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January 2, 2009

War Should Be So Beautiful

Hamas Flag.jpgBeersheba.JPG

One thing I’m seeing in the NYT visual Gaza coverage, especially in the print edition, is an attempt to apply “fair balance.” These two images, for example, mirrored each other in yesterday’s print edition, both spanning five columns on facing pages (A10 and 11).

The photos themselves couldn’t be more empathetically, emotionally and ideologically stirring. The image of the fighter planting a Hamas flag in the ruins of a destroyed mosque south of Gaza City creates an obvious and powerful association to one of the most famous American visual icons of war and patriotism. A reader, Sergei, wrote to offer the title: “Raising the flag at Abu Jima.” In the other image, a religious Jew stands in a classroom in Beersheba where a rocket hole has pierced the ceiling. Almost as sacrosanct as the destruction of a mosque is the shelling of a school room.

Both shots also fuse together powerful, if not necessarily related symbols, the first photo linking the Islamic faith — through the sympathetically (if fish-eye assisted) leaning mosque — to the impressively tattered flag, here a stronger cousin of the tower. In the second shot, the Orthodox Jew — his garments and beard evoking the state religion — stands in a classroom, the school house also connoting an institution of state.

And then, both shots evoke a spiritual aura the way they portray the sky. The first photo has an ominous but also ethereal quality, the light breaking around the flag as if the signal of higher power emerging in dark circumstances. The scene in the second photo is almost, well, biblical in the way this ascetic man looks to the brilliantly shining hole in the roof, as if a cinematic replay of the burning bush.

What troubles me overall, however, is how beautiful these images are. I don’t know why it trips me up now. It just feels — in light of the real terror and trauma — there is way too much poetry here to handle.

(image 1: Tara Todras-whitehill/Associated Press. Beersheba. image 2: Mohammed Saber/European Pressphoto Agency. Tal al Hawa area, south of Gaza City)

  • Michaeldg

    One benefit that we have here in the US is that through juxtaposed photos such as these we see the suffering on both sides- mosques and kinder-gardens destroyed. Both photos show how the warring parties have crossed forbidden lines. Even with the biases of our media outlets, we see Palestinian wounded/dead , their crying mothers and Israeli families sobbing at gravesides. This opportunity to see the suffering on both sides of the conflict is vital, it gives us the opportunity to identify and empathize with both sides and compels us to find even handed solutions. I recently did a survey of both the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz websites and could not find a single photo which would evoke sympathy for Palestinian suffering. I doubt one would find a photo of mourning Israelis or bombed kinder-gardens in the Arab press. Until each side can begin to see the conflict through the other’s eyes, a solution will always be elusive.

  • M. Scott Brauer

    I’ve always been wary of criticism of conflict photography as being too beautiful. While I don’t think you’re in with the camp of Salgado- or Nachtwey-haters, and I can understand the difficulty of reconciling beauty and poetry wrought from such horror and suffering, I think that photographers should strive for meaning through beauty in their pictures. Aestheticizing (sp?) atrocities needs to be done with a measured hand, but when successful, the beauty of a photo of something horrible serves not to supplant or circumvent the facts but to supplement the facts and render them more legibly. Neither of these photos hide the violence with their beauty. Instead, I think they speak eloquently.
    Rather than showing the ugly violence in an ugly way, I’m intrigued by these photos; they tickle me visually in a way that draws me in and makes me look longer and more thoroughly. And that should be a goal of photojournalism, if it is to succeed, I think; a photo should communicate and do so deeply and movingly.

  • jtfromBC

    Poignant photos indeed !
    Would the NYT publish this short interview with Norm ?
    Finkelstein: Israel seeking Arab obeisance
    “..On November 4, the Israelis broke the ceasefire with Hamas knowing full well–and if you review the Israeli papers, they say so knowing full well that when they killed six militants in Gaza the Palestinians would retaliate and then Israel would have the pretext to invade. Therefore, the first goal was to restore the fear of Israel among Arabs by inflicting a bloodbath in Gaza..”§ionid=3510302

  • Karen

    Address a problem of equivalency with equivalency. I suppose it’s accidental….If such a sticky problem is equally conceived and presented both sides are empowered to further their particular reality.

  • nightbird

    Michael Shaw,
    This is the kind of photo analysis that drew me to BNN (2-3?) years ago.
    I find it most intriguing and thought provoking when you take apart the image compositionally, psychologically verses pure content. This is how you and the photographer invite us to see with “new eyes”. More of this in the new year? It is a great site with a simple concept. I visit everyday. Thank you.

  • tinwoman

    The mosque is reduced to nothing but rubble. The school has a little hole punched in the ceiling.
    Beware of equating these two pictures. Palestianian and Israeli weapons are not exactly equivalents in terms of destructive ability.
    Nor is the conflict between equals. The idea that Israelis are suffering in the same way Ghazans are is laughable.
    Be fair.

  • richard dent

    The post has to do with the photos, not whether the suffering is equal. At this point, the suffering is not equal, no question. I won’t get into why, but I agree the civilians in Gaza are currently enduring much more than those in Israel.
    But please note that the mosque was bombed as it was being used to store weapons and plot terrorism. The school was bombed because kids are there.
    Also, the Gazans have repeatedly been warned in advance of attacks. Not so the civilian targets in Israel.

  • DW

    So what’s the score in this round? 400-5?
    Equivalency indeed.

