Why did it take Ukraine to remind us of the importance of war photography?

This article contains a graphic photo.

Even the most gruesome war photographs can make you feel strangely like an unwanted tourist. It’s terrible tourism, at a terrible cost, but almost as soon as the eye notices the carnage and destruction it begins to register small, perhaps irrelevant details. The earth is a darker red, the trees a darker green, the architecture and clothing are different, as are the road signs, sidewalk and cars.

It’s grotesque to look at suffering and suddenly find yourself noticing the same things that hit you when you step off an airplane after a long flight to another hemisphere. But that’s how photographs work, and maybe it’s one of those little details that conveys what the French critic Roland Barthes called “the punctum”, “the sting, the stain, the cut, the small hole” of photography which gives the image an emotional power. The truth we have to wrestle with is the pile of bodies in black sacks, so why does the mind travel to the strange black drapery of the coffin lid and the curiously short handle of the shovel in the background?

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The punctum of the photographs emerging from Ukraine is different from the photographs of recent wars and disasters in Syria, Haiti and Myanmar. At least it works differently for audiences in Western and developed countries, where Ukraine feels closer and more familiar. This fact needs to be recognized along with the role that race and cultural difference play in how photographs are read and disseminated. In the West, ugly but resilient ideas about civilization, the exotic, and the primitive are used to keep the suffering of brown and black-skinned people at a safe emotional distance, often minimizing or dismissing their full humanity.

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But the fact that Ukraine feels culturally more familiar to many who watch these events up close has had a profound impact not only on the kinds of images that circulate, but also how they circulate. And it changed the terms of some of the essential debates about war photography, including the dignity and privacy of victims, and the status of traumatic images in an image-saturated media world.

A CBS reporter stumbled with the power of cultural proximity early in the war. “It’s not a place, with all due respect, you know, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict rage for decades,” correspondent Charlie D’Agata said. “You know, it’s a relatively civilized, relatively European city….”

He apologized, as he should have, because Ukraine is no more civilized than any other country, and the destruction of European cities is no more terrible than the destruction of cities in Afghanistan or in Iraq. But because Ukraine is European, people in Europe and culturally adjacent to Europe process these images differently, with fewer detours in these tourist details. Images can circulate and accumulate meaning faster in the Western media world because their content requires less interpretation or captioning. The punctum of these images is not difference, but similarity, and this seems to bring the horror of war more effectively to the fore.

A striking photograph of Bucha, where hundreds of civilians are believed to have been massacred by Russians, shows a narrow table cluttered with dozens of cell phones, plugged into a maze of power strips. Cell phones are not unique to Europe or any other continent. But this image concentrates ideas of dependency, connection, and the fragility of infrastructure that will be particularly disconcerting to people who take infrastructure for granted and who have had little opportunity to contemplate the fragility of their ties to distant relatives and friends. .

War reconfigures public space, no matter where it occurs. An April 6 image taken in Lviv is in some ways a more powerful introduction to war and public space than many of the more gruesome images of bombed-out buildings from cities further east in Ukraine. It shows a child dragging a scooter past a street-level window filled with sandbags, a defense against bomb blasts. The ordinary kid’s toy makes the extraordinary sandbags all the more jarring. It defamiliarizes an urban space that many residents of similar cities might never think of.

War photography, as practiced by reputable news agencies and media, is one of the most hyper-aware subcultures in journalism. Read the interviews collected in the 2019 “Conversations on Conflict Photography,” edited by Lauren Walshand you hear smart, sensitive photographers and editors wondering what to show, how to maintain the dignity and agency of the victims, and how to break the complacency of an audience removed from the scene of war.

Ukraine’s cultural proximity to many journalists documenting the war seems to have pushed some of these concerns into the background. The images seen in many media, especially in newspapers, still respect most of the rules of discretion and synecdoche that have become commonplace in war photography: faces are often obscured or masked, a hand or a foot replaces the whole body. There are hundreds or thousands of more gruesome images of Ukraine sitting on computers and circulating on social media, but few images encountered in mainstream media are as graphic as those that emerged from the earthquake. in Haiti in 2010.

At the same time, the feeling that it is inherently abusive to photograph the victims of war – an argument of paramount importance when there is a great economic disparity or a cultural gap between photographers and the people photographed – does not seem not play in Ukraine. In Bucha and other devastated towns, the witness function of war photography is less encumbered by concerns about privacy, agency, and dignity. Photographers, the public and those whose images are made seem to agree: the world needs to see this.

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Throughout Walsh’s book on conflict photography, practitioners grapple with an anxiety that has haunted the discipline for decades. Do these images have an impact? Can they break through the noise of distraction and our resistance to recognizing pain? Answers are offered, including variations on legendary photographer Robert Capa’s saying: “If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Good images always have power, they say. Others struggle with the recurring feeling that we are simply desensitized.

More substantial is an argument borrowed from the critic Susan Sontag, that we keep ugly images at bay because they make us feel powerless or powerless.

Capa’s idea of ​​proximity was literal: the photographer must get as close as possible to the violence to make images that have power. In Ukraine, it is the cultural and metaphorical proximity to Western audiences that gives many of these images an unexpected strength within the Western news ecosystem. They’re breaking through, forcing audiences to grapple with Sontag’s idea about impotence more urgently. Given that Russian President Vladimir Putin has nuclear weapons and has suggested he might use them, people horrified by this war are facing perhaps the deepest crisis of helplessness in the history of photography. war.

The West is guilty of terrible complacency and indifference to the suffering caused by wars outside of what we call the developed world, wars too often started, continued or fueled by the United States and its allies. . But few people are blessed with a universal consciousness, and most of us must strive to extend the power of empathy in radiant circles, from family to community, country to country. planet.

There are at least two lessons to be learned from the photographs coming out of Ukraine. One concerns our failure to include the seemingly distant “other” in our sporadic and inconsistent outrage over war and barbarism. The other is that war photography still plays a vital role in expanding consciousness, and that this war, which seems close to home to many, can renew the power of photography to expand our sense of that home. .

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