Newspapers that prominently displayed the escalating conflict in Lebanon and Israel today illustrate interesting editorial choices. On one hand, there are those papers that show both sides of the conflict with images that generally depict overviews of the damage. In this way, the visual reportage attempts a balance in providing a context for understanding the scope of the violence. On the other hand, there are a few newspapers that choose to empathize with the victims by representing the human face of suffering. In these cases, the victims are the most vulnerable in society -- women and children.
Why do we need pictures of death and destruction to remind us of the horrors of war? Have we become desensitized to the suffering experienced by others?
My feelings are that we are constantly negotiating and renegotiating social and personal space through patterns of recognizable images of conflict. The ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Lebanon serve as example, all of which began with a deluge of predictable imagery. In stages, the graphic nature of destruction escalates. Suicide bombings, aerial attacks, troop movements, the arsenals of high-tech killing machines, and finally, ground assaults, inadvertently denature the impact of modern warfare on the human psyche.
We see the aftermath of the suicide bombings in sanitized forms to ease Western tastes and sensibilities.
We see the aerial bombardments in slow motion as distant drifts of smoke hanging over the landscape, while the technology of death hammers away at an unseen enemy.
Ultimately, we become conditioned to the jump cuts and dissolves of eviscerated realities displayed as news. Bodies hanging from bridges, smoke rising from the wreckage of a burned-out Hummer, a knife at the throat of a captive –– the relentless stream of violent images numbs us to no longer feel the sting of loss in the long burn-off of human consciousness. What role does social or collective memory play in actualizing images depicting the death, suffering, loss, dying, or pain of others? When we speak of the dead we are already in the past – the things that once were.
Encountering the visual circumstances of death – noting peculiarities – becomes committed to social memory. This form of remembering is specific to what we see and what we need to know in order to make sense of events. Images fix the past in place.
But it is a tenuous and malleable placement. Disconnected from reality, I look at the smoke rising from Lebanon or Israel in the news today and feel nothing. I do not see human beings ground to oblivion, hear the screams, nor smell the charred flesh. In this conflict, as I did in the beginning of all the other “Shock and Awe” techno-dramas portrayed by media on behalf of warring ideologies and theologies, the images to do not imprecate the madness. Instead, images of violence, suffering and destruction dance across the world stage as a spectacle to normalize and authenticate some bizarre and inevitable providence.
If photography is a species of rhetoric, as Sontag argues, it is also bound to mnemonics – or ways of remembering.
Pictures of the dead and dying, according to Barbie Zelizer, are dependent on “emotionalism to drive home a larger mnemonic pattern, by which an image simplifies and flattens the meaning of the events it shows, precisely when that meaning resists consensus and stabilization.”
I am moved to reflect upon my own experiences with death in times of war.
I reflect not only on those that died violently in bloodshed, but also the untold numbers of others who died silently from disease, infection, and malnutrition. War kills in many, many ways and the images we see move beyond realism to something akin to surrealism.
We reduce human life to abstract numbers of casualties by distancing ourselves from the brutal force of the images we glance over.
The media, unfortunately, is in a no-win situation here. Any media displaying images like what we see above from the Seattle Post Intelligencer or the Courier News are often accused of bias and sensationalizing the coverage. The emotions evoke are distrubing and unsettling. These are pictures of real people in pain. We see eyes and can almost hear the scream in terror. This type of visual reportage is what journalism should be about -- raw, intense, immediate.
However, what we mostly get these days are generic representative illustrations of the conflict. These pictures, taken at a distance to provide visual evidence, often mask the real horror and pain of what is truly taking place. Which of these images will we remember most?