To Photograph the Pain

A Very Complex Job: To Photograph the Pain

Author: Gamze Toksoy; Translation: Miray Çakıroğlu; Editing: Elif Gazioğlu

SPOT: On a certain geography in the world there is so much hunger, poverty, disease and war, and these problems are so big and deep-rooted that looking at these photographs, the deperate we, turn into daunted spectators.

That big country which bears the torch of freedom, that beautiful country which anyone would agree to be the master and the guardian of humanity’s noble values, which strives to build the ‘common house’ of a world that is worthy of being lived in, is in danger. The danger that seeks to demolish that common house, to wound the mentality which belives the house would exist and to drive it into dismay, the danger that goes the rounds everywhere and against which one must be on the alert results from the presence of the uncanny ‘stranger’ whom one could not know where it would come from and which form it would take. This danger that comes from the other world should be eliminated at all costs. Such a holy mission could only realize by a human/weapon which will draw oneself up against the enemy, whose cold steel body is crowned with eternity, who is determined to war on until guranteeing the sterile children of the next generation. The gender of this weapon which transforms the human body to a war machine is ‘male’!


The male which is the guardian of the safe ground upon which the future world  that is worthy of being lived in, of his country which is the only substratum, of his sheltered house and his woman which he diligently keeps away from strangers; the guaranteer of the capital and the system; the hunter, who believes in the necessity of a war without a dispute, of the world which he has changed into a slaughterhouse, and his ‘male mind’. Therefore Susan Sontag begins her inquiry into the photographs of war and the eye that views them with a warning of Virginia Woolf who states that according to men ‘there is glory, necessity, and satisfaction in war” : War is, above all, a men’s game. This warning makes it first-hand controversial that anyone looking at the photographs related to war feels the same pain and recoil and through these photographs they will see the mawkishess and the brutality of war in its clarity and immediately agree on the urgency and the necessity of stopping the war. Accordingly, we need to talk about the male mind of the ideology that tries to engrave into minds as the only way out, the necessary path to future democracy, freedom, and peace. In such an ideology, war can only be the effective way for struggle of a justified cause. It would only be infidelity to mention denying the war morally. The necessity of war and its legal ground is indiputable. Those sent to the war and thus who disregard their own lives for the well-being of their country and their families can only be named heroes. They are not humans! They are the agents of that most supreme morals: the morals of fighting for the sake of defending one’s country, family and religion; immortal, cold steel-bodied heroes. That is why ‘American moralism’ keeps the dead bodies of the soldiers who have died in war out of sight. These bodies cannot be represented as dead, but only as the spirits of heroes, which give life to a machine: the rigorous, pressing machine of death. When the flag of his country, for whose sake he has died waves in the skies, the dead body is no longer a heap of flesh but an esteemed existence that does not require flesh, blood, or soul to survive in people’s hearts and minds.


Yet, when it comes to the ‘enemy’, the picture begins to change. Sontag calls our attention to how the content which the American moralism ascribes to the photographs changes, how the dead bodies in question are again and again showed in their ugliest forms with all their terror in front of the most unbearable state of violence. Can these everlasting images really inform us about a war that is going on in some part of the world; could we really learn what is going on through their help? Cities reduced to debris, bombed out houses with bullets in their walls, dissipated homes, women crying in pain, corpses of children, dead human bodies; in close up: bodies smashed to bits, faces in blood; burned, unrecognizable heaps of flesh; organs scattered in the streets; disespoused arms, legs…


This bombardment of images of course offers us some information, at least though at the first moment it comes in useful confronting those who have no experience whatsoever relating to war with “a little slice of reality” like ‘War is bad; it is a shame for humanity.’…Right at this point Sontag, as an eye viewing photographs of war, undertakes to question “us”. Is it possible to say that anyone looking at these photographs will sense the same pain in response to the brutality of war, and will feel the same hatred? Do these photographs tell us what is going on in war as a whole; could we feel the same pain as those at war through the photographs? Could these photographs alone cause such an effect in people as to oppose war;  do they motive us for anti-war actions? Well, what about choosing not to look at these photograhs and turning away from them? What is this manner an indication of?


Maybe the photographs of war could be thought of as instruments that inform us – the commonsensical and sorrowful us- what is going on in a world with war prowling around and remind the responsive us of our duties and responsibilities in a world that belongs to all of us. But, to think that anyone will feel the same pain in response to these photographs, however horrible they are, is not to take into account the targets of the sides of the war which is the subject of the photographs, the history and the politics of the geography where the war takes place. “What is important for those believing that just and justice are on one side; oppression and injustice are on the other and that war is to be carried on, is exactly who is killed by whom. Because on which side the eye looking at the photographs stands will determine the effect they have. Whereas smashed human bodies may be images of terror for some, they could be the proof of their just cause for others. Or else, especially the photographs that could damage the belief that war must be carried on could be claimed to be fake and thus, those who are held responsible could be tried to be acquitted in the eyes of the public.


