomes connected to an entire history of beating, and the potential for beatings in the future.

It seems inappropriate to try and make a philosophical point with child abuse as a metaphor. But is not a purely philosophical abstraction. We abstract these sorts of terrible events on a daily basis, in particular, through photography. A recent photographer captured a Ukranian gay rights activist being beaten by neo-Nazis. In this photo, we are stunned not only by the sight of a beating, but from the photographer’s own abstraction. We can feel the presence of the photographer, whose instinct was to stand behind the camera to document the scene, rather than help the person being beaten. To the photographer, this was simply a beating, not this particular man suffering. When the shutter fired, it was not capturing the beating, it was capturing a man being beaten.

Our instinct might be to question the motives of the photographer who participates in abstraction rather than intervening, but this is hardly the first time that a photographer has made such a decision under pressure. Sometimes they regret it, like photographer Greg Marinovich, who photographed a mob killing a man:

It was my first exposure to such a thing. And although, as a journalist, my reaction was fine, as a human being I felt I’d really let myself down. It wasn’t how I’d expected I’d react – I thought I’d try to intervene, or do something more noble. Yet I hadn’t. I was really quite torn up about that. I was gutted that I’d been such a coward. From that moment, I was determined that, no matter what, I’d try to intervene and save someone if I could.

But other times, photographers realize that their images could have larger power than their intervention could. Says photographer Graeme Robertson (from the same excellent piece in The Guardian):

For five years, I covered an awful lot of conflict – Baghdad, Afghanistan, all across Africa, the Middle East. The stuff that I saw there… On my first assignments in Iraq, I really struggled with it. It caused me so much stress, I got alopecia and lost all my hair all over my body. Just from thinking about all these things. The first time I experienced it, it actually stopped me taking images I really wanted to take or should have taken, because I was so mixed up and thinking, “Should I be doing this or not? I found it very difficult. But through experience, it’s sad to say, you get immune to it. And then you can concentrate on your photography, and you feel that is your power.

If you manage to get a picture that shows the scenario, that is you helping them. I’m not in this situation to help them physically, but that is what I’m on this planet to do.

I know of photographers who have thought, “I can’t not help this kid” and taken the kid away. And they’ve got themselves into so much trouble. Because they don’t know the situation or how things work. They have a different culture, different views, different medication, and often in a situation like that you end up being more of a hindrance than a help.

photo by Joe Josephs

The irresistible urge to question our own actions pulls us out of the abstraction and back into the particular. Someone was being-beaten, but could I have done anything to prevent the beating? Every moment, every split-second decision or lack of decision becomes relevant. We know what we want the legacy of the incident to be–we want no one to have been beaten. But this did not happen: a person is being-beaten. Between the abstraction of the entire history of violence and the immediacy of this particular experience every possibility becomes hyper-real, lit up with potential. Each “what if” that can never be satisfactorily answered is its own infinite history. Therein exists an endless number of other universes, each an abstraction that is itself particular and concrete. The history of every beating could have been irrevocably shifted in that moment, but it was not. Or could it have been?

This philosophical abstraction I’m making in this essay has been building to an particular moment, a specific history that I experienced, that continues to resonate every time I see a photo of violence. During the Occupy movement I was taking photos of protests in an effort to publicize what really was happening, especially the heavy-handed police response. There were several times during my viewing and editing of thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of video that I felt the creeping tendrils of post-traumatic stress disorder inside myself. A feeling of hopelessness and depression, a interior sickness at seeing an officers club contact with a friend’s face, over and over again in slow motion as I tried to record badge numbers. But of the one beating that sticks in my memory the most, there was no photograph.

One night I was following a group of marchers, who were in the street, despite being ordered several times to get onto the sidewalk. This group had become separated from the main protest. Suddenly, the police swept out, on bicycles, in cars, and vans. The protesters ran away, as much out of surprise as from attempting to escape arrest. A boy, perhaps as young as fifteen, ran down a side street sidewalk into a residential area pursued by five cops. I followed. They tackled him to the ground, pinning him face down to the concrete pavement of the sidewalk. Suddenly, from my left, ran up an officer over six feet tall, carrying a three foot club, his entire body encased in thick black plastic. He lept upon the pinned protester, placing his entire body on him. I saw him draw back his fist, and three times in succession, punch the boy in the kidneys. The body on the ground could only inhale sharply, not scream. I raised my camera, and clicked the shutter. But in the pitch black of the residential street, even the digital sensor registered nothing. The view screen showed a black frame.

Just then, one of the cops pinning the boy to the ground got to his feet. Forming fists, he turned to face me. I looked back behind me on the sidewalk, but there was no one there. I was alone. The cop stepped towards me, but I held my ground. I raised my camera, and held my finger over the shutter release. I knew I could not take any photos, but he didn’t know it. I didn’t back away, but I didn’t say anything. I thought about how if this officer wanted it, my camera could be in a thousand pieces in the street, and I could be on the ground beside the other boy. A distance street light barely glinted off of his badge. The badge is a symbol. What it means is that a child could be beaten before my eyes, and there was nothing that anyone could do about it. The badge meant that I should feel lucky that it was not me down there as well.

And then, the moment was over. They hauled the boy into a car, and he disappeared from my vision. They left, and I stood on the sidewalk. There was no abstraction here, no history of any kind, because all I have is my memory. In this memory, history rots on the vine, never to be tasted. A child is being beaten, in the past, and the future, in images, and not, remembered, and forgotten. There is everything here, and nothing. And for me, this beats unceasingly upon the inside my head.