Tag Archives: media

Terror, Photographed

Two people escape an Oslo office building after the 2011 terrorist attack there; Morten Holm/AFP.

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Terror trades in images—it needs spectators to feed itself. It is commonplace to say that atrocities like the terrorist attacks in Manchester, London, Brussels, or Boston are “unspeakable”—whether to indicate that words are inadequate to describe such an act or that using words in this way is somehow, in itself, a form of violence. While these attacks may be unspeakable, they were most certainly not un-picturable: On the contrary, they generated a great number of images. These images mobilize shock, disbelief and repulsion, as well as gratuitous voyeurism. Becoming prime mediators in interrelationships between the targeted local communities and global audiences, they deploy a visual force that releases the impact of terror to the world at large.

Although piercing, images of terror are becoming more and more disconnected from the context in which they take place—all too often, photographs of mayhem, wounded bystanders, and destroyed buildings could have been taken almost anywhere in the world. No longer novel, photographs of terror now seem to create a sense of déjà vu or anxious anticipation. Many of us—myself included—have projected the photographed scenes against the background of own cities. Still, a few images stand out: Davina Douglass pressing a gauze mask to her face after being rescued in the aftermath of the 2005 London tube bombing; Tarana Akbari in a green tunic screaming in horror just minutes after a 2011 suicide bombing in Kabul; or dazed and bloodied Omran Daqneesh in the back of an Aleppo ambulance after a 2016 airstrike. Is any one of these as indelible as, for example, nine-year-old Kim Phúc running naked and napalmed down a Vietnam highway in 1972? That remains to be seen, but all of these demonstrate the essential qualities of terrorism photographs: their emphatic, graphic reality and unavoidably exploitative nature.

The Intersection of Photography and Terror

Any consideration of the impact of terrorism’s imagery must also examine the entanglement of photography and terror. Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero defines terrorism as an act of violence that destroys any notion of safety, integrity, or distinctiveness for individuals or society as a whole. In fact, she argues in her 2011 book Horrorism that words such as “terrorism” and “war” have become obsolete. Terrorist acts, says Cavarero, whether bombing or stabbing, are as ubiquitous as they are random: Every person, innocent or guilty, armed or defenceless, civilian or soldier, believer or atheist, is a potential target for obliteration. Terror disperses violence from its designated territories (battlefields, camps) into civilian settings (a pop concert, a restaurant, a Christmas fair), making the quotidian into a war zone. As for photographs of terror, Cavarero follows Susan Sontag’s lead in considering such images as the eroticization of horror.

But terror is also the emotional response that the act of violence engenders among bystanders, a mixture of fear, angst, disgust, and disbelief. To respond to terrorism (or horrorism as Cavarero would have it) is to experience a visceral and brutal check to our usually unexamined feelings of personal and public safety, our comfortable integration in the world, our very concept of existence. It is precisely the generation of this affective state among large populations, rather than the death and dismemberment of individuals, that is the ultimate goal of terrorists. From ISIS to white supremacy, terror’s power is in its emotional undoing.

Photographs of terrorist attacks operate to document the results of terror as an act of violence on helpless civilians and to instill a feeling of terror in viewers—viewers often caught unawares by these images and thus unwittingly coerced into a state of anxiety and fear. Further, photographs of terror create a sense of loss of time and place, a de-temporalization as lived experience comes to a halt. We become temporarily paralyzed—a reaction, it should be noted, that is fundamental to the experience of photography itself. Photographs stop a moment in time and arrest our sense of the ongoing movement that characterizes the body and the world around it. What’s more, photography interrupts our sense of interiority, disrupting with its insistence on motionlessness our feeling of being anchored in a temporal world. When the camera captures a moment of violence, it freezes the act of terror, making it unending, even eternal, forever perpetuating our emotional reaction to it.

