Unbearable witness

Content warning: this post discusses some rough stuff, including suicide and the Holocaust. Please take care of yourself. If you are struggling, please reach out to The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line (741741 in the US, 686868 in Canada, and 85258 in Canada).

I don’t always know what to do with tragedy, but I know what to do with shoes. There are laces to tie and tongues to tug. When I see a shoe, I imagine it on my own feet. Would the leather bite into my ankles? How would the heels sound on a wooden floor?

The shoes are on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They were confiscated from prisoners arriving at a concentration camp. When I visited the museum, I saw the shoes as shoes, and then I saw the empty spaces where their owners used to be. What would their voices sound like? How would it feel to hold their hands?


I have always seen the world as a place where the Holocaust happened. Jewish kids learn these things young. I also learned that if I wanted to engage with that part of my history, I had to find a way to dim down the horror. I wouldn’t grab a dish out of the oven without mitts. I don’t think about the Holocaust without a mental barrier.

Sometimes I open myself up to those feelings as a way to honor the dead. Sometimes an exhibit, like those shoes, peels me open. That’s not an accident. It’s a strategy.  Visualizing Information for Advocacy describes this as “bearable witnessing,” which “takes the viewer on a visual journey that slowly leads them in to the shocking part of the image.” Describing another exhibit about the Holocaust, the authors write, “The image of a pile of glasses becomes an analogy for something that may be too painful to look at directly.”

Contrary to the name, bearable witnessing isn’t bearable at all. I just don’t know that until I’ve borne it. And then it’s too late: I can’t distance myself from the shoes once I’ve imagined them on my feet.



Sonja Kuijpers uses a similar technique in A View On Despaira data essay about suicide in the Netherlands. The initial visual is a peaceful image of water, trees, and buildings under a cloudy sky. After a description of the author’s mental health struggles, the image feels like a respite.

At the bottom of the figure, Kuijpers reveals that every element in the landscape represents a person who died by suicide in the Netherlands in 2017. Every tree, every blade of grass, every cloud. Every single one.

STUDIO TERP_A view on despair

A View On Despair works because we don’t know what we’re seeing until after we’ve internalized it. The shock of what the image actually means turns over what we thought we knew.

I’ve written before about giving space to individual victims of tragedy. Bearable witnessing goes beyond that. The National Museum of African-American History and Culture illustrates the difference in depictions of Thomas Jefferson. The exhibit “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” included a statue of Jefferson in front of Jefferson in front of a wall engraved with the names of his slaves:

jefferson-wall-namesPhoto credit: Michael Barnes, Smithsonian Institution

In the permanent “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit, visitors exit a claustrophobic hallway depicting the Atlantic slave trade into a high-ceilinged atrium. Jefferson’s statue is visible at a distance. A pile of bricks towers over him. From that distance, it looks like a familiar metaphor: building a nation, something bigger than him.

jefferson-brick-farPhotograph by Justin T. Gellerson for the New York Times

Get closer though, and you’ll see that every brick is engraved with a name.

jefferson-brick-closePhotograph by Lexey Swall for the New York Times

All those names belong to people Jefferson enslaved. (There isn’t a brick for each of the ~600 people he enslaved–there simply wasn’t room.)

I can only speak for myself, but the bricks did something that the names alone did not. They took a familiar metaphor and transformed it into a larger piece of truth. Anything Jefferson built was on the backs of people in bondage.

I expected to learn about enslaved people in an exhibit about slavery. Juan Stewart Alvarez’s classmates did not expect to be confronted with the Iraq war. In 2007, Alvarez planted a field of surveyor’s flags in the quad at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

iraq-body-count.pngPhotograph of the exhibit at University of Oregon (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Every flag represented five people who died in the Iraq war: red for American military personnel, and white for Iraqi civilians. White flags overwhelmingly outnumbered red. Anyone seeing the exhibit from a dorm or window would notice the ratio of red to white before they learned what it actually meant, and before they could assemble their usual framework for the Iraq War.

Alvarez created the Iraq Body Count exhibit to combat empathy and complacency about the war. He brought the war to the literal doors of his college classmates, and intentionally used bearable witnessing to get through his classmates’ defenses. After all, they couldn’t avoid looking at what they had already seen.

I think the technique works. But do we have designers have a right to use it? And if we do, what is our responsibility to our audience?

Visualization has the capacity to do harm–not just to the people it depicts, but to the people who see it. Earlier this month, #MakeoverMonday, a weekly challenge to remake data visualizations, asked participants to recreate a visualization about suicide. In response, Bridget Cogley wrote a post asking designers to depict suicide responsibly. As far as I can tell, the initial #MakeoverMonday announcement and data release made no such request. (To their credit, #MakeoverMonday organizers boosted Cogley’s post and followed her advice going forward.)

#MakeoverMonday wasn’t trying to get under peoples’ skins. Most of the remakes that I have seen kept a clinical distance from suicide. They still had the capacity to harm their audience. What can happen when a designer is trying to get an emotional response?

A lot of writing about visualization assumes that breaking through numbness is the right thing to do. But people have barriers for a reason. Is getting past those defenses an obligation, when an issue is important enough? I suspect that for many in advocacy, the answer is yes. Oftentimes, my answer is yes. Tragedy and horror should not be comfortable. But once we’ve broken through, what do we owe to the people we reach?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have to ask the question. I hope that you will, too.


Thank you to R.J. Andrews for a correction about the AAMHC.

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