Serrana’s Torture is socially responsible and responsive artwork that, one may hope, can provoke people into being civically engaged. Serrana’s work depicts the victims and places of torture through enormous photographs. He presents them alongside its history and cultural contexts in Christian theology, Medieval Europe, WWII, and its contemporaneous use under the guise of “enhanced interrogation.”
I recognized the journalistic overtones to Serrana’s exhibit immediately, and decided just as quickly to call my wife and tell her to come to the gallery. We walked around the gallery separately, then again together. Her first question was why I asked her to come. She was upset by the topic; Serrana’s photographs are presented at such an extreme scale that their impact is inescapable. But the show was meant to be upsetting, and that was the reason I asked her to join me. We gawked, and with nervous smiles, we tried not to cry. Even in the photographs of empty rooms, Serrana makes us feel a portion of the pain of those who went through those places and may never have justice. He gives us glimpses of context through politics and place, and a distinct lack of all context but the emotional and physical abuse in suffered by those in his portraits. We decompressed on a long walk, deciding that it was worth seeing and seeing together. My wife and I are both steeped in journalism — her, still an active participant in the profession while I use it to direct and resolve my art and critical studies.
Telling upsetting stories, especially as Serrana has, isn’t just a necessary discomfort for us. It is an ethical responsibility. Serrana is a journalist in the truest sense. He isn’t taking advantage of the excitement of a crime story, or participating in the media circus around a tragedy, his photography forces us to empathize with people who have had atrocities meted out against them. To reflect and understand a portion of their experiences. To look at its context, pseudo-justification and contrast in war and in religion.
And this is upsetting. But it is also worth being upset.