War photography, war pornography – must we see blood to understand conflict?

by Magda Mis | @magdalenamis1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 31 July 2013 16:05 GMT

A view of the street after violent clashes between Libyan interim government forces and loyalists of Muammar Gaddafi in Sirte, Libya, October 18, 2011. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the Photoshop era, can we rely on photos to tell the truth, and do we have to see images of blood and dismemberment to understand properly the extreme violence of war? Where should the media draw the line in what they show?

Can we understand war without looking at blood? And without seeing blood, would we know what war looks like?

Western media have largely chosen not to show extremely graphic images from conflict zones. If this trend continues and the stories we read are illustrated only by pictures of soldiers firing guns or tanks on the streets, are we eventually going to believe that wars are becoming less bloody and less violent?

“I have often wondered whether the ranks of critics might swell if more Americans saw graphic photos of the results (of the U.S. government’s drone strikes): the charred corpses, the severed arms and legs, the bloodied children”,  Conor Friedersdorf  wrote recently in the magazine Atlantic .

So, if we were not being spared from extremely graphic images, would it change our perception of wars or who we vote for? In fact, aren’t we entitled to see the truth about what is happening in conflict zones?

Julian Stallabrass, the editor of  “Memory of Fire: Images of War and the War of  Images”, argues that “(…) the media is not doing its job, that’s for sure, and this is a danger for democracy because the democracy is founded on the idea that citizens are well informed”.

“I showed some graphic images at the time of Brighton Photo Biennial … and one of the most common responses from people who saw this exhibition was ‘why we have not seen these things before? We did not realize, in fact, what it was like,’” Stallabrass told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview following the launch of the book in June.

Does reading the words “200 people killed by security forces” mean any more than an abstract number if we do not see pictures of hundreds of dead people to make us understand the tragedy?

“People are horrified by violent images more than by words”, said artist Oliver Chanarin during last month’s book launch.

But should people be horrified or should they be informed?

Would seeing blood make us understand a situation better or would it perhaps make us call for revenge and – possibly – cause even more violence?

And what about those who do not need to see blood to understand the extent of the tragedy, or, in fact, do not want to see graphic images? How do we give them a choice?

At the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial, the audience was presented with “The Incommensurable Banner” – a piece of art by Thomas Hirschhorn depicting victims of contemporary conflicts, their bodies lying in pools of blood, some visibly decaying, some missing limbs, some simply decapitated heads or headless torsos. The images were collected from websites, magazines and newspapers published outside northern Europe.

Extremely graphic scenes are not necessarily something we have not seen before: movies and computer games do not spare us digitally created violence.

However, the body of a soldier with his brains blown out is not an actor covered with fake blood or a cartoon character but somebody’s son or brother. Would I want a picture of a dead member of my family to be shown on the front pages of newspapers around the world or to go viral on social media? Would I want my relative’s death to be turned into a piece of art? I certainly would not.

If the avoidance of using graphic images, or mediocre reporting, may lead to false perceptions about conflicts, can revealing those images actually serve as  proof of anything?

In the era of skilful Photoshop wizards it is particularly difficult to distinguish between pictures that are real and those that have been altered. It may be impossible by just looking at a picture without access to the original – “raw” – file to determine where the picture was taken and when. This can obviously lead to misinformation and wrong perceptions of a situation.

“So many faked images are circulating in Egypt that Facebook sites have been set up with the goal of separating fact from fiction,” wrote Dina Aboughazala in a blog on the BBC website.

When reading about breakthrough medical procedures (let’s say a revolutionary way of removing a brain tumour) rarely, if ever, can we see pictures illustrating those procedures. Does anyone reading about those discoveries doubt they have been made because of a lack of pictures? I doubt it.

In today’s world of internet and social media it is not difficult to find images from conflicts happening in pretty much every corner of the world – be it professional photographers’ blogs or citizen images, with the latter appearing more and more.

Even if mainstream media continue not to show readers the most graphic images, some of those images will still be available to those who want to find them.

As the selection of photos on “The Incommensurable Banner” shows, what we as citizens are free to do, probably more than ever, is to select the source if we need to see blood to understand war.

Finally, “The critics are right about at least one thing: graphic images aren’t enough to stop violent killings. Despite a century of war photographs, war is still with us”, Friedersdorf concluded.

Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.



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