In the Moment and After

Images of terrorism come in three forms. First, there are images of the immediate aftermath of the attack, civilians—often the most vulnerable, women and children—staggering out of the danger zone, faces bewildered or distorted by anguish, clothing torn and bloody. These victims have seen and experienced the carnage. “In the moment” imagery also includes first responders and aerial shots taken by police helicopters or drones. The latter can be particularly disquieting as they often reveal bodies of the wounded or the dead who may be the attackers themselves. Formalistically, these images tend to be visually arresting: vivid colors, dynamic compositions, chaotic scenes filled with authentic, unstudied human expressions. The element of immediacy and a lack of finish also contribute to a sense of dread. What we can see within the frame is bad enough—what horrors are taking place just out of sight?

Then come the images of mourning, grieving, and commemorating—photographs that invite viewers to become part of the visual script for grief. Streetscapes changed into shrines, a sea of snapshots, handwritten messages, flowers, and teddy bears. There are candlelight vigils and stern police officers patrolling the streets. These photographs offer no grand gestures, no sweeping emotions, no spectacle. Rather, they speak to the more mundane work that terror develops over time, of the personal, political, or cultural effort to make sense of the event and move beyond its senselessness. These images spark solidarity and identification, appealing to the feeling of shared mourning. They also run the risk of trivializing the act of terror and the depth of human response by replacing scenes of violence with those of sentimentality.

Accordingly, we have grown accustomed to visual performances of institutionalized grief: heads of state and high officials—Queen Elizabeth, London mayor Sadiq Khan, former prime minister Theresa May—making somber hospital visits and condemnatory speeches. Following the May 22, 2017, bombing in Manchester of an Ariana Grande concert, there followed a novel expression of performed grief: Grande’s June 4 benefit concert. Except for images of the singer sporting her One Love Manchester sweatshirt (merch available online), photographs of the event look exactly like any one of hundreds of other carefully choreographed and highly lucrative pop star concerts. The visual medium in this instance has brought us quite a distance from an act of terror to scenes of entertainment and capitalism seen through a screen of philanthropy.

The commemorative power of photographs reaches new potency in the world of social media. Twitter and Facebook were deluged with profile images of concertgoers as they looked before they became victims—who can forget the sweet-faced Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old victim, or Georgina Callander, a bespectacled eighteen-year-old who was shown in an older photograph with her arms around Grande’s waist? All of these private images became gateways to lives that would have otherwise remained unknown to us. Rather than being manifest and visible in these images, terror remains stored, contained, releasing an insidious emotional reaction for which we are unprepared. In the social media environment where self-celebratory rhetoric mixes with conflict reporting and funny cat videos, the snapshot portraits of victims became an affective portal for our voracious and indiscriminate quest for media consumption.

In Pursuit of Clickbait

Photographs of terrorist events also have other troubling aspects. More than other forms of photography, portraits seem to reflect the Western bias in the media coverage of terrorist attacks. Victims are presented as precarious and grief-worthy. After the concert bombing, the Greater Manchester Police Twitter account, for example, was transformed into a kind of digital shrine of personal images as a tribute to lost lives. At the same time, private images of the victims of attacks in Kabul and Baghdad, which happened around the same time as the UK attacks, are hardly to be found in the Western media. Occasionally, we do encounter memorable photographs of non-Western child victims (Omran Daqneesh, refugee Aylan Kurdi, or Kim Phúc), but countless others remain invisible and nameless.

In addition, especially since the Manchester bombing, Facebook and Twitter have been filled with images of fake victims, images stolen and posted alongside messages pretending to beg for help in finding “loved ones.” Generating thousands of shares and re-tweets by well-intentioned bystanders, these hoaxes extend the emotional impact of terror by amplifying and confusing the event for no other purpose than sowing chaos and eroding our ability to make meaning from meaninglessness. With the increasing prevalence of trolling and accusations of fake news, the credibility of media imagery grows weaker and the possibility of sensationalism, exploitation and anonymous malice increases. Photographs of terror, loss, and death and the feelings they spark become so much clickbait. These manipulations expose our disenchantment with the medium of photography, once thought to be an unimpeachable source of objectivity and truth.

