Susan Sontag was right: War photography can anesthetize

A troubling new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art throws into question the medium's very purpose

Topics: The Weeklings, war photography, Brooklyn Museum, Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag was right: War photography can anesthetize
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.

The Weeklings SKULLS OF DISSENTERS crushed under military tanks. Bleeding protesters dragged through streets. Stones flung, and gun shots fired aimlessly. Such are the scenes of horror depicted in The Square (2013), Jehane Noujaim’s harrowing, award-winning documentary that follows a group of young revolutionaries active in the Egyptian uprising. “If we have cameras, the revolution is ours,” Khalid, one of the revolutionaries, says, prompting his comrades to record the violence that’s all around them. Uploaded to YouTube, and proliferated by clicks and shares on Facebook and Twitter, these disturbing scenes bring to light what is not broadcast in Egypt’s censored media. The camera becomes a revolutionary tool­­—and filming a mode of truth-telling. But, while recording is a redemptive act, it has its limits. In one of the film’s many startling moments, a police officer attempts to seize the director’s camera. It hits the ground; the screen turns to black, leaving us in the dark. Without the camera, we are blind.

On a visit to the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition, “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath,” “from the Mexican-American war in 1846 through the Civil War in Libya in 2012,” I feel, once again, that I am in the darkness—and it’s not just the space’s dim lighting. A mammoth display of 400 photographs charting conflicts the world over, the show is too dense, too shocking to sift through. It’s easy to get lost in the excess: bloody corpses strewn on a battlefield; flag-covered coffins boarding commercial flights; wounded veterans playing with their children; departing refugees, torn from their loved ones; civilians decimated, raped, murdered; a toddler splattered in blood. Exhibited en masse, these images begin to meld together into a wearying stream of horrifying photos, but it is difficult to ground them in any sort of context. The photographs are not organized chronologically, or even grouped together with other images pertaining to the conflicts they depict. Rather, as its introductory placard explains, the exhibit “seeks to offer a more comprehensive exploration of the type of images created in any conflict, without regard to era or nationality… Instead, they are arranged according to what might be called the general progression—the ‘arc’—of every war.”

But the trajectory of war is not as smooth as the Brooklyn Museum would have us believe. It shuttles its viewers through the supposed stages of war (quoted from the exhibit’s page on the museum’s website): “recruitment, training, embarkation, daily routine, battle, death and destruction, homecoming, and remembrance.” By adhering to such a regimented order, the curators[1] of “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY” have committed a cardinal error, reducing the many conflicts represented in favor of a singular, over simplistic—and dangerously misleading—narrative of war. The exhibition is laid out a little like a formula for war: “Here’s some we made earlier,” it seems to say.

In her landmark polemic On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag argued that a photograph alone cannot determine an event; rather, an event must precede a photo. Looking at a photograph, there must be a pre-existing awareness of the event depicted in the viewer’s mind for any kind of moral response to take place—something like a photo slotting into the sleeve of a photo album. Perhaps it’s for this reason that the photos I’ve responded to most are those which show conflicts I either remember bearing witness to on the news, or during which I was alive, but was too little to remember.

“What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness,” she wrote. “Without a politics, photographs of the slaughter-bench of history will most likely be experienced as, simply, unreal or as a demoralizing emotional blow.” The Brooklyn Museum’s disorganized display of images—extricated from the context viewers need in order to connect to them—feels much like walking the length of a conveyor belt churning out alarming images, each trying to out-shock the last. Presented with the detritus of war—disparate limbs, burned, bloodied and blistered flesh—torn from the places and times in which they occurred,[2] the photos are grossly eroticized, like clippings from porn magazines. The exhibit becomes a kind of game; the challenge: how long viewers can bear to look at a gruesome photograph before moving on to the next.

But this isn’t a stimulating game: as the exhibit drags on, I become increasingly numb to the violence of the images, and their impact begins to wane. In an effort to restore these pictures to their original context, and open them up to new means of interpretation, I find that I need to observe the photos individually, and extract them from the haphazard scrapbook of war in which the Brooklyn Museum has placed them. Inundated with so many distressing photos, how else can I look at them without becoming brutally indifferent?


Among the exhibition’s most shocking photographs, Kenneth Jarecke’s “Incinerated Iraqi, Gulf War, Iraq,” taken on February 26, 1991, surely ranks high. Drawn to the photo by the cluster of viewers around it, when I see what they are looking at, I understand why it is difficult for them to look away. Viewing the photo is excruciating. Jarecke had gotten so close to the body, focusing on the man’s face, shoulders and arms, that you can just about make out the man’s features in the photograph: black holes where his eyes should be, his teeth gritted in pain, and his hands grabbing the truck’s infrastructure in a gesture of sheer panic. The burned man in the photo—who, we learn from the caption, Jarecke found in a devastated truck en route to Kuwait from Iraq—looks barely human, singed to a deformed, ashen mass.

