Can anything come from the knowledge of the terrible suffering streaming into our consciousness from the War on Iraq? Increasingly, the pictures are more real and raw then what we have become used to seeing since the war began in March 2003.
For example, there is a picture made recently by Reuters photojournalist Mahmoud Raouf of a pickup truck carrying a load of battered and bloodied bodies through the streets of Eastern Baghdad.
The gate of the pickup truck is down, exposing the corpses to all who care to see. There are at least three bodies visibly stacked like cord wood tossed akimbo.
There are ropes binding the bodies, twisted limbs, no faces are to be seen – yet, there are hints of horror. The day appears warm and the landscape is soaked in sunshine. The driver of the pickup has his window rolled down; a brown-skinned elbow sticks out -- casually. The truck is following other official vehicles in a convoy. To the right, a procession of older-model cars moving in the opposite lane of traffic appears to have stopped or is moving very slowly.
“Lately, corresponding with the escalation in horror, mainstream media has grown more liberal about depicting corpses. So, what exactly is so distinctive about this picture? It's how profoundly mundane it happens to be.”
Shaw then poses a question:
“What does it take for a police force to transport bodies around in an open flat bed without blankets or even a tarp, the way someone might cart pieces of lumber or plumbing supplies?”
In response, he postulates:
“It involves three things: an unremitting state of shock; a numbing level of depersonalization (probably why the photographer reveals no face -- living or dead); and almost unendurable subjection to the routine.”
What Shaw is getting at here is part of the pathology of war – complete with the sorts of visuals that come with the course of a protracted conflict. We have seen other wars visualized in much the same way. First there is restraint not to offend – we see pictures of troops preparing for combat, lines of refugees, and are inundated with images of the latest technologies of modern warfare. Our minds become primed for the inevitability that death is soon to follow. And we wait.
This is the pathology of war and pathology of a culture that has normalized violence through repeated representations of pain and suffering.
We have seen the Abu Ghraib prison pictures and beheading of Westerners by Islamic militants, we know what violence looks like in Iraq.
We know that it will take a lot at this point to shock us further. Hauling mutilated human beings around in the back of a pickup in broad daylight serves to confirm the conviction that this is no longer on the surface simply a U.S. – Iraqi war – this is a sectarian conflict in a visually secular world.
Ashamedly, I feel little emotion in the image of this convoy of death and despair. I feel that the picture was actually meant to be somehow innocuous or harmless in its effect. As Sontag contends in her book “Regarding the Pain of Others”, “Violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing.”
For Sontag, “The familiarity of certain photographs builds our sense of the present and immediate past. Photographs lay down routes of reference, and serve as totems of causes….photographs help construct – and revise – our sense of a more distant past...”
There is another, very different type of image to hold up against Raouf’s convoy of death picture. The picture I have in mind is by the preeminent photojournalist, David Burnett, who made an image in Chile during the roundup of students who were taken to a soccer stadium by soldiers following the coup against Salvador Allende in 1973. The picture shows young man looking blankly into Burnett lens. He is framed by the rifle barrels of the soldiers guarding him. Fear is written in the student’s eyes. The man is talking to the camera – “God help us” – his eyes plead. The image is stunningly compassionate. But, as Sontag reminds us, “compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.”
For three decades Burnett’s picture has haunted me, and I am drawn to ask what became of this young man on that dreadful day?
Why am I stirred by Burnett’s image and feel only callousness for Rauof’s? We must dig deeper into how we are socially and culturally conditioned to view images of violence. Sontag argues, “Photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.”
Is there a consensus today concluding that the continued violence in Iraq will only lead to more violence?
Can we expect to see more truckloads of battered bodies from Iraq?
Why are images of the dead so unreal and images of the living so real for me?
Perhaps John Berger explains it best when he suggests that picturing humans as victims of injustice and brutality is “"discontinuous with all other moments.” Our inability to grasp the full extent of the suffering of others in any context inhibits our capacity for pity and compassion.
Susie Linfied, in an essay called, “Memuna, Almost Smiling: Looking at a Photograph of Suffering” summarizes the concerns of both Berger and Sontag when she writes:
“Because photographs lack narratives, they lack meaning-especially political and moral meaning, which is contingent on causation. Therefore, these critics claim, photographs of suffering-by freezing a moment of time, by extracting experience from context, by separating the event from its history-actually depoliticize, desensitize, and perhaps even dehumanize us, though their makers surely strive for the opposite.”
When “Violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing”, as Sontag claims, why is it that I am not moved to tears by the images of the dead and the dying coming from Iraq these days? I am alone in feeling desensitized to images of violence and destruction on our culture?
Perhaps, because in Raouf’s image, along with many others made during the Iraqi conflict, I do not get the sense the compassion of the photographer behind the lens. Often at great risk, these photographers make pictures in attempt to edify and explain, but in return only serve to distance us further from the harsh realities of war.
Beyond the subjectivity of reading representations of violence in the media there is also a deeper and more troubling aspect of the visual at war that must be attended to. In every U.S. foreign conflict for the past half century, the camera has played a significant role in shaping public opinion for or against the war. As this current war has unfolded we have seen mostly what the government has wanted us to see, with the exception of the prisoner abuse photos and the pictures of flag-draped coffins.
Wendy Kozol, in her 2004 article “Domesticating NATO’s War in Kosovo/a” suggest that “When critically examining news coverage of war, we need to confront the often compelling arguments made about the political imperative of visibility.”
Is there some sort of political imperative lurking behind images showing the alarming number of civilian deaths in Iraq since last year’s elections?
How could pictures of sectarian reprisal killings and other acts of violence signify a shift in the way the media has covered this war?