Photographs of terror remain a powerful tool. More than simply capturing evidence of violence done to people and places, they provide concrete evidence of the unravelling of human identity and communities. Intentionally or not, they also reinforce the concept of violence as a norm, accommodate and expand our appetite for manipulable visual media, and forge affective (or potentially abusive) connections between individuals separated in space and time. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, photographs deepen solidarity and care for one another, but they can also intensify fear and xenophobia, invite voyeurism, and expose vulnerability. They may coerce viewers toward specific narratives, generate unwelcome emotions, manipulate people to spend money, or indoctrinate certain outlooks or ideologies. In a media saturated world, one in which photography flourishes, it is critical to recognize its dynamics, endurance, and significance.

Dr. Marta Zarzycka teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, at the Center of Women and Gender Studies. She is the author of Gendered Tropes in War Photography: Mothers, Mourners, Soldiers (Routledge) and essays on photography in Los Angeles Review of Books, Lens Culture, and Huck Magazine.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk

The duck-rabbit. Wikimedia Commons.

The duck-rabbit. Wikimedia Commons.

The box that contains my cheap delivery pizza lists five cows by name, thanking them for their contribution of cheese. I hate few things like I hate these cows. I know as well as the person who designed this advertisement that the milk for this cheese did not come from cows frolicking in a meadow. This lie, which seems so unnecessary to the selling of my pizza, irritates me beyond measure.

But as I was throwing out this box, I found a new annoyance: instructions on how to Instagram my pizza, down to the lighting I should use (natural), the temperature of the pizza (hot), and the hashtag that ought to accompany my picture. And I thought: How strange, first of all, that this pizza, which I have already purchased, is covered in advertising for itself, and also, why is it so focused on being my friend, so as to trick me into advertising for it?

“Funny how hard it is to be alone,” Philip Larkin once wrote:

Just think of all the spare time that has flown
Straight into nothingness

Larkin, always aware that time is limited and that we are all going to die, was referring to the necessity of socializing with people you despise. These constant advertisements have much the same effect, even if you are being as anti-social as you can manage by ordering some pizza to eat alone. Someone, somewhere, is interested in monetizing your day-to-day activities, your bad habits, and even your irritation. (As one of the people responsible for The Hedgehog Review’s social-media presence, I am, in fact, one of those people.)

Not all advertisements announce themselves so clearly. Continue reading

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Dishonesty in the Headlines

The New York Times, May 5, 2012
The Height of Corporate Irresponsibility — Anheuser Busch
by Nicholas Kristof
. . . . a particularly egregious example of a company putting greed above conscience. I’m speaking of Anheuser Busch selling hundreds of thousands of gallons of alcohol on the edge of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, knowing that almost all of it will go to illicit drinking on the reservation and feed a devastating alcohol problem there. . . .

The New York Times, July 24, 2012
Philadelphia Church Official Sentenced to 3 to 6 Years in Prison
by Jon Hurdle and Erik Eckholm
PHILADELPHIA — Msgr. William J. Lynn, the first Roman Catholic official in the United States to be convicted of covering up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision, was sentenced to three to six years in prison on Tuesday. “You knew full well what was right, Monsignor Lynn, but you chose wrong,”. . . .

Inter Press Service, July 27, 2012
Banksters Hijack Microfinance
by Julio Godoy
. . . . new evidence suggests that even microcredit was not protected from the greed that characterizes modern international finance. Two recent studies show that microfinance was simply another profit making scheme for global private finance corporations, such as the Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, and Standard Chartered, who started pouring money into microcredit initiatives. . . .

The New York Times, August 23, 2012
Armstrong Drops Fight Against Doping Charges
by Juliet Macur
After more than a decade of outrunning accusations that he had doped during his celebrated cycling career, Lance Armstrong, one of the best known and most accomplished athletes in recent history, surrendered on Thursday, ending his fight against charges that he used performance-enhancing drugs. . . .

