Disasters stimulate our imagination. People cannot but imaginatively put themselves at the heart of catastrophic events, coping (or not) with the situation that some distant and unknown unfortunates experience as a reality. There is a fundamental—and one may say existential—interest in disasters, since they present the paradigmatic threat to society and individuals. Since the imagining of events, actions, people, objects, etc. leads to the production of images (as artefacts), disasters throughout human history have produced its own genre of engravings, paintings, and photographs. These images of disaster then nourish the further imagination of the particular event. One has the impression that this is the reality of modern mass media—to produce image after image of catastrophes, contributing to the continuous imagination of disasters. Thus questions such as these arise: Which forms does this imagining of disaster take? What is the social (individual or collective) function of images of distant disasters? Is this about single iconic images or about a genre; about series of images?

In this essay, I would like to a possibly unconventional hypothesis, by suggesting that images of disasters not only fulfill the essential task of social integration of societies in high modernity, but also for motive altruistic actions through enabling the collective sharing of emotions. They are the core components of the ritual logic of disasters as media events. The conception that disaster images operate as ‘vessels of communion’ (Maffesoli) between unfortunates suffering at the site of catastrophe and distant viewers/fortunates may convince most people. The assumption, however, that these are actually successful in producing commitment through shared emotions may provoke scepticism at best. Hence a few words on some popular and critical, yet oversimplifying theses in regard to mediatized images of suffering: Media effects research and regularly produces accounts that differ quite a bit from what is proposed in this essay. Be it the ‘cold heart’ (Winterhoff-Spurk), ‘states of denial’ (Cohen) or ‘compassion fatigue’ (Moeller)—metaphors that stress the modern individual’s inability to react sympathetically to the representation of distant suffering could go on. The dilemma remains: As viewers of unfortunates we are always cut off from the ability to (re)act at the instant. Witnessing affliction without being able to act is frustrating, especially when it’s on TV and you’re having dinner with your loved ones. ‘Why them and not us?’ This dilemma is right at the heart of experiencing modernity (that is, modernity in its sociological definition). So often, we cannot help but feel pity and sympathy for the victims, whose hardship is served to us in graphic images and touching voiceovers, yet still find ourselves in no (dis)position to do anything about it. We’re confused, asking ourselves: ‘Am I really falling for this drippy report?’ Resentment against mediatized emotions is very common, as we all know. It’s easy to get excited watching football but it’s hard not to get confused when it comes to seeing people suffer. There is blame on the media—and its commercial interests—which tends to sensationalize, before soon moving on to matters of utter irrelevance just because its ‘news’ anyway. There is blame on the images that ‘play’ on our low instincts. And of course we blame ourselves for being voyeurs and fascinated with atrocity and pain. Seeing people suffer makes us despair for the authentic sympathy that Rousseau’s ‘homme naturel’ and enlightenment ethics demand of us. We long for an imperative that makes us ‘take a plane there and feel what she feels.’ How can we not fail with this ambition and again look for somebody responsible?

Why not be a little more pragmatic, forgiving, and open to the realities of modern media? This at least is Susan Sontag’s assessment, when she says of these images: ‘It is felt that there is something morally wrong with the abstract of reality offered by photography; that one has no right to experience the suffering of others at a distance, denuded of its raw power; that we pay too high a human (or moral) price for those hitherto admired qualities of vision—the standing back from the aggressiveness of the world which frees us for observation and for elective attention. But this is only to describe the function of the mind itself. There’s nothing wrong with standing back and thinking.’ (Susan Sontag, 2002 ) I think we have every reason to deviate from a position that wants our motives to be as pure as Mother Theresa’s and that credits the fact that feeling sympathy with distant others is an ambivalent matter.

