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The silence as it happens

Mustafa Saeed's subdued portraits raise the question of whether we have passed the most dramatic imagery of distress.

Photography has a long tradition of showing us the suffering and misery of people. An early example is the American photographer Lewis Hines pictures. Hine used the camera in a large sociological study of the industrial city of Pittsburgh in 1907 and documented the lives of workers at the steel mills. His intention was to form the basis of social reform in his day. Today, his pictures hang on museum walls around the world and are an important part of photo history and American cultural heritage.

Many photographers think we should be able to see images of people's distress – because this is something that is actually happening in our time. But what does it mean to us constantly to witness the most terrible human tragedy – as parents digging up their dead children after a bomb attack in Aleppo? Does it increase our capacity for compassion for those in the midst of disaster, or do we end up building emotional defense walls in meeting the tragic fates of the world?

Mariam, in green, sits with her daughter Sahra * and Sahra's two children in a makeshift settlement on the outskirts of. . .

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