  • janinsanfran

    Again, as in other war coverage, we Americans are shielded from the human carnage, the shredded bodies, the guts spewed out. Other peoples get to see those images — why shouldn’t we?
    I haven’t known quite what to say about Gaza; it all seems such a mindless re-enactment of past atrocities, Lebanon 2006, Jenin, etc. But I have put an ugly picture of dead, dismembered humans at the head of my not very original Gaza post, because that is what all this means.

  • jtfromBC

    The Truth About Those Hamas Rockets
    Conscientious Israelis acknowledge that the Hamas rockets rationale is fraudulent. For instance, Jerusalem Post writer Larry Derfner has noted:
    ..“The [Palestinian] Kassam [rockets] have terrorized the 25,000 people in Sderot and its environs, but have caused very, very few deaths or serious wounds. By contrast, Israel has terrorized 1.5 million Gazans, locked them inside their awfully narrow borders, throttled their economy, and killed and seriously wounded thousands of them…
    “This is crazy. Israel is the superpower of the Middle East, but because we still think we’re the Jews of Europe in the 1930s, or the Israelites under Pharaoh, we spend a lot more time fighting our enemies than we might if we looked at the whole picture, not just our half of it .”
    As Gazan hospitals and morgues fill beyond capacity because of an ongoing air assault that cruelly began at precisely the hour when countless children were heading home from school, we’re expected to believe that small craters mostly in empty Israeli fields constitute this terrible episode’s chief sin….

  • bigbalagan

    I think janinsanfran has the right handle on this. The “beautiful” images of violence are most often missing the main elements experienced by those on the ground: blood and human insides. The famous Capa shot of the Spanish Civil War soldier taking a fatal round is the most emotionally acceptable “true” image of war I can think of at the moment…everything else is down hill. It is not the fault of the photographers, who by and large are putting themselves fully in harm’s way, but of editorial control. If US voters could see what any normal Iraq citizen of Baghdad sees every day, or even just what our soldiers see, with the same frequency as reality, the war would have been halted long ago. Without any blame to the photographers, both of these photos serve to hide the reality they superficially seek to depict.

  • Dave

    Shaw seems to be oblivious of the immense asymmetrical suffering of a people under brutal, violent, ethno-cleansing racist occupation for 40 years – he is blind to the asymmetricality of the degrees of damage represented by the two photos, which in fact symbolise the complete asymmetricality of the entire struggle.

  • adrian

    Has anyone read Arturo Perez-Reverte’s A Painter of Battles. It’s the story of a war photographer who turns back to painting to try and distill all the images that he has taken over the years, who is then found by one of the subjects of his photos. It got panned as being pseudo intellectual, but I liked it, and it touched a lot on these issues.
    I think you all might be ascribing too much to what the photographers, and editors should be doing. Photographers may have good motives in wanting to show a story, but they are also there for reasons that have nothing to do with that (their desire for the interestingness, uniqueness and adrenalin rush of war). As for the editors, don’t we know by know that most news agencies are there to make money, not to tell the whole story?
    Besides which, I don’t think people would have stopped the war if they had seen more photos of the dead and wounded, I think people would have either stopped looking or just plain gotten used to it.

  • Johanna

    The first shot reminds me of the iconic photo of the marines planting the flag on Iwo Jima, in its composition and perspective. Art, even photographic art, works its power through beauty. Do you remember the phenomenal Goya painting of the revolutionary being shot by a firing squad? A violent, terrible scene, but the beauty of the composition allows us to be drawn in. And invites a more serene contemplation, a more detached examination than what people are doing by just getting on their moral high horse and fuming.

  • thirdeye pushpin

    what makes each of the photos tug the stings of our hearts is the human resistance to the destruction. Without the man planting the flag or the bearded man in the schoolroom they are just scenes of destruction. It is the human will to resist that destruction while inhabiting it that echoes with an inner desire and self identification with justice. It does create an equivalence between the two photos. The question is whether that poetic equivalence of humanity obfuscates or clarifies the sources of the conflict. I would agree that the weapons to level a mosque are greater than not equal to the rockets that perforated the school and if these photos indicate a level of equality in suffering and resistance to it in their beauty then they can create a sense of symmetry that belies an assymetrical reality.

  • Michael (The BAG)

    Shaw is not oblivious to the immense asymmetrical suffering or the reality of inequality. Shaw is making a point (or, at least raising questions) about the visual representation of the conflict, and about the NYT striving for symmetry. (Not an easy distinction to make, I know.)

  • mse

    I love how the “fair balance” spin achieves it’s goals with emotionally loaded photos given equal due…… and neglects emphasis on things such as simple math….. 5 vs 425.
    Same old, same old, including the same old apologists for Israeli massacre of civilians.

  • cenoxo

    9/11/2001 — World Trade Center, New York City.

  • sohbet

    I’ve always been wary of criticism

  • tinwoman

    Your’re saying the mosque was used for terrorism because you’ve been told to say it. In fact, you have no idea about it. All we know for sure is that it was a place of worship specifically blown up and that women and children were sheltering inside.
    The school in Sderot was likely hit by accident (these small crude rockets cannot be guided) and no children were injured or killed (or were probably even in the building). In contrast, Palestinian children were deliberately targeted as they walked home from school and many of their schools and their only university have been totally destroyed.
    I often wonder how people like you sleep at night. You deny reality and twist and mangle everything to meet your agenda. Surely, that much lying to yourself and others must have some kind of psychological effect eventually?

  • sohbet

    I’ve always been wary of criticism of conflict photography as being too beautiful. While I don’t think you’re in with the camp of Salgado- or Nachtwey-haters, and I can understand the difficulty of reconciling beauty and poetry wrought from such horror

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