Images that speak a thousand words

Just as news reports are said to represent ‘the rough draft of history’, the effusions of photojournalists represent its chapter headings

Where do we stand when images of political bestiality in another part of the world confront our conscience? Do we simply turn away in nauseated disbelief and go on with our lives or do we fiercely engage with that bestiality because in today’s global village, we are all complicit in that which leaves us indifferent? To what extent does imagery, as opposed to text, affect the capacity of the individual to be in natural contact with the social condition?

The pictures, each worth a thousands words, as they say, were stark, horrific, unimaginable, depicting a narrative of their own, of hundreds of men, women and children killed by poison gas at the hands of their own government. Yet, Americans could not relate to them. Or to be more exact, Americans saw the pain there, but could neither feel it nor bring themselves to respond to it — as evidenced by how little outrage they evinced and how resolutely opposed they remained to intervention.

Have “war-weary Americans”, as they are now universally identified, ceased to be moved by the authority of a photographed image, its relation to conscience, to the literate mind?

In the beginning was the word. That is true, but since the invention of photography in 1839, human emotions have come to crystalise more around images — which are by definition translingual, transcultural and transnational — than words. In introducing us to a new visual code, pictures enlarge our repertoir of consciousness, our compass of awareness of the objective world we inhabit. Words merely “interpret” that world, much in the manner that we interpret, say, a Bach composition, but never replicate it.

A photograph, however, even where it is stylised by the photographer, carries the promise of democratising and certifying life as we experience it. Consider as a case in point those photographs that in recent years have served as benchmarks in our lives: The shock in Robert Jackson’s picture of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald; the pathos in Nick Ut’s picture of a young Vietnamese girl fleeing her village, her body burned with napalm; the surrealism in Sabrina Harman’s picture of a hooded, seemingly crucified Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib; and the terror — or was it the appeal to conscience — in Kevin Carter’s gut-wrenching picture of a starved and whimpering Sudanese child, during the time when Sudan was on the brink of famine in 1993, being trailed by a vulture that clearly senses carrion.

Just as news reports are said to represent “the rough draft of history”, the effusions of photojournalists represent, I say, its chapter headings. Those pictures took us all to places we might never have gone, inviting us to be a part of the subject they depicted, party to its implicit historical meaning.

And there is the rub. Americans do not want to be party to, or as Susan Sontag put it in her seminal work, Regarding the Pain of Others, “co-substantial with”, suffering beyond their borders. After Vietnam and Lebanon, Bosnia and Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are image-choked. Burdened by being citizens of a big power, they inhabit a world they see as having become recalcitrant, hollowed out, mockingly remote from their needs.

Subconsciously, they yearn to trap their reality inside a mesh of serene images, harking back to those halcyon days when they laughed at Bob Hope jokes, watched Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies, listened to Dean Martin songs, ate hot dogs at the ball park (before Ralph Nader showed them what dreadful garbage went into making them) and read Mickey Spillane novels. They do not want to see images that are intensely expressive of the cruel spirit of the age they are in, an age their own nation helped create and shape over the last century.

Children gassed? Body bags stacked in the hundreds? Injured men and women writhing in pain after inhaling sarin? It is all in a faraway country, far away from their preoccupations. But pain of that kind, wherever it is inflicted in our global village, at the end of the day, leads back to the central knot of our common humanity. After it affects others, it will turn around and affect us, those of us who had remained indifferent “regarding the pain of others”.

Of all the lessons about men’s indifference to that pain, the one offered by the German pastor, Martin Niemoler, who wrote about his own complicity in the escalating brutality of life in Nazi Germany, is best known: “First they came for the Communists”, he wrote, “but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left to stand up for me”.

One final word. Kevin Carter, the photographer from Johannesburg who shot that iconic picture of the starving child and the vulture, agonised for long over how he had concerned himself more with taking the picture than helping the child. A year after he savoured his prestigious Pulitzer Prize on the night of July 28, 1994, he committed suicide. The note he left behind spoke of how he was haunted by unrelenting memories of what he had seen in Sudan, of “starving children, corpses and pain”. He was 33 years old. Pray for his soul.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.