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I read a thought-provoking article recently:  ‘War photography, war pornography: must we see blood to understand conflict?’ by Magda Mis, writing on the Thomson Reuters Foundation website. It was published before this week’s desperate events in Egypt.

“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?”

Mis references an article by Conor Friedersdorff published on The Atlantic site:  ‘What’s With the US Media’s Aversion to Graphic Images’:

“America’s comparatively squeamish approach is not without moral logic. In her 2003 book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag argued that the dissemination of graphic images might backfire. Rather than shocking people of conscience into action, such photos might give rise to “opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” Many years earlier, in one of the essays included in her book On Photography, Sontag had expressed a related worry: that graphic images inure us to horror. “In these last decades,” she wrote, “?‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.” A separate, largely opposite, critique holds that graphic imagery—“war porn” or “disaster porn,” in this telling—titillates and excites our darkest selves. Then there is concern for the subjects of such imagery. In his review of A Survivor From Warsaw, Arnold Schoenberg’s 1947 orchestral tribute to Holocaust victims, Theodor Adorno grappled with that ethical conundrum. “The victims are turned into works of art, tossed out to be gobbled up by the world that did them in,” he worried.”

To put this into some sort of (admittedly pretty narrow) context, consider this article by David Harris Gershon, published in 2011 on Daily Kos ‘Stunning: Comparing U.S. and World Covers for TIME Magazine’ in which he demonstrates the varying image & subject cover choices depending on where the magazine is being published.

“Each week, TIME Magazine designs covers for four markets: the U.S., Europe, Asia and the South Pacific. Often, America’s cover is quite, well – different. This week offers a stark example.

Witness:

time

Yes, what you see is TIME devoting its cover in international markets to a critical moment in Egypt’s revolution – perhaps the most important global story this week – while offering Americans the chance to contemplate their collective navels (with a rather banal topic and supposition, to boot).”

And this is not an isolated example, as you’ll see if you follow the link to the original article where several other comparisons are reproduced.

And then there’s this week.

Events in Cairo this last few days have been appalling. The images riveting. Three images stick in my mind, out of many, far far too many. The bulldozer, shown from behind, the soldiers, anonymous on one side, the face of Morsi, crumpled, on the other side. In between a rudimentary wooden cross, but a cross all the same.

Untitled-11

 

And then there was this image, of another bulldozer:

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Image © Mohammed Abdel Moneim AFP/Getty Images

And an elderly woman, again also anonymous, who apparently pleads with the military to stop their bulldozer so that assistance can be given to a shot protester, who would otherwise, we assume, have been crushed beneath its tracks. The bulldozer’s intent: to clear the jumble of sagging white bags piled there futilely against its overwhelming might.

But the image that sticks in my mind above all the many others I’ve contemplated from this unfolding nightmare is this one (and acutely aware of its not insignificant similarity to the image above):

Mahmoud Khaled, AFP#751679
Image © Mahmoud Khaled, AFP/Getty Images, Aug. 15, 2013

The numbers of dead having escalated by the hour, resulted in numerous photographs of mortuary after mortuary filled with bodies, white bundles seemingly little different from the roughly filled sacks that barricaded the roads, and which had proved so futile. But in their neat binding and precise arrangement each individual death anonymised, their faces hidden, their trauma sanitized in a swaddling cloth of white.

Except, except that is for those awful rorschach stains leaking through. Each one the same dark red of congealing blood, yet each one different.  But those marks revealing nothing of the psychology of the deceased, save that they were there in this conflict, had some purpose, but could no longer care. That task, and the interpretation of what had happened to them, and why, left to the minds of the living.

But these stains hinting also, by their location, at something I’d heard said several times in online news reports, and finally put in print (on Monday 19th)  by David Remnick in a searing piece in the New Yorker ‘Days of Rage’:

” The Interior Ministry promised that security forces would clear the streets with the gentleness of lambs, in order “not to shed any Egyptian blood.” Instead, they set out, at around 7 A.M., armed with tear gas and bulldozers, and moved quickly to live fire. They aimed, according to witnesses, at the head, neck, and chest.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, the scale of death, and the images representing it, went far beyond any meaningful visual representation of the horrors being perpetrated. It took the slowly oozing congealing blood, each pattern different, but locations eerily similar, to mark each separate life lost. Blood as a signature of life, now post mortem, defining the individuality of the dead, and perhaps the manner of their demise.

Which takes us full circle to Mis’s question: “Can we understand war without looking at blood? And without seeing blood, would we know what war looks like?

I honestly don’t know. But I know that sometimes, in its absence, we may not realize the true significance of what we see. And just as the word ‘blood’ defines so much about us in our daily language………. “the blood of our fathers” and “we were blood brothers” and ” the bloody feud we fought”  and “there was bad blood between us for years” and “a sudden rush of blood to the head” and then ” a blood chilling scene unfolded” which caused “the blood line to be interrupted” ……..so also can blood define us as individuals in death. Our last ‘mark’, unique, and left for the living to ponder over and interpret as we wish.

Fred Ritchin in the compelling ‘Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen’ quotes the experience of  Benjamin Busch, a US Marine Corps Officer twice deployed to Iraq:

“I remember taking one photograph in Ramadi, my only battle or aftermath photograph though I could have taken many I suppose. It was to try to remember the conditions for what I felt, and later to see the conditions and remember the feeling. My friend had just been killed and his body bag lay beside his burning vehicle. We could not put it out and he was much smaller in the bag than he had been moments before. We hadn’t been able to get his dead gunner out from underneath the wreckage yet and the sun was going down, the shooting over. We had lost whatever it was we had been fighting, never knew it was waiting for us, not sure now what it was even about. I was waiting for a military tow truck to lift the ruin and free the body, and there was a long pause where we were left with nothing but dust, fire, and loss and I took a picture……..  In one more minute it would have been my vehicle, my death. I may have taken the image as a kind of exploration, premonition, and escape from my own demise. A proof of life in that I was not, myself, in the photograph. That is what I would have looked like. Small, charred, and left in a black bag with some of my uniform melted to me, my legs severed. I still haven’t written to his wife. I show the image in my exhibit sometimes, although I have refused to sell it, with its victims nameless. It is context for all of my war images. So I don’t know anything, really. Just that photographs can be observers too. They can sometimes watch us.”

Friedersdorff notes that “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.”

Maybe we need to divorce ourselves from the misguided notion that war photography’s job is to stop war, but instead accept that it may only usefully serve to mark, and honour, the passing of the fallen, and as a consequence to remind we who are left alive how lucky we are.

That’s an unsettling, disquieting notion: the photograph as ‘observer’, an unblinking and unforgiving eye on the living.

 

(Edited & updated on Monday 19th)

  • As a citizen of this highly schizophrenic country I am constantly amazed at the gratuitous amount of simulated gore and violence in movies, and the scant portrayal of it in “real life” media.

    Sometimes wonder if it’s somehow related to America’s depiction of itself as a highly religious society, while at the same time so poorly putting into practice even the most basic tenants of those faiths involving love of man, charity, etc…

    • Hi Stan – I agree, its bizarre. Mind you even a cursory glance through the bible will reveal plenty of smites, smotes, stonings and similar acts of violence, all in the cause of faith, so being ‘religious’ is hardly an endorsement. But I have to agree, the US does do ‘censorship’ really well.

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

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