28 January 2014

WIIGF? "Perpetrator images" of atrocity

From the lead-in to the CNN story about the Syrian photographs
The documentary photographers of the early 20th century, and especially the early war photographers, believed that the revelation of violence and oppression would lead to saving action. Some even dreamed of a world without war and exploitation. I don’t think they ever imagined that the camera would become a tool with which to proclaim and affirm, rather than fight against, the most hideous aspects of war and the most fearsome authoritarian regimes. Their dream has become our nightmare.
As I've mentioned before, war photographers would prefer to be out of work. But the brutality and unconscionableness that characterize modern life around the world (life that isn't so modern, really, and essentially primitive in its playing out) continue to give them meat for their medium.
More recently, members of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, famed for their mass amputations of their countrymen, photographed themselves as they committed some of their atrocities. So did some of Saddam Hussein’s Baathists, as well as the Scorpions, a feared Serbian paramilitary force. Several years ago, Hizbul Islam, an Islamist militia in Somalia, invited a photographer to document its death-by-stoning of a man accused of adultery; the resulting photographs are as close to unviewable as any I have ever seen. And some of the most searing and unforgettable images from the post-9/11 era—including the beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the Abu Ghraib torture photos—surely fall in the category of perpetrator images.
Now the camera seems to be turned into a tool for the oppressor. Perhaps not unlike the photographs of prisoners in the killing fields, but after death rather than before. The current archive of abuse is coming to light in Syria, but who doubts that there are similar troves of images in the hands of dozens of other nations besides those mentioned above?

Working as a picture researcher at Magnum, I used to challenge my colleague Ziya to find the "gnarliest" pictures we could. There were many in those files, but my sense is that they were made with a powerful sense of outrage. It seems like this new "gnarly" is done with the intent to outrage.

(Quotes from Susie Linfield, "Advertisements for Death" New York Times, January 27, 2014 link to story)

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