Bearing Witness to the Witness: On Visual Representations of War
Images, in J.T Mitchell’s words, both ‘stand for and act as symptoms of what they signify’. The often betrayed expectation that visual representations of war can change public perceptions illustrates this paradox. Images of conflict take no side but they are capitalized on (for legitimation purposes) by all parties involved. In the aftermath of war, the aura of objectivity often leads images to be used to counterfeit facts and, in the process, they can be transformed into contested sources of accountability.
In most recent memorials and museums, the way in which images oblige the viewer to bear witness to the witness, and do not allow us to say we did not know, is thought to imbue the viewer with a sense of responsibility and unsettle. Yet playing such a moral card risks blurring the thin distinction between the image’s critical potential and its naturalizing of violence. And this can take away from the redemptive truth value of images of atrocity altogether. Without wanting to dismiss the noble intention of alleviating future suffering by representing atrocity in this way, we need to be keep in mind that such images often reproduce the same configurations that led to conflict in the first place.
Relying on photojournalism for remembrance and education on war, therefore, is a bold strategy. However, it can also provide an opportunity to scrutinize simultaneously the medium, the endeavour and the representation. One good example of such an approach is the War Photo Limited gallery in Dubrovnik (Croatia). Tucked away on an elegant street in Ragusa (now a UNESCO heritage site, but heavily damaged during the Yugoslav wars), this space stands out for the way in which it reflects on its medium of choice. It simultaneously represents and questions to what extent the perpetuation of an image can still challenge codes of conduct. According to its website, the gallery aims to ‘educate the public in the field of war photography, to expose the myth of war and the intoxication of war, to let people see war as it is, raw, venal, frightening, by focusing on how war inflicts injustices on innocents and combatants alike’. Its particularity however is that the visitor’s experience articulates itself around the realization that war and image are co-dependent – as is their visualization and broadcast.
A critical reflection on photography and journalism is an opportunity to ask whether looking at past injustices and hoping to anticipate future ones isn’t overshadowing our more vital commitment to the present.
The internal dynamics of the subject’s inherent ‘politics of pity’ are captured by the format of the WPL exhibition, as the display highlights both the singularity and generalizability of images of conflict. The Croatian, Bosnian and Kosovo wars (1991-1998) in particular have been subject to controversies about the extent to which photojournalism can shed light on often contradictory political war claims and indeed give voice to those silenced. By showing the same images broadcast live around the globe, the display makes a case for a careful consideration of whether war photography can constitute evidence, record and committed representation of a conflict.
Rather than focus on public recognition of its victims, as many genocide-focused museums currently do, WPL aims to draw attention to the causes of war. The exhibition represents conflict through successive links and associations between the Yugoslav wars, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the situation in South Sudan. The fact that images are thus left free to create a relationship with one another means we are not asked to identify and empathize, but rather to take responsibility for the aftermath of war and atrocity. As the selection and display elsewhere focuses on notions of truth, Giulio Piscitelli’s raw photo reportage of the current Syrian refugee impasse becomes a lamentation that war is a perpetually ‘surprising’ social mechanism. The ‘sleepwalking’ metaphor stands as a reminder of enduring political apathy instead of the voice of an abstract victim. If war photography is meant to disconcert – if images of atrocity should haunt in order to prevent – the exhibition in Dubrovnik is lucid about the fact that despite constant efforts to prevent war, our reaction rarely goes beyond resignation when we are actually asked to act.
This critical stance lays bare the equivocal ethics of the visual representation of violence. Collective war imagery is unavoidably tied in with a collective notion of a citizenry waging war. No stranger to this, photojournalism has often been used to convey a triumphant idea of war. The filtering images of war conveniently suits the close link between the media’s revelling in war and state institutions’ (in particular the military’s) aversion to images of death. In this sense, WPL also draws attention to the ambiguous relationship between images of war placed in a gallery and the existing limitations on war reporting in the global media. Photography of violence, with its ambivalent status between profane and reverent, is relevant precisely because it holds the potential to bypass such complicity. Its aesthetics of disclosure make it more than mere representation; its informational and documentary character and the sheer succession of images deconstructs any semantics of the uniqueness and incomparability of war.
The naturalization of violence through images in the mainstream media and the de-contextualized display of a generalized battlefield runs the risk of replacing a sense of inter-personal responsibility with a stifling individual feeling of fear. A critical reflection on the instruments (photography and journalism) is an opportunity to ask whether looking at past injustices and hoping to thereby anticipate future ones isn’t overshadowing our more vital commitment to the present. The last installation in WPL, showing the over-circulated news footage of the Bosnian war, is a good reminder that despite the intense media involvement throughout the war, the international response was still uncoordinated, hesitant and delayed.
In its entirety, WPL confronts us with the uncomfortable question whether the practice of using visual representations of war for healing can in fact slowly morph into an empathic reconciliatory mode. Yet this is only redemptive for the survivors and cannot hope to put an end to social conflict. Yet we are ready to be moved by images because much of our information infrastructure is now dependent on succinct icons. Such perspective no longer works for an awareness of the ‘discouraging now’ but is reassuring for a future which has overcome the root cause of war. In this context, the specificity of War Photo Limited’s war aesthetics is a presentation that challenges stock answers based on the idea that such spaces are there to educate about tolerance and human rights and to provide recognition. It draws attention to the fact that a projection into the future makes it easy to avoid dealing with the implications of passively standing by in the present.