The Weight of Photos

What can a photographer do in a war? Robert Capa, Willi Ruge, Larry Burrows, and more have shown us through their pictures the power of photography and its influence on the general public. In Robert Capa’s most iconic image of the Spanish Civil War, “The Falling Soldier,” captured in 1936, we see the body of a Republican soldier contorted in a dramatic fall at the moment of being fatally shot. The photograph’s raw emotion and immediacy convey the brutality and chaos of war, making it a powerful symbol of the human cost of conflict and a poignant testament to the tragedy of war. In contrast, Larry Burrows’ “Reaching Out,” taken in the heart of the Vietnam War in 1966, captures a deeply moving moment between two wounded American Marines. Amid the chaos of battle, one Marine, whose face is etched with pain, extends a trembling hand towards his fellow soldier, who lies injured on the ground. The moment of reaching out frozen in the frame reveals the brotherly bond forged in the crucible of war that transcends the racial divide which was still very much visceral at the time. It highlights not only the physical toll of conflict, but also the emotional strength and vulnerability that define the human experience in such dire circumstances.

Today, amidst the Russo-Ukrainian war, the war in Gaza and Israel, and other bloody conflicts around the world (in Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, and more) with inadequate media coverage, the debate around the role of photography is once more revived. Recalling the words of Susan Sontag in her famous essay “Looking At War” published in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, “photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” It is worthy of reconsidering what photographs of war actually represent in our time, and how we should look at them.

From its very birth, the discussion around the nature of photography has never stopped. Although photography was invented in the early 19th century, it was not recognized as a form of art until the early 20th century. Photography was merely a scientific instrument and a documentary tool. What caused the change of status was the men behind the camera, the photographers: it was the conscious choice of the subject of a photograph, the location it was taken, the time of the day, the angle of the shot and so on that makes a photograph a piece of art. The one question that every photographer asks themselves all the time is this: what should I include in the frame and what should be excluded? The photographer infuses their subjectivity into the photograph. Such subjectivity then becomes its soul and turns the making of a photograph from a mere chemical, or optoelectronic, reaction into the creation of an art. In the words of Susan Sontag, “To photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.” But this is only the first step. Back in the darkroom, or lightroom, photographers, sometimes with the assistance of editors, select one picture from hundreds if not thousands of frames, bearing a similar question in mind: which shot should be seen and which one should be discarded? Even in the case of satellite images captured automatically, editors of New York Times or CNN made the decision to put them on their newspapers. In this process, without spontaneity and accidents at the scene, even more deliberation and choices are made for the photograph to speak for the idea in the mind of the photographer, its creator. Therefore, photographs of war don’t, because they can’t, explain what is really happening out there in the front.

Then, why do we still look at these photographs of war? Imagine that you are waiting in line at the coffee shop or for the next train to arrive. You are scrolling through the news on your phone. You are drawn to the satellite image of a city in ashes, and you read the headline below saying that Avdiivka has fallen. What does that particular picture mean to you? Does it illustrate the text around it, or bring you closer to the ville of Avdiivka? Conversely, isn’t it enough by looking at the photographs in Gaza and Israel to realize that the massacres committed there should motivate governments to work together to bring a ceasefire and peace, if only momentarily, to that war-torn land? Instead, more weapons were delivered to Gaza, trucks carrying humanitarian aid bombed, and the U.N. proposal for immediate Gaza cease-fire was vetoed for the third time. Similarly, if you show the most famous photographs of Margaret Bourke-White at Buchenwald or the well-known photographs of Yosuke Yamahata at Nagasaki to someone familiar with the history of World War II, you will see how the brutality and horror of these photographs continue to shock them, haunt them, and make people question the humanity (or rather the lost of it) in the perpetrators of these crimes. The New Yorker columnist Jay C. Kang wrote at the onset of the war in Gaza and Israel that despite a proliferation of photographs of war through the use of modern technology such as satellite images, drones and social media, the pictures coming from the front line still haunt us. I could still recall CNN’s daily report of the war in Gaza and Israel, when I saw the photograph of a man, stricken with grief, carrying a shrouded child killed during Israeli bombardment in his arms through a crowded street surrounded by solemn onlookers. And similar tragedies took place in Israeli families, too. In a word, the power of photography has not waned simply because of its proliferation, but in recent times, we have looked at it in the wrong way.

As an old advertising slogan of Paris Match put it: “The weight of words, the shock of photos” are made for the purpose of reporting. The images are expected to capture and hold attention, to shock and astonish the audience. The pursuit of increasingly impactful and what is often termed as more ‘dramatic’ images drives the practice of photography forward. It is a symptom of a cultural norm where shock has evolved into a primary motivator for consumption and a creator of value. In our society as of today, we look through photographs, instead of looking at them. And that is why we could hardly feel their weight. We only remember seeing the photograph of a Palestinian man carrying a shrouded child but do not understand it nor remember it. We have to look at photographs of war with much more attention and thoughts than we have been doing so to hear the voice of the photographer and the war they are trying to describe to us. What a photograph of war carries is not just the information about the battlefield, but also the views of the photographers themselves (and sometimes, as in the case of Roger Fenton, the view of their employers). Like reading the texts around the picture, we need to discern, judge, and reflect on the photographs (especially when it concerns war and the lives of millions of innocent people). This is the only way that we can get closer to the reality of the war. Otherwise, these photographs of war will be no more than poster signs with catch phrases that do nothing but ignite unnecessary hatred among people.

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