The horror

November 26, 2023

It is hard to negate or doubt the photographic evidence of violence in a war

The horror


hotographs – compared to other modes of making images, like painting, miniatures, sculptures, prints, drawing, that require a considerable time to execute – are created quickly. This speedy production, perhaps is one cause for their brief existence in contrast to other visuals, which survive centuries, even millennia. A photograph published in a newspaper is typically thrown into a bin the following day. A video transmitted by a TV channel is soon forgotten. If posted on a social media timeline, it gets buried under other images.

But some pictures do stay longer in the collective consciousness of humanity. Like the footage of the Vietnam War, especially American journalist Eddie Adams’s snapshot of the Saigon police chief about to shoot a Vietcong suspect (Nguyen Van Lem) on February 1, 1968. The outstretched hand holding a gun to a defenceless man captures the cruelty of the invaders and their collaborators. It is a rare document of a victim’s expression on knowing that his death is imminent.

Today, we are witnessing other photos. Gaza is under attack by Israeli forces. Houses, apartments, schools, hospitals and places of worship have been razed to the ground; thick smoke is erupting from densely populated areas. Bombs are exploding in markets. Tanks are entering occupied territories and tearing down urban residences presumed to be housing Palestinian activists or their sympathisers. However, bombs do not have eyes or minds. They cannot tell innocent mothers from militants; injured boys running towards a medical centre from an armed group on the move; a family residing in their ancestral home from those firing missiles from some shelters. The devastation caused by a bomb is often beyond its physical reach.

The horror

Yehuda Amichai, (the great Israeli poet translated into English and Urdu – and several other languages) observes in his poem The Diameter of the Bomb that if a bomb is dropped at a specific location, its impact is not limited to that site. It encompasses a “young woman who was buried in the city she came from, at a distance of more than a hundred kilometres.” She “enlarges the circle considerately, and the solitary man mourning her death at the distant shores of a country far across the sea,” which “includes the entire world in the circle.”

Being confronted by the pictures of men, women and children, injured, dead and displaced, jolts a spectator. It demands a response. Some tag these images on their social media accounts; others plan a demonstration; many organise public protests; and a few raise funds for the suffering population. Every morning you switch on the news channels, you see misery, killing, destruction in the land of Palestine. People talk about it, condemn the Israeli actions and mourn for the innocent children. There have been wars and conflicts in other parts of the world, for instance Ukraine; but the pictures from Palestine are exceptionally, explicitly and extremely horrific.

Remember the snapshot of a young girl standing in front of rubble, which was her house in an apartment building? Or a child sitting in the middle of a grey mess, which comprises a scorched car, debris and a plastic toy? Or a youth wearing a keffiyeh surrounded by scattered mortar pieces, steel rods, being wiped out by heavy construction machinery? A group of men carrying an injured body wrapped in a blanket, one of them shouting, as another’s face is contorted in grief? All of them and their surroundings reveal their humble existence/ neighbourhood.

The horror

Every morning you switch on the news channels, you see misery, killing, destruction in the land of Palestine. People talk about it, condemn the Israeli actions and mourn for the innocent children.

There are other photos too: of a lane with rows of four-storey buildings: all black, brown or grey, with huge openings made by missiles or explosives, and clouds of smoke in the background. The structures, and the street do not look as if humans were inhabiting these. They look more like an installation of Anselm Kiefer. Another picture shows thick black smoke and fire in the middle of a residential area, next to a few dismantled buildings.

One is certain that there must be thousands of other pictures of Gaza, since the 8th of October. Each one of these convey the same content, with a slightly different focus and perspective. Despite the fact that these were created by professional photographers, journalists or ordinary people, all these images are important, because first-hand views form history. No matter on which side you are, you cannot negate or doubt the photographic evidence. In a political, religious, military conflict, one hears diverse, often opposing narratives, but the presence of pictures preserves our – pleasant or painful past.

One may argue that images, whether painted, drawn or photographed – are not always neutral, that they contain the views (in all senses of the word) of their makers; but that is unavoidable. Accounts of a crime or a road accident vary with each witness. Also, every reader of a book - religious, literary or nonfiction – perceives something other readers of the same text don’t. Although pictures can be misleading, as Jean Paul Sartre writes about a photograph of World War II, showing a German soldier going through publications at a second hand book stall on the bank of River Seine, the French author and philosopher comments that the camera presented the man comfortably and peacefully exploring the books, but it didn’t include groups of Parisians on either side, disdainfully looking at a member of the occupying army.

Photographs record a point of view, but no matter how biased that is, it still offers a segment of truth; and preserves the past in a tangible format. As a child, I was provided a certain version of 1971 war. However, a single visit to the National Museum in Dhaka altered my perception.

As a photograph is the product of an instant, the reaction of a viewer is also quick, and short lived. But a work of art, presumably, continues to exist longer. So if a visual artist is using images from a recent catastrophe the challenge is how to make this not a reportage, but – borrowing the words of Paul Cezanne – “something solid and durable, like the art of the museum.” Some artists adopt an indirect, distant – but not disinterested – course; like the poem, Sar-i-Wadi-i- Sina by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in response to the 1967 Arab-Israel war. Due to its diction, lyricism and depth, the poem is still relevant. Reading those lines today, we re-recognise the world through Faiz’s words.

Roland Barthes, the French cultural theorist, begins his book Camera Lucida by recounting the experience of seeing a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852 and realising that he was “looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” Coming across the numerous photographs of tormented inhabitants of Gaza, one realises that one is looking at the eyes that saw death.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

The horror