Moreover, these photographs can show us only a certain side of the war and give us partial information. War photography which enables us to view the sorrows of a war taking place faraway has a history in which propaganga and censorship intermingle. Besides, the demand of the side which wants war, that the photographs of war are used as more and more professionalized means for propaganda, is counted among the factors that direct the development of the mechanics of photography. War photography has exploited right from the start the reality effect of photography as an advantage in the way of conveying the desired message with the secenes that are assembled accordingly. From the very first stages, war photographers have been chosen among those charged by the ruling, which is one side of the war; what is more they have been sent to the war zone having been stimulated about what kind of images they should produce. In that case, when taken historically, the war photography started out as shooting so far as the governments permit and trying to produce images that are in the favor of the country, on whose side the photographer is, and trying to expose how necesary it is to carry on with the war and how satisfactory it would be. After the Vietnam War, these images have come to a state of photography that is striking and shocking, exhibiting the brutality of war and death without hiding anything.
It is obvious the features that are expected to be present in war photographs, which have an important place in the market of images have not changed today. The photographs are montaged in a way that will ensure the image-message relation and more professionally than in the past, and they are broadcast after an effective supervision. The photographs that are outside this mainstream are censured, or at least left outside the dominant discourse. Therefore, when looking at a framed subject, what is left out is insistently to be asked so much as what is  included. Consequently, war photographs express more than our freedom of information concerning what is going on in a distant corner of the world or just nearby us. These photographs are a way of defining violence as well as documenting it within the bounds of a system which decides what to show when –especially in the eyes of those who have no experience of war in the first person.


What is incontrovertible is these photographs’ noteable role in forming judgments in our minds about a war in question. Ideas of people who have neither experienced a war themselves nor have knowledge about a war going on in some part of the world are shaped through these images. Sontag draws our attention to one of the important props of the American style war strategy as we witness today: dead bodies. We do not see American soldier’s body, especially the face on the account of respect for the relatives; the smashed bodies we encounter everyday usually belong to the Asians or the Africans. In other words, with the help of the photographs, our eyes that are trained with the long exposure to the images, become inured to these images of terror that belong to a remote, distant side of the world.


Sontag emphasizes that photography has superiority over other forms of image-producing and draws attention to the fact that a still exposure creates a different mode of thinking than animated images. A still exposure is like the act of reading: a process which the  reader  can mostly determine, whereas the duration of a film is determined by its producer and the images can only be percieved as fast or slow so far as the assembly and editing the film permit. Photographic exposures are like the basic units of our memory that are accumulated in our minds and are ready for use when needed. Particularly those exposures which leave a mark in our minds subjecting such themes as death and war –such as the photograph of the atom bomb, which consists of an immense cloud- in time, become one with the event itself and even substitutes it. “Without any doubt, nonstop image bombardment (TV, videos, films) surrounds our lives, yet when it comes to ‘remembering’, photographs have the power of causing deeper pain and leaving deeper marks in memory. The basic unit of a frozen exposure is one image. However photography provides us with the fast way and the condensed form of remembering in an age overflowing with information. In that, a photograph resembles a quotation, an aphorism, or an epigram.”


The power of photography pertaining to remembering is an indication of the important role it plays in the making of history. The photographs we choose to look at, especially those which remind us of historical events are effective in establishing a bridge between our past and present and thus, they would more likely to leave a deeper mark in our minds than discourses.  Images which are systematically produced on a subject and presented to us within a system or organization will, after a certain time, turn into integral parts of an historic montage that we will begin to think about and keep in mind. What is more, the connection of these parts with reality is established through the points they sweep under the carpet, hide and channel more than the points they expose, quote or shadow forth.


In other words, the photographs that are utilized for developing a “collective memory”, the images we are frequently exposed to must be perceived as a question of how ideologies want to shape the history. Hence, Sontag denies the concept of collective memory, saying that; “…there is no such thing as the collective memory –the collective memory is a part of the family of  fake ideas, just like the collective crime.” Shortly after, adding that “but there is a thing like collective education” she reminds us that ideologies save the images which are ready to form judgments they will find meaningful and they will use as the proofs of a supported idea and they will make use of these representations as the stimulants of indivuduals’ memory, when needed. In that sense, one should only talk about conditioned individual memories rather than a collective memory.


Therefore, besides not being provocative of opposing war, the exposures relating to some events that we accumulate in our minds could in time turn into judgments that we get accustomed to. On a certain geography in the world there is so much hunger, poverty, disease and war, and these problems are so big and deep-rooted that, looking at these photographs, the deperate we, turn into daunted spectators. “Showing a cruel and unfair pain that must be appeased, (war photographs) also confirm that this disaster is really there in that very corner of the world. In the same direction, the spread and sighting of these photographs everywhere will end up suppoting the belief that tragedy is inevitable in the illiterate and undeveloped (that is, poor) parts of the world, we might say.”


The expectancy that these images will not get published, turning our heads away or closing our eyes upon seeing them will certainly not eradicate the pain that is subject of these photographs. After all, war photographs have the potentiality to force us into asking questions about what is going on in the world and triggering our sensibility towards the problems of the masses. However, it is also important to keep in mind that these photographs are governed by the executive powers of the war in order to ensure the legitimacy of decisions, to create favorable conditions for war and influence the public accordingly, form a general opinion. In this wise we could ask questions about the role of war photographs take on as the fixing, defining and judgmental handmaid of ideologies. Otherwise, the possibilities of learning what is going on at war; and feeling, understanding, sharing the pain experienced due to it is very thin through these photographs alone.


“ ‘We (that is, everyone who have not undergone such a thing as they did) cannot understand them. We cannot know what they have gone through. It is not possible for us to imagine what war looks like. We cannot imagine how terrible and dreadful war is –and how ‘normal’ it has become. We cannot understand; we cannot imagine.”

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