Selective War Photography: Worthy and Unworthy Victims

Here is a short piece I did for the excellent radical-democratic newsletter Dissident Voice:

“A picture,” the old saying goes, “is worth a thousand words.” When it comes to eliciting support for, or revulsion against, a policy, it is often true, for better or worse, that nothing works like an effective visual image.

One example on the better side comes from the biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., no slight respecter of the written and spoken word. In January of 1967, while eating in an airport restaurant on a trip to Jamaica, King came upon an illustrated story, “The Children of Vietnam,” in an issue of Ramparts magazine. The magazine included numerous photographs of youngsters who had been badly burned by United States (U.S.) napalm. Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) field secretary Bernard Lee recalled King’s reaction: “When he came to [the] Ramparts [photos], he stopped. He froze as he looked at the pictures from Vietnam. He saw a picture of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby, a baby killed by our military. Then Martin just pushed the plate of food away from him. I looked up and said, ‘doesn’t it taste any good?’ as he answered, ‘Nothing will ever taste any good for me until I do everything I can to end that war.’” By Lee’s account, “that’s when the decision [for King to openly oppose the Vietnam War] was made. Martin knew about the war before then, of course, and had spoken out against it. But it was then that he decided to commit himself to oppose it” (David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1986).

One could cite many other and more well-known examples of terrible photographs and images – from the burning ships of Pearl Harbor to the imploding WTC towers to the photos of torture at Abu Ghraib – that have helped bring about political effects (both intended and not). Unfortunately, most such photos have tended to exacerbate bloodshed and not to deepen antiwar sentiment.

I started reflecting on the political power of images over words while trying to simultaneously eat dinner and watch the “NBC Nightly News” last Tuesday evening. Reporting on the growing Middle Eastern crisis surrounding U.S. client state Israel’s assault on Lebanon and Gaza, NBC anchor Brian Williams was careful to note that "both sides" were suffering "terrible casualties" in the escalating “conflict.” By NBC’s accurate account, the number of dead in Lebanon (“mostly civilians”) was significantly greater than Israel’s body count. There was no effort to pretend otherwise.

NBC’s pictures, however, told a rather different story. From Arab Lebanon, viewers saw images of smoke and rubble but no dead bodies or weeping survivors. There were no up-close shots of terrified Lebanese civilians.

But from officially white and Western Israel, viewers saw the chilling picture of the charred remains of an innocent civilian stopped “dead in his tracks” by a Hezbollah missile. The unfortunate victim “never had a chance,” we learned. We also looked into the frightened eyes and heard the cries of Israel teachers and children rushing to respond to a missile siren. Israel, the leading perpetrator and most powerful player by far in the current crisis, clearly won the image war on NBC on Wednesday night.

Thinking about the rich political relevance of images, I went to the newspaper stacks at my local library on Friday morning. How, I wondered, is the photojournalist imagery of Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah, Lebanon, and the Palestinians playing out in leading print media? I reviewed all the relevant pictures appearing in my main regional (Midwestern) newspaper the Chicago Tribune and in the nation’s leading “newspaper of record” the New York Times from July 14 (the day after Israel bombed Beirut’s leading airport)through July 20th (I have yet to look at today's papers) I was particularly interested in photographs giving images of clear human injury, and/or trauma, showing one, some, or all of the following: dead civilians, injured civilians, people mourning deaths caused by outside attack, and people looking terrified in the face of real or potential assault. For convenience, I attached the following acronym to such photographs: “HTI”, short for emotionally evocative "Human Trauma Images.” I distinguished HTIs from more impersonal “Structural Damage Images” (“SDIs”) that show damaged buildings, bridges, and the like but no pictures of human trauma.

Using these simple categories as a guide to the war photography in question, I found that the Tribune published six HTIs of Israelis but no (zero) such images of Lebanese or Palestinians. The Tribune provided six SDIs from Lebanon and five such images from Israel. In addition, it showed one SDI from Gaza, two pictures of distressed white Westerners in Lebanon, and one photo of two Lebanese men appearing to relax while their city and nation experienced massive Israeli assault.

The contrast between this numerical breakdown of the Tribune’s photographic war reportage and the actual concentration of war casualties is quite pronounced. As the New York Times reported on its first page on Wednesday, July 19th

“The asymmetry in the reported death tolls is marked and growing: some 230 Lebanese dead, most of them civilians, to 25 Israeli dead, 13 of them civilians. In Gaza, one Israel soldier has died from his own army’s fire, and 103 Palestinians have been killed, 70 percent of them militants. The cold figures, combined with Israeli air attacks on civilian infrastructure like power plants, electricity transformers, airports, bridges, highways and government buildings, have led to accusations by France and the European Union, echoed by some nongovernmental organizations, that Israel is guilty of ‘disproportionate use of force’ in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and of ‘collective punishment’ of the civilian populations” (S.Erlanger, “With Israeli Use of Force, Debate Over Proportion,” New York Times, 19 July 2006, A1).

The Times has done a better job than the reactionary Tribune of matching its photographic imagery to nationally disparate bodycount realities. It has published nine HTIs from Israel, just one more than the number of such images it has included from Lebanon. It also printed one HTI from Gaza. Nonetheless, Israeli human and civilian trauma is badly over-represented and Lebanese and Palestinian trauma is badly under-represented in the Times' photographic reportage. Eight of the nine Israeli war-damage photos printed by the Times included people, not just structures, but half (8 of 16) of the war-damage photos it has showed from Lebanon and Gaza (1 of 2) contain no human beings. Like the Tribune, the Times has printed two pictures displaying Lebanese people seeming to relax as Israeli jets and bombs descended on their communities.

Reverse photographic asymmetry working to the propagandistic advantage of the U.S. client-state (Israel) is quite pronounced at the Times, despite that paper’s acknowledgement that victims in Lebanon and Gaza far outnumber those in Israel.

Statistics aside, last Sunday’s New York Times did something that I find very disturbing with two photographs from Lebanon. The first photograph is quite large. It appeared in color on the first page of the paper’s front section. It showed a Beirut family looking calm and pleased as it dined in a city park to which it had fled. The second picture was small, black-and-white, and buried at the bottom of the front section’s fourth page. It showed the skeleton carcass of “two wrecked cars” that had been traveling “IN A REFUGEE CONVOY near the southern Lebanon border. Its inhabitants died, the photo’s caption noted, in “an Israelis air assault” that “kill[ed] AT LEAST A DOZEN, INCLUDING WOMEN AND CHILDREN” (capitalization added). Looking carefully at the lower left section of this tiny photograph, one can barely make out the prone corpse of a murdered civilian, apparently an adult – a mother perhaps.

By any appropriate moral standard of international war reportage, the second picture is the one that belongs on page one, fully colorized and expanded to a reasonable viewing scale. No such appropriate image placement or presentation is likely, however, given dominant U.S. media’s venerable and persistent insistence on elevating “worthy” above “unworthy victims” (see chapter two, titled “Worthy and Unworthy Victims” in Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s classic study Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media [New York, NY: Pantheon reprint, 2002]). The former live and die on the right side of the American Empire’s guns and those of its approved client regimes. The latter live and (in much greater numbers) die on the wrong side, to their everlasting peril.

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