We have to realize that, despite the influx of disaster images, people do help. At no point in our cultural history has there been a greater disposition to act and help distant and suffering others than today. Sums donated in the wake of disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, or the 2010 Haiti earthquake were higher than any campaign before; there are more transparent and specialized actors and NGOs in the field; and people’s willingness to commit themselves to something that doesn’t concern them in their everyday lives is becoming more common. Furthermore, this commitment to open our bank accounts and transfer money is mostly at our own expense—nobody will pat you on the shoulder, nobody might even take notice—and surely not the victims’, who will have fresh water for the day, a new fishing net, or even a boat. Let’s not be too desperate for the pureness of our emotions and altruistic impulses. Emotions must be activated. It is in the nature of solidarity or sympathy that emotions fade—they are not to be mistaken as a disposition, even when we wish this was the case. Emotions wear off. Conversely, this means that they have to be activated. This emotional activation is a primary function of the media.

Emotions don’t belong to the individual—we don’t start with a maximum amount of sympathetic capacity, there is no individual account of emotionality—but to situations and interactions that produce them. As easy as this is to understand on the individual level (a fight with a colleague, road rage), it is difficult when it comes to the realm of collective emotions. It has become common sense in social theory that these collective emotions play a major part in what is called the social integration of society: the creation of a collective conscience that becomes the basis for people’s actions. In the widest possible domain—Weltgesellschaft—temporary integration works through shared emotions. Globalized society, I would argue, needs these kinds of emotional states to motivate cooperation. So in high modernity, the function of emotions differs rather drastically from what traditional psychology, ethics, and aesthetics have successfully preached. In this perspective, disasters as media events offer people and societies at a distance a chance to get emotionally involved.

To put these aspects in a nutshell: [It is not asked] Why do accounts of distant suffering not always produce sympathy and altruism? With answers presenting the usual suspects (media images and our voyeuristic selves). Also, [It is asked] what is it that makes the medium work if it does work? How are images involved, when the disaster as media event does manage to create a ritual in which a huge public participates emotionally?

Natural catastrophes, it has to be admitted, are a special case. Only events, which have a fateful character qualify for this argument. Certain features of the event are required, such as suddenness, fatefulness (that leaves out the question of guilt), and of course, the visual qualities of an event. One implication of the limitations mentioned above is that the problem is not one of visualization in general (Visualisierbarkeit), as with radioactivity. What has to be analyzed instead are the conventions of visualization (Visualisierungspraktiken). The reflection of conventions must first address the role of the media and its reporting of disaster. I would argue that in cases of disaster the mass media do much more than just report the event: they enable distant viewers to imaginatively participate in the unfolding of events. For instance, after the tsunami in 2004, the mass media did not just present the news. Through the way they covered the event they initially contributed to the management of the catastrophe by creating empathy and making people donate money. I would go so far as to describe the media as disaster managers. But how exactly do the images of suffering create sympathy and altruism? They do this within what can be termed the ritual process of reintegration, through which the media reporting on disasters can be understood. Media rituals of reintegration moderate the going-back-to-normal after the disintegration of the calamity. They guide the movement from ‘loss of agency’ to the ‘recovery of autonomy’ in which the media public can sympathetically participate and the distance between viewers and victims is suspended. Media events monopolize attention, they manage participation in terms of help and cooperation, their ultimate goal being the collective reinforcement of a ‘holy social order’ (Durkheim). For the duration of the media event a media public experiences itself as a ritual communitas (Turner) or imagined community (Anderson) that nourishes its imagination from the same source (Boltanski). The ideal product of this ritual is sympathy, solidarity, and last but not least, altruistic action. Now the function of images of suffering has to be understood as a part of this ritual process. How do these images operate as actants of assembling the social (Latour)? Analyses of the pictorial narration of recent natural disasters as well the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and similar events in the 19th and 20th centuries have produced four basic categories of motives that together form what I call the ‘pictorial disaster story.’ These categories include A) images that compare the original situation with the state of destruction, before/after-compositions, most often wide or establishing shots; B) more detailed images that show the impact of disaster, for instance the breaking of a tsunami-wave or scattered cars; C) images of suffering people, of dead or hurt bodies as well as—and most important—of bystanders and family members, who are witnessing the event; D) images that show the arrival and initiation of help and cooperation, of reconstruction.

