One picture is worth a thousand words
Americans were bombarded on April 1 with a photo of the burned bodies of American security guards hanging from a bridge in Fallujah while Iraqi citizens celebrated with dancing and chanting underneath. The photo, taken by Khalid Mohammed of the Associated Press, drew strong reactions after it ran on the front pages of newspapers across the country. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a half page of reader reactions, ranging from praise for showing “the truth” to diatribes against showing such horrors in a “family newspaper.”
With the increasing violence and killing in Iraq we have seen a curious ambivalence in Americans about what kind of violence is appropriate for media to display. At least two important facts emerge out of the Fallujah photo controversy. One is that the technologies of image making are rapidly spreading hatred around the world. The reactions of Americans to Mohammed’s photo and TV footage of mutilating the Americans’ bodies demonstrate the intense hatred engendered by images of such acts.
Interestingly, another fact the photo illustrates is that after seeing such images endlessly repeated in various media, viewers become deadened to the horror and in effect stop seeing it. The issue about whether photographs of horror desensitize us and distort our sense of reality or whether they encourage us not to forget such horrors has raged for eons.
In New Mexico we are old hands at it since for years we have been buying postcards from the National Atomic Museum with colorful images of nuclear explosions on them and sending them to friends with cheerful messages about our day in Albuquerque, forgetful of the fact that one bomb killed sixty-six thousand humans and left at least 140,000 total casualties. On the other hand, in this part of the country we are also aware of images of the crucifixion and the pain of Christ’s death that have remained meaningful to the faithful for centuries. As Susan Sontag tells us in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, images of pain and suffering need not become banal. But the hundreds of images of war horrors spread across newspapers and TV screens often do erode reality. As Sontag says, “The vast maw of modernity has chewed up reality and spat the whole mess out as images.” This process, she notes, can lead people to wanting to become images, not people. Or, as a friend once put it, you can become a person who would rather look at a turkey dinner on TV—and starve—than eat a baloney sandwich. After looking at too much war photography the pain and suffering and horror of war can become merely an image, while the reality of the battle or atrocity is lost. As Sontag warns us, “[such imagery] can turn us into image junkies lusting after an amorous relationship, which is based on how something looks instead of what it means.”
Back in the sixties Marshall McLuhan told us much the same thing by recounting the story of the lady in the supermarket with her baby. Another shopper looks in the baby carriage and says, “Oh my! What a beautiful baby!” The mother responds; “Oh her, that’s nothing, you should see the photographs.”
The essayist Michael Light disagrees with Sontag and McLuhan. His book 100 Suns is comprised of digitally manipulated photographs of nuclear test explosions selected from the vast archives of publicly owned images taken over the years by government photographers. Light finds the images informative and illuminating, “a record of human ingenuity made monstrous and absurd.” His book carries no text other than technical data on the tests: he trusts the images to speak for themselves. Of his work he says, “Artistically, I’m concerned with power and landscape, and how we as humans relate to vastness—to that point at which our ego and sense of efficaciousness crumbles.” Such work, he notes, “is a study in extreme ambivalence, with images that are both compelling in their beauty and grotesque in their ramifications.” Light is a man who trusts in the unambiguous communicative power of images and the intelligence of viewers to get it right.
For the rest of us, I’d recommend a baloney sandwich.