What we know, however, is that this terrible beauty often belongs to the bystander, the observer who is lucky enough to be able to view it from afar. Not necessarily physically afar: it’s possible that the photographers who captured those extraordinary waves rearing up to the sky were at risk themselves. But some of these images seem to come from an emotional distance where the camera is uninvolved and safe, positioned on higher ground, so to speak, where it won’t get wet. And we who admire them are at risk of looking at them in the same way, seduced by what seems wonderfully fascinating and strange.
The truth of course is more ugly. I am guessing, but when your home or land has been under several feet of water for weeks on end, when you cannot get in or out of your village, when your crops are destroyed and your animals have to be transported far away, when everything you have worked for is ruined, when raw sewage is floating through your house, when you are old or sick or alone or just very afraid, there is nothing beautiful about this watery world. It is dirty, polluting and cruel. The camera does not easily go into these forlorn despoiled places other than to document them and thereby objectifying them, a pornography of disaster. It sells newspapers and draws us like a magnet to our screens. But it may not always help us to capture the merciless way life has been wrenched out of its normality. It may not stimulate our imaginations so that we begin to view dire events with real empathy.
The best photographers understand this. They take risks by getting involved, and their legacy is war photography, disaster photography or street photography that moves us not just for its artistry and technique but also for its honesty. The trouble is, photography also risks beautifying what it sees. This is fine (or is it?) if your subject matter is an idyllic landscape or building radiant in the sunlight. You crop out anything that compromises the vision, clone-stamp blemishes, adjust the colour saturation, and create a paradise. Even the violence of nature is susceptible to this treatment. Those sunsets over the Somerset Levels look gorgeous. Of course, photography didn’t invent this beguiling way of seeing nature. Painters in both the classical and romantic traditions did it freely, and photography has been heavily influenced by it.
We thought water was our friend: life-giving, cleansing and refreshing. But we have seen the shadow side of water, its capacity to despoil and threaten with a relentlessness that is without mercy. It can be the quiet relentlessness of rivers slowly rising up to the bank top, of water creeping silently beneath floorboards and front doors and French windows. It can be the furious relentlessness of the whole gale from the south shattering puny defences and driving seas inland where they have no right to be. Like the Hebrew psalmist complaining that ‘the waters have come up even to my neck’, victims must feel helpless against its power. How is that to be conveyed in images that can make a difference to how we respond?
Perhaps still photography has to admit its limitations. The photographer is not usually the one who is dealing with a crisis, and this at once makes a difference to how it is seen and responded to. I recognise that the same is true of much of the commentary, like this blog. But when a voice speaks directly out of the waters themselves, it is vivid and authentic. Reading some of the tweets that have come out of south west England in recent days has touched me*. I don’t know how anyone has the time let alone the will to write even 140 characters. But these first-hand accounts of what it feels like to be flooded are compelling not simply because of events themselves, but their effect on the men, women and children caught up in them. These are our fellow-citizens who are suffering. We should be in solidarity, not bystanders but friends who weep with those who weep and do what we can to help.
We need to remember this when we are dazzled by a great photograph. It may not tell all of the truth.
* For example, @SouthWestFarm. Farming couple living and working on a farm surrounded by vast amounts of water in the heart of the Levels. Please support our ongoing battle to #dredgetherivers. Somerset.