When asking how the distant viewer’s emotional participation in this ritual story is motivated, category C comes into focus—images of suffering people (Leidensbilder). In the disaster images genre this is a small but crucial group. In discussions ‘regarding the pain of others’ (Sontag) these are the protagonists, because they are the ones that strategically activate our sympathetic imagination. Two kinds of victims can be distinguished here: The dead and severely wounded (first degree victims), as well as the ones affected by the catastrophe but still able to act (second degree victims). They are the ones that have to cope with the tragedy, we can relate to them because we can imaginatively take their role and put ourselves in their position.

These I call the ‘primary viewers’ because their (re)actions, looks, and countenance guide and exemplify the sympathetic response of the viewer. They direct our emotional involvement much in the way that a studio audience does in so-called audience-participation shows. The theory of parasocial interaction (Horton, Wohl, Strauss) in this case speaks of the ‘coaching of attitudes’ and the resulting ‘intimacy at a distance.’ In images of the 18th century from category C—images of the famous Lisbon quake—the ‘primary viewer’ is classically a ‘repoussoir-figure’ depicted in the foreground of the image, partly addressing the viewer gestures, partly looking at the pictured scene. In early images of disasters, I interpret this figure not as a visual feature about the sense of depth in a painting. Instead, this figure operates as a device that, through gestures, communicates affect. It tells the viewer that an emotional response to the scene is appropriate. In this way, it functions as a ‘primary viewer,’ instructing the reaction of the image’s viewer.

In contemporary images of disaster, this figure does not necessarily have to be in the foreground and it does not have to be a single person. In these images of suffering it is the looks and countenances of the second degree victims that inform our emotional response. As modern viewers, we have a competence in this ‘viewing viewing,’ (Mitchell) that is, in viewing and understanding relations of looks and expressions of others in images.

Another aspect of category C—yet this also extends to B and D—is that sympathetic reactions and altruistic impulses are more likely to be triggered when, in these constellations of looks, they include people that are less able to help themselves than others: children, the elderly, and also women. Imagine a picture of a father carrying his child down the aisle of a hospital, the child looking up at him, his own worried look focused straight ahead. The ritual power of this image within the larger ritual of the ‘pictorial disaster story’ profits of course from the iconographic tradition of the biblical canon as well as the passion of Christ.

My point is that the power of these images—at least some of it—derives from a ritual force that certain motives have had in the pre-modern religious doctrine. Contemporary press photographers know this and try to profit from this ritual force by finding and shooting these motives. This argument doesn’t just indicate that of course there is an iconographic tradition of images of suffering. It does more than that by giving a sociological explanation for the way that ancient images of passion or suffering, in general, look the way they do. When it comes to suffering, it’s always about the vulnerable, unable to help themselves—then a pictorial strategy to motivate the viewer to act.

We can now go back to the aspect of shared collective emotions and the question of why the emotional and ritual involvement sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. When speaking of a ritual (some say magical) force of images we have to keep in mind that in modernity ritual success can’t be guaranteed anymore; rituals are a contingent phenomenon. Rituals today of course do not have the power that rituals had in pre-modern communities. When the mass media today tries to comanage disasters they know that they don’t have the power to involve a big public just like that. Nevertheless, at both the micro and the macro levels, both among individuals and between and within collectives, our societies still seem to be permeated by symbolic, ritual-like activities. So if the media ritual of re-integration is successful, if it manages to involve a global public emotionally through letting this public nourish its imagination and emotions from the same source, I argue that images of suffering and their narrative organization work together and interlock in the way just described. Media images of disaster—the ‘pictorial disaster story’—follow a strategy that doesn’t just make distant experience possible for the western/global audience, they also initiate cooperation (the financial support of institutional actors like the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders) by affecting this audience. The experience of shared emotions can activate altruistic impulses and make people act.