On the politics of war photography | Pakistan Today

On the politics of war photography

It serves a purpose – or at least, it’s supposed to

A picture may speak a thousand words, but what it says depends on who’s translating it for you.

You’ve likely seen the viral photograph of a Syrian child in the back of an ambulance. It’s part of a video depicting a dazed 5-year old boy, covered in dust and blood.

This is neither the most heartrending, nor the most gruesome footage to have emerged from Aleppo. The lenses of journalists and independent photographers have captured countless images of mutilated bodies that can barely be identified as human remains. And that’s the problem. For an image to go viral, it needs to be relatable. The average photograph of the aftermath of a Russian or NATO airstrike, presents a scene so surreal, no human being living in relative peace may identify the victim as ‘one of us’. It seems fake by its very nature, because to our untrained senses, such imagery is reminiscent of scenes from our favorite horror flicks, or our last trip to the London Dungeon.

The picture of five-year old Omran Daqneesh is an exception. It isn’t gory enough to be censored by the mainstream media – a simple warning that the image is ‘disturbing’, may suffice. There’s blood, but not too much of it. And he’s coated in dust that dispels any mystery of the circumstance he may been rescued or retrieved from.

What’s most harrowing, is that boy’s posture is uncomfortably similar to that of your son – yes, your kid – sitting in the back of your car, on the way to see the dentist. Our imagination is limited by our experience, and this picture sits on the boundary of our imagination of what a war might look and feel like. It is frightening, because we can actually imagine ourselves in it.

But what does this picture say? That depends on whose narrative you’re listening to.

To a vast majority, all this picture says is that war is bad. It encourages a cynical view of mankind, as an irredeemably brutal force that is destined to eradicate itself. It makes you to want to flog yourself as a member of a species that is senselessly violent by its nature.

And that’s the message of hopelessness that the establishments responsible for this chaos would want you to take home.

The blame is expected to be socialised; redistributed equally among the human species from the President of France to an elderly Lebanese woman playing Bingo at a Nursing facility. This is important, the generalisation allows the specific institutions responsible for these planned massacres, to be excused simply as manifestations of a disease called ‘human nature’.

One may wish to take into account the brutality of the Assad regime; or Putin’s support of his regime; or the role of Western imperialism in destabilising the region; or the generous supply of weapons to Islamist militant; or even the world leaders’ apathy towards climate change, which notably exacerbated economic strife in a drought-struck Syria. But it’s hard to maintain indignation, when our target keeps getting lost in a general haze of cynicism concerning human nature.

The powerful are adept at managing our outrage about war. They know precisely how to douse the flames that are fanned every month or so, by the image of a Syrian child lying face-down on the beach, or the picture of a terrified kid sitting in the back of an ambulance.

The modus operandi is so well-defined, there’s little need for improvisation by Western state officials. There’s little doubt that that Omran Daqneesh – the boy who lived, and serendipitously attracted the world’s attention – will be adopted by a Western state, and duly pampered in full view of the mainstream media. We may expect something, in the coming weeks, anything from a photograph of President Obama fist-bumping the grateful 5-year old, to Angela Merkel affectionately patting the boy on her shoulder. This may be followed by merrier pictures of little Omran dressed in clean, unbloodied clothes; playing in the front yard of his new home far away from a warzone whence he’d come.

The portrait of human savagery will soon be transformed into an icon of Western righteousness and generosity; an implicit victory of the united capitalist powers over the unscrupulous Russians or the fanatical Islamists. Nevermind the hundreds of thousands of Aylans and Omrans rolling the rubble left behind by NATO airstrikes, drone strikes, or militants armed with weapons generously supplied by imperialist powers.

Meanwhile, the political right is fully expected to use this opportunity to beat war drums against Assad and Russia, and step up the Western coalition’s military efforts; you know, to “save children like Omran”.

There’s apparently not a soul in the world who thinks of war in positive terms; yet its ubiquity signifies a marvel of mass psychological engineering. War, for the most part, is depicted as a natural disaster that nobody is truly responsible for. Like an earthquake, it just tragically happens. Who knows why? Who do we even begin to demand accountability from?

War photography isn’t supposed to consumed as pain porn; and confirm the obvious truth that war is a bummer. It ought to force us to ask questions about the policies of the agencies in power that have helped perpetrate or exacerbate this chaos.

And if by some folly, you’ve arrived at the conclusion that the answer is wage war on the war-mongers, and then clearly you’ve learned nothing.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.


  1. Disgusting said:

    The vision of this writer has been damaged badly and that has affected his brain. He should be restrained to write for a while.

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