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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)

  • Stan B.

    I originally saw these on the CBS Evening News and it initially began
    with video of the men above cleaning the street, and then… boom,
    flash- one couldn’t make out if the explosion footage was continued
    video, or stills flashed rapidly in sequence since it all seemed a
    continuous take from the same angle. And I don’t know if the blurred
    “ghosting” around some of the figures is, in fact, indicative of digital
    video, or can also occur in digital stills.

    Regardless, it is a truly remarkable sequence, and probably the most
    technically innovative war photo since Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier”
    shot (assuming that wasn’t staged).

    Is it “war porn?” War is pornography of the worst kind, the term
    redundant by its very nature. What this sequence (particularly the photo above) so successfully and succinctly depicts
    is the almost random immediacy that death delivers in war- something any
    adult should already know, but that only its survivors can speak to first hand.

    • http://www.bagnewsnotes.com Michael Shaw

      I very much appreciate how you clarify porn here. Typical for network news though, sounds like CBS also went the Daily Mail route.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000538883794 Chris Hainey

    The second shot in the sequence immediately reminded me of Issac Asimov’s short story “Hell-Fire” where the slow-motion filming of a nuclear explosion reveals the face of the devil.

  • Cactus

    Maybe I’m jaded by 11 years of war, death, destruction and the
    hyperbole of politicians. But I just do not see this as war porn. When I first
    started hearing the term, if I remember correctly, it was in conjunction with
    very graphic (and needless?) images of dead bodies badly mutilated by various
    explosives. One could make the case that the people doing the destruction
    should face the result of that horror. If that is a legitimate reason, then
    isn’t “war porn” in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. If one becomes
    obsessed with gruesome photos of the mutilated bodies resulting from war, then
    it’s war porn.

    The lurid prose used by some media outlets lies somewhere in
    between porn and information. In that context, the ‘DailyMail’ article, while
    it uses some colorful adjectives, also gives some background and details of the
    images and the uprising. One complaint I have is that the first image in the
    sequence (sweeping up after an attack) was printed last and thus out of
    context. The ‘GlobalPost’ printed the photos in sequence but without comment
    except for the narrative by photographer Shelton.

    I think the most stunning photo is the third one in your
    post with the lone survivor and the empty chair; you can barely make out the
    falling man in the background, who has obviously already been hit. That’s even
    more powerful than images of dead bodies.

    One more thing — most people in this country have never been
    faced with the destruction of war at home, at least not for over a century;
    especially in the era of “all volunteer army.” Unfortunately, those are the
    people who will not see these photos. Like my 80-y/o neighbor, who complains
    that they keep showing terrible things on the news and wonders why they do
    that.

  • Gasho

    I kept this browser window open all day.. trying to muster a comment. It’s such a powerful image, literally, figuratively, photographically and in terms of the humanitarian cost of war, and the exposure of non-combatants (the public) to graphic imagery.

    The second shot is unique in that it captures the almost transcendental quality of this life-ending event. It’s like the universe is ripping apart in that photo.. the rules of physics and logic don’t seem to hold. Humans don’t live in fire (but they do for that instant). Bodies aren’t translucent (but appear to be here). Motion and stillness are all mixed up. It’s the very manifestation of Hell on Earth.

    This is the image that captures what the statistics fail to impart: the dreaded and very real transition from living to dead for each individual being who is killed by war.

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