Unsurprisingly, we learn from the photo’s caption that The Associated Press considered it “too graphic for distribution in the United States”—though it garnered much public attention and acclaim in Europe, where it was published in Britain and elsewhere. Defending his photograph, Jarecke once said, “If I don’t make pictures like this, people like my mother will think what they see in war is what they see in movies.” The photo is overwhelmingly real, though what’s so fascinating is how utterly strange and even artificial it seems. My first thought is that this looks more like a still from the video game Call of Duty or a movie about mutating aliens invading the earth. We might be shocked, along with Jarecke’s mother, to find that war (as it’s presented here) looks more like it does in the movies than we would like it to. The photo is a terrifying reminder of the extraordinarily awful things humans are capable of; what we recognize to be outside the realm of normality has become all too real—yet we struggle to reconcile that horror with its reality.

The more we look at images like Jarecke’s, the more divorced we become from their truth. As Sontag wrote, “Living with the photographed images of the suffering…does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate… Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more—and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.” John Berger touched upon a similar idea in his 1972 essay “Photographs of Agony,” in which he responded to Donald McCullin’s famous photo, taken in Hue, 1968, of a Vietnamese man cradling a child—both of whom, Berger wrote, “are bleeding profusely with the black blood of black-and-white photographs.” Considering the “contradictions of the war photograph,” Berger argued that it’s largely accepted that such photos are meant to shake their viewers to moral consciousness. At the same time they become aware of their own moral shortcomings. “And as soon as this happens,” he writes, the italics his, “even [the viewer’s] sense of shock is dispersed: his own moral inadequacy may now shock him as much as the crimes being committed in the war.” In a similar way, the imagery of “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY” only shocks my nerves, deadens my response—and the camera blinds.


Amid a plethora of images like Jarecke’s which all seem to compete for the viewer’s attention, it’s the quieter images of “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY” that make a greater impression, and which appeal to viewers’ moral sensibilities in more meaningful ways. The exhibition’s most revealing photographs are those that make small, subtle gestures to show how human lives are ruptured by war.

Look at one of the more “ordinary” images, like Alexandra Avakian’s 2002 photo, “Tufaha Baydayn, a Lebanese American, fled Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s. Dearborn, Michigan.” It shows an elderly, bespectacled lady clad in a cotton nightgown, slippers and headscarf pushing a red lawnmower over the grass outside her home—a quintessential, brick-made American house with a white awning, a small patio and steps leading to the front door. This woman’s slice of the American dream doesn’t look like it belongs to her; more likely viewers expect to find a middle-aged, beer-bellied white guy in a polo shirt in this picture, not a Lebanese lady in a headscarf. By drawing attention to her as an outsider, the photo captures how drastically war can shake the lives of ordinary people, and force many to make home in places they might never have otherwise envisioned living—places like, say, Dearborn, Michigan.

“I’m gathering evidence for history, so that we remember,” photographer Gilles Peress once wrote about his photograph chronicling the experience of another group’s departure, “Evacuation of the Jews, Skanderia, Sarajevo, Bosnia, 1993.” But it’s not a large-scale representation of the Bosnian War or its experience. Rather, he photographs a pair of hands pressed flat against the window of a bus leaving the city. It’s his way of representing the plight of the Jewish community removed from Sarajevo during the war. Another hand attracts the viewer’s attention too. Outside the bus someone being left behind holds their palm up, reaching out for the loved one from whom they’ve just been separated. The details of these hands, the white, fleshy palm and the tips of the fingers are impressed as deeply on the viewer’s mind, as they are upon the window in the picture. They push so firmly against the glass it looks as though it might collapse, but of course this barrier won’t break. Those hands will continue to press against the viewer’s shatterproof consciousness.[3]

Peress’s photo reminds me of another exhibited in “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY,” by Michael Christopher Brown: “Men exclaim Allahu Akbar (God is Great) during funeral for several Revolutionaries killed by Government forces.” Taken during Libya’s civil war on March 3, 2011, it shows two men, each with an arm raised in the air. One of the men holds up two fingers in a peace sign, while the other points a gun to the sky. Though peace and violence are connected—periods of “peace” and war often follow each other in quick succession—they’re rarely portrayed so closely to one another, so it’s surprising to see them in the same image. With the gun as a substitute symbol for freedom, the photo seems to suggest murder as the means to liberty.


Of the hundreds of photos here at the Brooklyn Museum, the image that most impresses me isn’t especially violent, nor does it offer a typical representation of war. No blood has been spilled for this shot, and there are no dead bodies, no glory or gore. Andrea Bruce’s monochrome photo “When the War Comes Home” (2006) depicts a seemingly unremarkable domestic scene: a man with his son in the living room of their home, reading the newspaper. The father, who still has a fuzzy head of trim hair, and must’ve only recently returned from combat, sits forward on the couch, hovering over the paper sprawled on the coffee table before him. He looks at that day’s news squarely, with a seemingly solemn expression. This man may have left the war, but the war doesn’t appear to have left him. Next to him, his son, perhaps six or seven years old, stands to meet his father’s shoulders, wearing a kid-sized military costume, dressed in a khaki camouflage coat and a helmet that sits heavily atop his head and falls below his eyes. The boy, mimicking his father’s pose, tentatively rests a hand on the newspaper—and like his dad, he’s not smiling. In the other hand, he holds a toy gun.

