Events in Gaza over the last few weeks have appalled me. By any standards what has been perpetrated there is unacceptable. Both side’s hands bloodied, and in the middle, too many innocent civilians with nowhere to hide.
Amongst the many many images that I waded through recently, some tearfully, several caught my attention, and of them, a particular pair of ‘selfies’, one directly related to events in Gaza, the other more indirectly related (and which popped up in a google search for ‘selfie’) simply because of its location, Auschwitz, and it’s significance to the history of Israel.
They grabbed my attention because I’d been mulling over an excellent and thought-provoking post by John Edwin Mason, one of a series of three linked posts John is working on: “What makes a photo iconic? Four dead boys on a Gaza beach.” And as I considered John’s observations whilst looking at photos from recent events I realized that I was seeing images that were about recording individual’s participation in them, marking their presence there, and ‘broadcast’ via social media in a manner not previously possible. And it made me curious about the ways social media enabled individuals to make such ‘visual comment’, and to wonder also whether such images could become ‘iconic’.
All else aside, what these two, apparently unrelated, and certainly unremarkable images shared was the ability to elicit a torrent of comment, mostly abuse, on social media, each individual being condemned for their ‘thoughtlessness’. But more than that, they underlined for me the power of photography. Its ability to communicate, and motivate; and also its abject failure, but more of that failure later.
The first was on AL-Monitor, and showing (quote):
“An Israeli teen takes a selfie with the Gaza Strip as his background on a hill near Sderot, opposite the northern Gaza Strip, July 13, 2014. (photo by REUTERS/Nir Elias)”
An image from the now infamous Sderot Cinema, a nightly spectacle for (some) Israelis, who have come to watch Gaza being pounded by all manner of Israeli weaponry. Of necessity it anonymises the individual, because to include the ‘action’ it requires that their back be towards the spectacle, and also to the photographer. But of course this raises the question of whether what is said to be there ‘in the background’ is actually there. We must trust the observer. The only person who knows for sure has taken the selfie. You can read some of the comment about Sderot here. And some opposing comment here.
Not so ambiguous with the other image. It is full on, with no hint of anonymity, quite the opposite. It was taken by an 18 year old Alabama teen on a visit to Auschwitz and attracted a huge amount of criticism. It spawned a rash of news articles, some showing smiling and sneering teens in various ‘sensitive’ locations such as here. And a google search will unearth plenty more comments, some supportive, many against.
But beneath the surface, there is more than at first meets the eye. The backstory to the Auschwitz image is more complicated, and is, according to Breanna, being misrepresented.
“Breanna Mitchell, an 18-year-old from Roanoke, Ala., said just before her senior year, she and her father planned a trip to Poland. However, unexpectedly Mitchell’s father died of a heart attack right before she started her last year at Handley High School.
“I’m not a history person but that’s the only part of history I’ll actually sit there and talk about. I guess it’s so weird all that could happen and nobody could do anything about it,” Mitchell explained.
All may not be so obvious as it seems. And rather than a sneering mockery of Auschwitz and all it represents, it is at best a record of an ambition fulfilled, or at worst a crudely scrawled ‘Kilroy was here’ moment, on the toilet wall that is Facebook/Twitter/Instagram. And the image at top may or may not represent a gloating Israeli delighting in the death and mayhem visited on his Palestinian neighbours. Only the selfie-author knows for sure.
Which brings me full circle and to photography’s “abject failure” I mentioned earlier. Truth is, photography’s strength is also its greatest weakness. A photograph can tell you where someone was, it can tell you when they were there, it may reveal what they did, it may show their face (or it may not). But although it – a ‘selfie’ – may appear to make comment, in truth it tells us absolutely nothing about the motives of the person who took it. And perversely these images and our responses to them, actually reveal more about us, and our prejudices, than they do about the taker.
A quote from Susie Linfield in ‘The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence’ reveals all is pretty much as it has always been (regarding the history of photography and its adoption by the masses):
“But such newness and egalitarian newness, could stir intense anxieties – even in a great modernist like Baudelaire. He hated photography for many reasons, including its general availability and its great popularity . “In these deplorable times” he warned in 1859, “a new industry has developed,” one supported by the ignorant mob. Like an Old Testament prophet, he railed:
“Our loathsome society rushed, like Narcissus, to contemplate its trivial image on the metallic plate. A form of lunacy, an extraordinary fanaticism, took hold of these new sun-worshippers. Strange abominations manifested themselves.” ”
For the image taker, it may simply have been, ‘I was here, this is what it was like’. And any further interpretation, or presumption of motive and intent on our part, is merely guesswork.
So, to answer my own question, what do these images and my response to them betray about me? To my mind one is an image that simply marks the presence of death in a place of life, the other, celebrating life in a place of death. And neither, I think, can become truly iconic, they may be memorable but do not have that ‘something’ extra that makes them unique.
But what of iconic images? Of all the photographs that I’ve seen recently two stand out. Will they become iconic? Who knows, such things are the gift of many others, but as images that sum up the futility and desperate situation in the Middle East, they’ll stick in my mind.
The first shows a small child at the centre of many gloved hands. It symbolizes the suffering of the innocent, the pulling to and fro by many factions, gloved hands gentle but ‘distant’ – their touch dulled by latex, it speaks to me of confusion, uncertainty, but at the heart of it all the precarious promise of a young Palestinian’s life, twisted limbs uncertain of the direction this individual will be able to go in her future.
And then this one, which struck me with its similarity of composition and line. But an image suffused with grief and longing, expressed by many hands, some making farewell touches, others fingertip reverence for the flag of their state, and, deeply significant, other hands clutching ropes, tying those in the present to a past Israel should not ever forget.
Will these images make a difference? Will they become symbols of a past we all regret and have moved on beyond? I’ll leave the last words to John Edwin Mason:
“Time had to catch up with the photographs. More correctly, attitudes had to change, and change they did. But they didn’t change without struggle.”