Susan Sontag, novelist, essayist and critic, and one of the most intriguing figures of the 20th century, writes in On Photography, her seminal piece of work: “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. To photograph someone is a subliminal murder.” Sontag describes how photographs shape our perception of reality and “alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at.” Most insightful, however, is her analysis of the image as a control mechanism used to exert a constructed perception upon the viewer and the camera as a tool to that end.
Photographs justify. A photograph alleviates doubt about whether something happened. It holds more power in that regard than the written word and other mimetic objects. Even if one is doubtful about the authenticity of the photograph, there is always a presumption that the subject in the photo exists. While the photograph was considered a fragile, ephemeral object in the past, since 1839 when the inventory began and the photography process became public, the digital age made it possible to immortalise snapshots.
The testament of the power of the photograph as a means of control, as Sontag puts it, is perhaps most profound in times of war when public perceptions are in a flux and innocent lives at stake. This makes for a powerful tool for states to manipulate and rally public opinion during times of crises, which they have done unapologetically and unabashedly since WWII when photography as a mechanism of propaganda first reached its peak.
The Wehrmacht, Nazi Germany's military, recruited 'propaganda photographers' to advance the Nazi cause. These photographers were given the task of taking innocuous pictures and were strictly forbidden from capturing 'taboo' photos such as dead German soldiers or SS officers liquidating Jews. Some soldiers took cameras along with them and secretly photographed scenes of horror. These photos were retrieved by Red Army men from the pockets of dead German soldiers and later used as evidence in the trials against German war criminals.
"Here, Sontag likening the photography of people to violation is perhaps most apropos as the 'powerful' camera takes on the 'powerless' victims of war and conflict—individual tales of pain, grief and loss frozen in frames used to score political points by world leaders at the expense of the nameless."
There are, of course, instances of organic, honest photography that exposed the human costs of war, such as Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the fear-stricken napalm girl during the Vietnam War and the 1985 iconic portrait of the Afghan girl with arresting green eyes in a refugee camp in Pakistan. However, it isn't long before such photos too are exploited by governments and their mouthpieces to mould public opinion for self-serving interests to aggrandise and prolong conflicts. And herein lies the tragedy: even when war photos depicting the suffering of civilians garner global attention, they are used and abused by state powers to shape the narrative according to their needs. Here, Sontag likening the photography of people to violation is perhaps most apropos as the 'powerful' camera takes on the 'powerless' victims of war and conflict—individual tales of pain, grief and loss frozen in frames used to score political points by world leaders at the expense of the nameless.
The harrowing images coming out of Syria are no different. The viral photo of a bloodied, ash-covered five-year-old Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh who was injured in an airstrike in the rebel-held area of Aleppo in August 2016, had supposedly “sparked international compassion”, just like the picture of a drowned Aylan Kurdi on the shore of a Turkish beach a year earlier. More recently, with the Syrian regime gaining total control of Aleppo, photos of traumatised, helpless civilians being evacuated began pouring in. Samantha Power, in a scathing speech at the UN Security Council Emergency Briefing on Syria, directly addressed Assad and his allies: “Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit?” The video spread like wildfire on social media. Many, however, were quick to point out the hypocrisy (and rightfully so) of an American representative rebuking foreign leaders for their moral depravity. One wonders, why don't photos of destruction of homes and hospitals left in the wake of NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan and Syria have the same effect? Would Samantha Power ask US and its allies if they are “truly incapable of shame”, as she did following Assad's capture of East Aleppo?
The truth of the matter is that the images of the Syrian war, no matter how gut-wrenching they may be, are nothing more than a pawn for the warring states to claim moral superiority and demonise the enemy. At the end of the day, images of the Omrans and Aylans of the conflict—that sees no end in sight—are hijacked by the same powers responsible for destroying millions of innocent lives. The public outrage expressed by world leaders and dignitaries every time an image surfaces symbolising the Syrian tragedy has proved to be hollow time and again as the thirst for power and greed overpowers the moral urgency to put an end to the conflict.
Sontag's sagacious assertion of photography as a form of mind control to reconstruct public perceptions rings truer every day. As history dictates, images of war and war of images, at many points in time, have failed to guide the moral conscience of state powers for whom the story of the subject in the photograph means nothing.
The writer is a member of the Editorial team, The Daily Star.