The image as case for War

September 01, 2013 - Paris

The civil war has been going on in Syria for over two years, with an estimated total nearing 100 000 casualties, mostly civilians. For diplomatic, geostrategic and financial reasons the “rest of the world” has done little, if anything, to make those fightings come to an end. Until the gas attacks of August 21st in East Ghouta, near Damascus, the images of which have spread online and in print, and made a very strong impression worldwide.

“As leaders digested the harrowing images from Syria of victims gasping for breath or trembling, there was a flurry of phone calls among diplomats expressing horror at the calamitous situation in Syria and frustration at the lack of an obvious response.“ says an article of August 23rd, 2013 of the New York Times. It is good to think that leaders and diplomats are just people after all, reacting to the horror of images, and sharing their shock over the phone. But now, let me ask this: did “leaders and diplomats” really find out about those atrocities just then and thus? I certainly hope not (otherwise we are in worse trouble than I thought). Gas weapons had been used in Syria last spring already (confirmed) which lead M. Obama to… make a statement (known as “the red line statement”). It had been used by Saddam Hussein in the 80’s which lead to… nothing.

In today’s situation if feels that the –imminent- decision of western countries to intervene in the Syrian mess had been triggered by those horrendous images. Not by the reality, but by images of reality. Images that have made front page of many newspapers around the globe, and made it possible for the “public” (my wife, for one) to feel shocked/angered and thus made natural supporters of an intervention. Very smooth.

I will not discuss the complexity of what an intervention in Syria would mean (this piece in the New Yorker is both witty in form, and adequate in content). I am interested in photography. Many fellow photographers (and cameramen) –professionals or amateurs- risk their health and their lives to cover conflict situations and war zones, with the conviction that images need to exist, and that those images might participate in a positive outcome for what they are documenting (I’m being brief here about a complicated issue, I know). When on the field, of course you hope your work will be seen and have an impact. It is the case today. But is it natural, or are those images used in a timely manner by “leaders and diplomats” who have made their minds about an intervention for reasons that have little to do with what happened in East Ghouta on August 21st (and unknown to me)?

These images as a group seem to play the same role of “The Evidence” that did Colin Powell’s UN presentation about WMDs in Irak before the invasion in 2003. And similarily they are likely to justify a military intervention decided and lead outside of political institutions meant precisely to handle such situations (the UN). At least then did the US try to act within this institution's framework, which is no longer the case (knowing that Russia would veto anything). The solution is then to revert to emotion, of the rawest kind: that of children's murder seen live. Those images tap into the most monstruous, barbaric, and inacceptable, and based on this make the "next (military) step" possible.

“What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world” as secretary of state John Kerry put it in his official statement about Syrian. Later to go on and say “as a father I cannot get those images out of my head”. Indeed.

I remain very uncomfortable with what is going on right now: risking lives to make images, which are later used to fulfill political agendas. Yet isn’t that how “making things change with images” works?

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