Thursday, August 03, 2006

The obscenity of war

This heart-rending front page photograph which Gulf News ran on Monday has caused much debate, with opinions very much divided.

There was a particular letter complaining about it in today's paper, with what I thought was a brilliant reply from the Photo Director:

How can the image of a dead child help?

Your newspaper was not allowed into my house on Monday morning. I had it thrown straight into the bin. It is distressing enough to read of the deaths of innocent children in times of war and conflict but completely unnecessary to show that image on the front page.
What happened to the classic photojournalism of war-torn countries which has won awards over the years for its clear message without having to resort to graphic and brutal pictures of burning bodies and crushed limbs?
We live in times when violence is so commonplace on TV to the point where no one takes any notice of real conflict and pain. How can the image of that dead child change what is happening in Lebanon? It appears to me the real reason this photograph has been published is to increase the sales of the paper.
When we live in a country where many things are taboo, surely sickening visuals of this nature should be sensitively handled and kept out of the press altogether.
How do you explain this photo to a child who sees it in the home? How does he understand that this is different from the game he then goes off to play on his Playstation or the internet?

From Ms S. Backhouse, Dubai

Our Photo Director replies:

Photojournalists covering the war in Lebanon have provided arguably the most harrowing images of death and destruction in recent times. They risk their lives to document the war crimes being perpetrated against defenceless women and children. We as a newspaper recording history are obliged to show the truth of what is happening and at times the truth is painful.

You contend that classic photojournalism images that have won awards do not depict the brutal imagery which has appeared in Gulf News and most Arab newspapers of late. I beg to differ on this issue as the greatest award-winning images have more often than not been violent. The napalmed children running through the streets in Vietnam, charred soldiers in a tank in Iraq, the pilot's body being dragged through Mogadishu streets, the Vietcong being shot in the head at close range, the man being beaten while being burnt alive during apartheid in South Africa, the starving child being watched by a vulture in Sudan, the killing fields of Cambodia, starving children in Ethiopia, the hacked bodies during the genocide in Rwanda, Bhopal gas explosion horror one can go on and on.

Great news pictures conjure up great horrors, great sorrow and inevitably are immensely brutal.

The child being hoisted from the rubble in Lebanon will go down as a great image of this war for its sure message: the war has killed and is killing the innocents. These images which are being widely used in the Arab media are being generally ignored by the western media. The result is outrage in this region and amazing apathy in the western world. Censorship of these images, the truth, only serves the perpetrators of violence and allows their crimes against humanity to carry on unchecked.

It is our duty as a serious newspaper to expose this.

We live in the Playstation age where children and adults alike are desensitised by the carnage on their television sets because apparent "death" is so common and "resurrection" is a mere press of the button away. In real war there is no second chance or "restart" button and perhaps parents should be duty bound to explain the difference between "real" death and "cyber" death.

By throwing Gulf News in the bin you may have lost a great opportunity to teach your children about the reality of life and how different it is from Playstation's artificial life.

You ask: How can the image of that dead child change what is happening in Lebanon? Time will tell what impact it has but for sure there will be and already has been an impact on the minds of those who saw it.

Reading US, UK, Australian newspapers I see sanitised photos of the destruction. Buildings collapsed, people in hospital with a bandaged arm, crying women, but rarely a graphic photograph showing the true horror, the reality of what's happening.

Hiding the truth, sanitising the effects of barbarity will only help it to continue. People need to face up to the reality of what happens in war. To people on all sides of all wars. That's the only hope we have of ever stopping it.

By the way, the little boy in the photograph shouldn't stay nameless. Abbas Mahmoud Hashem. Just one more innocent victim.


Tainted Female said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

And this woman's argument about playstation and television has got to be one of the most absurd things I've ever heard.

There was a time when most parents banned their children from playing violent games or watching violent television. Now, we're numbed to it, so long as it's not a real picture?

