Are photographs of war and atrocity losing the power to move us?
The moon is bisected by a cloud, then a razor blade slits through a woman’s eyeball with unnerving ease. The narrative jumps quickly to “eight years later”, with the woman’s appearance fully restored. This opening scene, one of the most infamous in the history of cinematography, is a grotesque and violent challenge to the audience’s point of view, slicing literally through their conceptions of society, the arts and culture.
Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s 1929 surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou (“An Andalusian Dog”) was, in the words of the former, “a violent reaction against what in those days was called ‘avant-garde,’ which was aimed exclusively at artistic sensibility and the audience’s reason.” One of its purposes was to confront audiences and their conceptions of art directly; to make them feel uncomfortable when faced with incomprehensible scenes and distorted narratives.
Today we are inundated with scenes of wartime atrocities from places like Aleppo in Syria, yet few linger long in the memory. There are multiple images of crying mothers, children being pulled from rubble and shattered-looking doctors and nurses. Yet few, if any, of these images assume an iconic status. A community of strangers would struggle to pick out a selection of images that capture or define any particular war zone.
It was not always so. In the past, images have galvanised anti-war movements and become truly iconic. Nick Ut’s famous photograph of a young girl burned by napalm called Kim Phúc, running down the road naked with her arms raised is one such example from the Vietnam War; or Eddie Adams’s capturing the summary execution of a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla. Such images aroused the passions of protesters thousands of miles away and provided a mobilizing force that a thousand or more words could not provoke.
Aylan Kurdi went global. Like many thousands of people before him, Kurdi perished in the Mediterranean Sea as his family strove to reach Greece. Face down in the Turkish sand in a red t-shirt and blue shorts, his arms resting by his side, Kurdi’s image inspired rhetorical outrage and many calls for action. Within weeks, however, it had faded from view and from memory, catalogued alongside thousands of other images of the victims of a refugee crisis whose causes remain unaddressed.In September 2015, a photograph of the lifeless body of three year-old Syrian refugee
What lies behind the diluted power of imagery like this?
First of all, the contemporary aestheticization of violence has stifled the impact of such images on our collective consciousness. Overproduced and stylised violence permeates all aspects of daily life, diluting and cleansing such images of pain and suffering. Sensationalizations of warfare and crime in popular culture provide a purely aesthetic experience that serves as entertainment as opposed to a potential source of empathy.
The victims captured in images of war have become objects of our gaze, their subjectivity diluted by this commodification and glorification of violence. Their humanities are obliterated along with the landscapes that surround them. In effect, they’ve become collateral damage from the emotional detachment or paralysis of those who are considering the images that are laid-out before them.
Secondly, this process of aestheticization has been made more acute by the exponential rise of the internet and, in particular, by social media. The pace and quantity at which images (whether still or moving) are reproduced and shared has accelerated. Audiences are inundated with images of atrocity and tragedy at a level that reinforces the numbing effect derived from portrayals of violence in contemporary culture, whether in movies, TV dramas, music videos or video games.
The possibilities for distorting and manipulating images using media technology have planted additional seeds of doubt about the veracity of any photograph or video. Scenes of one event (an atrocity or a protest, for example) are regularly used to illuminate an entirely different one. Images are photo-shopped or cropped to add or omit crucial details with the intention of twisting or distorting their meaning. Manipulation means that the same image can be used to support opposite or diverging narratives.
Juxtaposed with on-line advertisements and celebrity gossip, the perspective in which an image sits is fundamentally altered, changing the connotations of what it had intended to communicate. This is one of the time-honoured lessons of the late John Berger’s seminal ‘Ways of Seeing:’ that the context in which images are presented matters greatly.
Context is the frame through which images are viewed and interpreted. As Berger himself asserted, “When paintings are reproduced they become a form of information, which is being transmitted and so they have to hold their own against the other information which is jostling around them to appear on the same page or the same screen. The meaning of an image can be changed according to what you see beside it or what comes after it.”
Thirdly, war and its complexities are becoming increasingly inaccessible. Photojournalists are used less frequently by editors, and when they are used they can be targeted by combatants or embedded within military deployments. In 2013 and due to a lack of funding for frontline journalists, the French newspaper Libération published an entire edition without any photos to illustrate the impact an absence of images could have on the consumption of news.
As we become increasingly passive observers of war and its crimes, images cease to exercise the mobilizing potential they might once have had. This makes it even more important to slit through our own perspectives in order to challenge the context in which the images we encounter have unfolded. We must engage more assertively with the stories behind these photographs, delving beyond the surface of the images to recognize, understand and empathize with their subjects—both perpetrators and victims. We must explore the structural context in which every image is taken and presented, not just the pure aesthetics of the image itself. Only then might an image tell us ‘more than a thousand words.’