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September 9, 2012

Horrific Photo from Aleppo: War Porn or Stellar Journalism?

I wonder if you saw the horrific series of photos published by GlobalPost of Syrian rebels being attacked by government forces at a check point in Aleppo. Specifically, I’m referring to the horrific but spectacular image of the group of rebels in the exact milli-instant of the impact of a tank blast.  I’ve got some question about the media aspect and then a more psychological thought about it.

First off, is the picture of Syrian rebels at the moment of death a stellar piece of journalism and an essential contribution to our understanding of the Syrian civil war in particular, and war overall, or is this photo more a profound illustration of voyeurism and war porn?

(click for full size)

Then there’s also the issue of the proper presentation of such intense imagery.  What I specifically have in mind is the way the Daily Mail handled the material, especially with their sensational (SEO-minded) headline. In this case, doesn’t the title set it up as war porn by making the headline about the photograph, an editor feeling the need to report its larger social and photographic significance while leaving the context to the (collection of) sub-heads in contrast to the much the more respectable introduction at GlobalPost.

There’s the telling and there’s the tale, and when the subject matter is literally that traumatic, the former is not only a critical responsibility but can easily confound the dimensions and response to the former.

Journalism aside though, I believe the photo certainly has merit from a psychological standpoint.  Many of us have had the experience of being so “in the moment,” it felt that time had slowed or  had even stood still. I don’t know what happens at the instant of death (or what it’s like when a person, in an instant, realizes their end) but I believe this photo, whether it involved war or not, or Syria or not, does have something to offer about conscious awareness almost outside of (or, maybe completely in) time.

Update 9/10 8:40 am PST- revised to emphasize Global post as original source, added previous and follow-up images, and clarified critique of Daily Mail.

Update 2 8:55: I appreciate that I left the main question here profoundly open-ended. It was mostly my intention to do that. Upon reflection though, just one of the variables involved certainly has to do with where in the world you’re looking from. If just from a Western perspective, for example, there seems to be a consistent difference between European and American reactions because the story and the situation, especially in the US with the election on and since the Libyan uprising concluded, is so much more remote. Back to the Daily Mail aspect again, it’s hard to see that photo in the U.S., even when presented with more sensitivity, in the kind of context to not see it as pornographic. By the way, I also recommend Stan Banos’ comment in the discussion thread recontextualizing the definition of porn in this case.)

(photos: Tracey Shelton, via GlobalPost. h/t@Russian_Photos)

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