I'm sorry, but with today's special effects in film making, how can a child tell the difference? And if they can... Why is this current situation any better? Still impacts the viewers psyche, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

There are good arguments on both sides but I have to side with the lady who would rather not see the photo. I have children who use the PlayStation and hack images of people with chainsaws and the like - every one of their friends do too. But the fact that we are all de-sensitized to real horror is a myth that the media keep on putting out. Really? My heart is punding after seeing that child, I'm not de-sensitised and my kids know the difference between games and reality - I've never met a human being who doesn't. They still can't watch Animal Hospital!
My point is really - if you or your family (that is a general 'you') are going through the worst time of your life or facing death, how would you like your photo or a photo of a loved one spread across the pages of the newspapers simply because millions of people who have no connection with the problem/incident need to be sensitized?
Shocking millions of people doesn't change things - get right in there in the meeting room with these stupid politicians/leaders/militants/rebels/whatever when they make their stupid decisions - then maybe you have a hope of stopping violence around the world. But a photographer looking for a great shot while you are being treated in hospital or lying in the street, I'm sorry I don't think this will change anything. As the guy said, they are great images, nothing more. Words are enough for my imagination (I'm not against graphic photos but there has to be some sensitivity to these real people in real distress)and there are far worse things happening in Congo today but it's not sexy enough to make the front page.
Sorry for the long rant! I would prefer to remain anon. delete the whole thing if you wish.

Seabee said...

delete the whole thing if you wish.
Not on this blog. You're free to say what you believe.

Shocking millions of people doesn't change things
I have to disagree. Public opinion generated by the graphic coverage is what forced the American government to withdraw from Vietnam. In recognition of that, it was decided that such coverage should never be allowed again and management of the news has been fierce ever since. Why do you think they came up with the idea of embedding journalists with the military, for example, while not allowing them free access to the battles?

Anonymous said...

Seabee, you're right they can change things but it does take years for politicians to admit failure and thousands of lives can be lost in the meantime. I was thinking when I wrote this of all the demonstrations all over the world against using the military option in Iraq. Didn't stop the
idiot and unbelievably by constant repetition even more politicians/leaders started to fall for the lie.

My objection to the image of the baby is because I feel that the media love these gruesome shots and the fuss over them creates more publicity. In Dubai when there is an accident do you see all those drivers slowing down and staring at the victims? That's what the news media today go for. It's hard to turn our heads away even if we know we might feel sick at what we see. When they show the gruesome photos, it's not that we 'want' to see them as they so cynically put it - it's that they want them there to tempt the voyeur in us. Seems like plenty of fools are willing to part with their money to feed this myth that we 'want' it. What's in it for them to make the world a better place?

Perhaps, twenty or thirty years ago, those images were more shocking but today when we can see someone's father or son being beheaded I think we have gone too far. Then you could join in the discussion on BBC online to write about how you felt when seeing them. I cannot begin to imagine how the victims families feel about this.

Here's an item today that shows a photographer had manipulated images.

TG for bloggers! I'm all for freedom of information but it's controlled for the most part by cynics out for a quick buck at any cost. I'd like to be able to carry an organ donor card that imcludes my right NOT to have my image used to titillate the masses for a nanosecond. And a mutilated female is even better than a male isn't it?

This news item for me really does signify progress brought about by a photograph. I would love to see more journalists being exposed and accountable. From what I hear there is a gentlemans agreement between newspapers in the UK never to spread muck about each other. Yes the big stuff gets out but the lack of coverage about journalists is deafening in it's silence. So few individuals have the power to infuence opinion in the UK and IMO it's used to make us all cynical and fearful.

Fianlly, on the subject of beheadings - if those videos hadn't been shown I truly believe more men wouldn't have died that way. The spate of beheadings since Daniel Pearl's killing was akin to a fashion! They got maximum publicity for it. When the news media realised THEY were being manipulated, the coverage stopped - then they suddenly found morality!

bandicoot said...

anonymous - last things first; there is a lively and ongoing discussion of the issue of doctored images on the uaecommunity blog; so you may wan to check that out (and also consider the propaganda aspect of this before giving free thanks to all bloggers on for exposing that).
As for the main point, it's indeed a difficult and very emotional issue and I personally think there are no easy answers for it. There are clear cases where graphic photos have made a huge impact when everything else failed and changed things to the better, helped save lives, etc. And there are others cases where the merits of showing such pictures in public can be debated. I don't think you can have a one simple golden rule on this subject. The motives behind producing, disseminating and consuming such material are not necessarily identical. It could be the bare truth, it could be voyeuristic, it could be a sick fetish for the gruesome, it could be propaganda, etc. I don't know if you could regulate something like this; and like many other things in our lives, we'll probably just continue to beg to differ about it.

backin15 said...

seabee, thanks for this post - I've linked to it myself as I think the story is important and helpful.

The image is horrible, confronting, and obscene; all reasons why it might mobilise support that could end this war - perhaps this a naive view, but a hopeful one.

Seabee said...

backin15, I hope it's not a naive view, I share it.