Yesterday, the radio program Open Source with Christopher Lydon, jumped into an issue that I have been writing about over the past week -- images and the politics of images as they impinge on public consciousness as well as foreign policy.
Here are some of the questions Lydon poses to his guests , Marc Lynch, Annia Ciezadlo, and James Der Derian about the current Israeli-Lebanese war:
1. How important are the optics of this war, and who’s managing them better?
2. What links can we draw from the outcome of the actual fighting to media coverage, public opinion and ultimately diplomacy?
3. Is Hezbollah’s goal in this conflict territory and a prisoner exchange, or is it sympathy and support, the kind that rushes in from the wider Muslim world as the images from Qana begin to spread?
4. Children are dying in apartment blocks in Haifa, too; how does Israel win the diplomatic game when it’s fighting to a draw on the ground and losing the war of images?
Each question requires detailed analysis, but what I would like to point out here is the notion of visual determinancy and the limitations of photography to convey the moral complexities of conflict.
Fortunately, an expanding body of literature in the field of images of war may help to more insightfully explicate the issues at hand.
The importance of the optics of this war, or any modern conflict, is increasingly obvious to many observers as well as foreign policy makers. David Perlmutter, in his book Photojournalism and Foreign Policy, addresses this issue extensively. For Perlmutter, “Sometimes a general ‘CNN effect’ subsuming the flood of imagery and its instantaneousness and vividness is ascribed as being able to influence, affect, or drive foreign policy” (5).
Certainly images from Vietnam, such as the street execution of a Viet Cong prisoner or the naked child fleeing her burning village after a Napalm air strike, contributed to U.S. foreign policy decision following a buildup of public outcry against the war. In addition, China was force to reconsider how it was dealing with the democracy movement at Tiananmen in 1989 following the release of a protestor standing in front of a line of tanks. Further, in1994, pictures showing dead U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by an angry mob became visual determinants in how that conflict was being managed.
The optics of war is driven by the images immediacy, intensity, and intimacy. Anchored by the saliency of headlines, images of war take on an ideological dimension that is often perceived as more forceful than written accounts.
According to Perlmutter:
News photographs are remarkably selective windows on the world. The myriad other vista of reality and events that occur beyond the range of the lens, the eye of the photographer, or the scope of the newscast or newspaper, are ignored.
Not only are images selective windows on the world, they comprise an ideological constellation of meaning that contribute to how we think, feel, and act. Pictures, as representative anecdotes of an event, may help to sum up an event but they may not move us beyond looking.
One explanation in terms of who is managing the optics or war better – Israel or Hezbollah – must explore the emotional and intellectual appeal of the content. Pictures of Israeli artillery firing off salvos against an unseen enemy do not have the same emotional and intellectual appeal as images of dead Lebanese children.
As Sontag contends, "Photographs objectify: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed. And photographs are a species of alchemy, for all that they are prized as a transparent account of reality" (Regarding the Pain of Others, page 81).
The frequency and immediacy of pictures of dead children elicit sympathy as well as outrage from viewers in ways that pictures of Israeli troop movements, artillery, or the distant shots buring buildings in Beirut cannot.
In this case, the repetition and numbers of images depicting the human cost of Israeli air strikes and bombardment allows for Hezbollah to take control in what is becoming a war of images as it is a war of fighting armies.
From an academic perspective, claiming that Hezbollah is winning a propaganda war based on anecdotal evidence is unsatisfactory. What needs to be examined here is a direct relationship or correlation between public opinion and the number, placement, and frequency of such images?
Photography, as a subtractive medium, can restrict our understanding what is happening by constraining our view of reality. When we are bombarded by pictures of dead Lebanese children our visual activity becomes concentrated by the emotional impact of an event framed by the photographer.
At the same time, news organizations visually respond predictably to the stories they put on their front pages. For example, most of Today's Front Page show an overwhelming number of newspapers using cliche hot weather pictures -- mostly people throwing water over their heads. In the history of modern newspaper design images reflect the spotlighting or highlighting of one series of events over another. In this instance, the picture may not be the same, but repeatedly the message is.
The majority of these pictures are showing us little other than something we already know, but nevertheless, editors feel obligated to visually represent the moment that otherwise could be said in one word -- HOT. The pictures, in this case, apologize for a lack of news beyond what most people are already experiencing.
Getting back to the problem of analyzing images from the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, I think it is important to remind ourselves of what Sontag observes:
"Central to modern expectations, and modern ethical feeling, is the conviction that war is an aberration, if an unstoppable one. That peace is the norm, if an unattainable one. This, of course, in not the way war has been regarder throughout history. War has been the norm and peace the exception" (74).
Considering this perspective, the visual determinancy of the frame contributes in many ways to this expectation -- that peace is the norm, or at least it is something that "ought" to be.
Looking again at the questions:
What links can we draw from the outcome of the actual fighting to media coverage, public opinion and ultimately diplomacy?
To be honest, without actually physically counting the number of images used, and without considering the content, placement, size, caption, and headline, we can conclude very little. All we are left with is an impression or the sense that there is a link between what the images show us and the public's reaction to them. Our interpretation of an image is fallible, just like any experience -- direct or indirect [thank you Charles for the clarification].
Since this conflict continues to escalate, it become imperative to suspend our inclination to rush to some conclusion in terms of impacting foreign policy. At the same time, clearly Israeli 48-hour cease-fire could be linked to the flood of gore and destruction after killing 56 people in Lebanon.
International condemnation of the attack in this case has given the Israeli government pause in rethinking how it manages its message in the foreign press. This can be seen already by examining the number of stories turning the violence back on Hezbollah's alledged use of civilians as human shield. Unfortunately, we haven't seen any pictures of guerrillas holding civilians gunpoint while they position their rockets against Israeli targets. All we get in the media is fingerpointing on both sides.
At issue is whether we can accept the commonsense viewpoint offer to us from one side or another. Ultimately, without having any visual evidence that this is the case we are left with only words to decide what is right and truthful.