The face of ‘the Other’: A visual reflection on moral obligation in the 21st century

Photography by Tom Bradley [*]
Introduction by Alister Wedderburn

* * *

For Emmanuel Levinas, the foundation of the ethical relation is what he calls ‘the face of the Other’. The face presumes a moral obligation to others, because it establishes a recognisable and mutual humanity that makes concrete one’s ethical obligations and responsibilities: ‘…the face of the Other is destitute; it is the poor for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all’.[1]

The photography of Tom Bradley visualises Levinas’ theory. Bradley has travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, India, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the United States of America in order to photograph sufferers of leprosy. The subjects of these photographs have faces that to us are doubly ‘Other’: firstly, because they are mostly from countries that we consider distant or alien, but also because of the social difficulties that their disease creates: these people are often outcasts, an ‘Other’ within an ‘Other’.

Bradley says his project ‘is a record for the future of the varied lives of people affected by leprosy now’ – but he also makes clear that this is not just a documentary project: ‘It is also a call for attention, perhaps even for change, to a disease that can be so destructive and damaging – mentally and socially as well as physically. Leprosy is a disease that has been curable for almost three decades, yet is still alive in the world today.’ The disease is considered officially ‘eliminated’ if fewer than 1 in 10,000 people have it, but in a country the size of India – which declared leprosy ‘eliminated’ in 2005 – this still means up to 120,000 cases.

Bradley’s photography is a powerful record of this often-hidden, often-forgotten, often-stigmatised disease and the people who suffer from it. But it is worth looking at his photographs with Levinas’ ethical vision in mind. The fact that we are looking upon an image of a face rather than a face in the flesh is irrelevant – for Levinas, while responsibility is reciprocal between the connected or facing parties, this reciprocity is not interdependent. One’s own commitment towards the ‘Other’ is not contractual, is not contingent upon this ‘Other’ fulfilling his or her commitment towards oneself: ‘Reciprocity is his affair’.[2] This obligation must therefore be enacted unilaterally: ‘Responsibility is what is incumbent on me exclusively, and what, humanly, I cannot refuse’.[3] Looking at Bradley’s work will raise personal questions about the extent to which such responsibility is incumbent upon us, in the cosseted comfort of our internet connections – and how, by extension, we are to acknowledge it.

Tom Bradley will be travelling to Amman in the coming weeks to document Syrian-Jordanian relations. A selection of the resulting photographs will be published in Strife in February.


This member of the Association has damaged fingers and toes. He’s also a very hard-working carpenter. Here he has just finished sawing wood to make a wardrobe that will be sold in town. Adzope, Ivory Coast, 2012


John Annan (background) sits with another patient in the male ward. Some of the patients, like John, have had leprosy for many years, while others have been diagnosed recently. All are apprehensive about the future. Ankaful hospital, Ghana, 2012


Konan Josephine receives some care from Ouattara, one of Manikro’s voluntary health agents. Manikro, Ivory Coast, 2012


Mr Hope, the town chief, wheels himself in to get his dressings changed. Ganta, Liberia, 2012


John Enu used to be a shoemaker at the hospital. He got paid very little and retired with no pension. He relies heavily on help from the sisters at Ahotokurom. He makes some money by brewing herbal concoctions. Enyindakurom, Ghana, 2012


Pierre, one of the voluntary ‘health agents’ looks at Kouakou Hare crawling into the clinic. Kouakou was begging in Bouake during the war and returned to find the hospital gutted. Manikro, Ivory Coast, 2012


Konah, a former leprosy patient, is an expert craftsman despite having no fingers left. Ganta, Liberia, 2012


Patient during morning dressing changes. Karigiri, India, 2012


The same patient’s foot. Doctors later decided that the infection had spread too far and gone too and amputated the following week. Karigiri, India, 2012


Til Kumari, a resident of Khokana. He is blind, with no fingers or toes. He gets a stipend of around $5 worth a month to live off, his only income. Khokana, Nepal, 2009


A patient at the National Hansen’s Disease Centre in Louisiana. He is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. He didn’t want to be identified. Baton Rouge, United States, 2012
[1] Levinas, E. (1985): Ethics And Infinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press), pp. 87-9.
[2] Levinas (1985), p. 98.
[3] Levinas (1985), p. 101.

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