The New York Times, September 28, 2012
Bank of America Settles Suit over Merrill for $2.43 Billion
by Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Susanne Craig
The price being paid by Bank of America for its missteps during the financial crisis rose sharply on Friday as the bank announced a $2.43 billion deal to settle accusations that it misled investors about the acquisition of Merrill Lynch . . . .

The New York Times, November 2, 2012
Hyundai and Kia Acknowledge Overstating the Gas Mileage of Vehicles
by Bill Vlasic
DETROIT — The South Korean carmakers Hyundai and Kia built their brands around the idea that their cars got better gas mileage than competitors, promoting that fact in ads that often took swipes at less efficient rivals.
But on Friday, the companies admitted that they had overstated the fuel economy of 900,000 vehicles sold in the United States over the last two years — about one-third of the vehicles they sold during that period. . . .

The New York Times, February 1, 2013
Students Disciplined in Harvard Scandal
by Richard Pérez-Peña
Harvard has forced dozens of students to leave in its largest cheating scandal in memory, the university made clear in summing up the affair on Friday. . . .

The New York Times, June 11, 2013
Insurers Inflating Books, New York Regulator Says
by Mary Williams Walsh
. . . Insurers’ use of the secretive transactions has become widespread . . . These complex private deals allow the companies to describe themselves as richer and stronger than they otherwise could in their communications with regulators, stockholders, the ratings agencies and customers, who often rely on ratings to buy insurance. . . .

The New York Times, November 21, 2013
A Trading Tactic Is Foiled, and Banks Cry Foul
by Floyd Norris
. . . . Earlier this year, we learned about Apple’s disappearing subsidiary, an extremely profitable one that had no employees and — for tax purposes — was located nowhere. Under United States tax law, it was based in Ireland. Under Irish law, it was based in the United States. So it paid taxes to no one . . . .

The New York Times, January 25, 2014
Doctors Abusing Medicare Face Fines and Expulsion
by Robert Pear
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is cracking down on doctors who repeatedly overcharge Medicare patients . . . “recalcitrant providers” would face civil fines and could be expelled from Medicare and other federal health programs . . . Federal officials estimate that 10 percent of payments in the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program are improper. . . .

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Usually I eat lunch at my desk and read The New York Times or other media about what is going on that day. I started noticing the frequency of stories about major companies, renowned universities, honored professions, and religious leaders not only tolerating various kinds of dishonesty, but deliberately engaging in corruption and deception. This was not restricted to the exaggerations of advertising and marketing, or to morally dubious practices, but to clearly illegal behavior: fraud, bribery, rigging of prices and interest rates, phony audit reports, and cheating on tests. “My word is my bond,” business “done with a handshake,” and “honor codes” are not even the rhetoric of the day, much less the reality. Apparently the fines and penalties that are handed out for such behavior are often seen as “the cost of doing business.”

There is always a strong temptation to think that “the new generation” is not up to the standards of the past. Earlier periods had plenty of cheating and dishonesty. There is a reason the late nineteenth century is often characterized as time of the “robber barons.”

What concerns me, however, is not the cheating of selfish individuals, but rather the apparent organizational cultures that seem to take such behaviors as perhaps regrettable, but “the way of the world.” In turn, these organizational cultures seem to reflect a change in the broader culture. It is difficult to develop convincing measure of such changes over time, but the relevant question is not simply whether dishonesty is greater than in the past, but rather what are the consequences of such deceitfulness. The financial crisis of 2007-2009 was in part due to the deceptive practices of banks, the “look the other way” attitude of regulators, and “eat, drink, and be merry” self-deceptions of many consumers.

What new economic, social and political disasters are ahead if we tolerate in ourselves, our colleagues, and our officials, the levels of dishonesty that have become all too familiar in the last decade?

Murray Milner Jr. is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. His newest book, Elites: A General Model, will be published in November by Polity Press.


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