Later, online I find Bruce’s photo series in The Washington Post, where it was first published. There I read that the man photographed, Travis Brill, had returned from Iraq where he was deployed as a sergeant in the Marines with the Lima Company—which, according to the Post, suffered the most casualties of the US factions dispatched to Iraq, with 23 Marines killed. The caption for the image (originally printed in color)[4] reveals further details, as well as a quote from Brill himself: “Sgt. Travis Brill reads the paper while his son dresses up for his attention. ‘I went there with the right mindset that I wanted to help these people, and they changed it pretty quickly. They don’t give a damn, and all they want to do is blow up [sic] when you’re not looking.’” Brill’s disillusionment seems evident in the photograph: here is a man with a worn face and tired eyes reading the news he once made, while his son plays a war game, eager to fill his father’s combat boots.

The image reminds me of something a former soldier who was stationed in Afghanistan told me of his experience at war. Speaking about his platoon, he said they were “like a bunch of little boys all getting together just talking about older stuff.” War was “90 percent boredom,” he said. He and his friends might be playing a game of cards, and later they’d be walking past dead Taliban and sometimes civilian bodies. At times, these men sounded less like soldiers and more like the frightened boys in The Lord of the Flies, marooned together in adulthood.

I keep thinking too of a picture earlier in the show of a soldier in Iraq which shows him on a road cluttered with rubble, his back to us and a GI Joe sticking up from his backpack. Taken in 2004 by Anja Niedringhaus, the image is initially amusing then immensely alarming. The context is all too literal. How many little boys who once begged their parents to buy them GI Joes as children are still playing the game of war? Perhaps war makes children of us all.


At the “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY” exhibit, I began to feel a bit like a child myself—but not frightened, so much as perplexed. Of course, I’m accustomed to seeing atrocious images on television and in the news—there’s that unforgettable image of a man falling from one of the Twin Towers on 9/11, and after the Boston Marathon bombing, the photo of a man missing a leg, covered in blood. Though it’s true that the media inundates the public with atrocious imagery, arguably we’re also exposed to violent footage in moderation—the media selects what it shows. At the Brooklyn Museum, it feels like the images are being capitalized on in some way. An assault on the eyes and the nerves, “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY” is meant to shock. But I grew weary of the exhibit and bored of the violence—as I would watching a too-long action film. A photograph that would horrify me had I found it in a newspaper did little or nothing to effect me—namely because there’s no context, nothing solid to support the increasingly abstract, mind-numbing photos on display.

Berger argued in “Uses of Photography,” the essay he wrote in 1978 for Sontag using her thoughts from On Photography as a springboard for his own, “If we want to put a photograph back into the context of experience, social experience, social memory, we have to respect the laws of memory.” The photographs at the Brooklyn Museum may be memos of the past, but for them to cultivate any meaning now, they must still resonate. As Berger wrote, “We have to situate the printed photograph so that it acquires something of the surprising conclusiveness of that which it was and is.” But because there’s no other way of looking at the photos of “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY” except through an imposed framework of war, I’m blinded by these images, not illuminated by them.

Berger wrote that, when severed from its context, “the public photograph…becomes a dead object.” Perhaps then, to trawl through “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY” is something like excavating a graveyard of dead images. By seeking to make sense of war, the curators have only achieved the reverse: the images become lost, and the viewer gets lost in them. In an effort to provide answers, the exhibition’s organizers don’t leave room for questions—the only way to formulate any moral response to such photographs, and get closer to understanding some of the experience they attempt to illustrate. These images don’t serve simply to show what war is like, but rather to show what war does to ordinary people’s lives. Looking at these photographs in isolation, away from the glare of their horror—considering them as mementos of lived experience, not as photographs that exist solely to shock—I can finally begin to see.

war photo“When War Comes Home” courtesy Andrea Bruce

[1] First shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY” was curated there by Anne Wilkes Tucker (famous for her book The Woman’s Eye (1973), which compiled the work of notable female photographers Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott, and Diane Arbus among others), Will Michels, and Natalie Zelt. The Brooklyn display is organized by Tricia Laughlin Bloom.  The museum’s Associate Curator of Exhibitions, she also coordinates its “Raw/Cooked” series showcasing up-and-coming Brooklyn artists.

[2] Though the captions tell viewers where and when each photo was taken, they are positioned awkwardly and presented in the kind of font used by army intelligence, but any honest human is unlikely to read all 400 descriptions.

[3] In images of war, hands are typically emblematic of power. At the International Center of Photography’s exhibition last year, “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” South African hands appeared in numerous photos clenched in fists: the symbol of resistance. With these fighting hands in mind, those in Peress’s photo appear resigned but still resilient. Here is a struggle being lost.

[4] By displaying the photo in black-and-white, the exhibit skews the image so that it seems more somber and gives it a timeless quality.

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