Radical Decontextualization – Fragments On Photography

Regarding the Pain of others.
Regarding the Pain of others.

I haven’t written anything here for a little while. This was partly out of personal circumstances and partly borne out of conscious choice – I never wanted to write just for the sake of churning out content as theory should always only be done when there’s something to say( TRY to remember that  Slavoj, please…)

Then came Gaza once again…. Social media was flooded with horrific images, outrage and pain. There was a wave of discussion around the ethics of sharing these images with a popular justification being that these images were meant to shock the viewer out of complacency and that now simple isn’t the time to get intellectual. It’s a common, intuitive, almost instinctive reaction to significant humanitarian need that the immediate moment should be not be a space for the abstract intellectualism of ethics or political theory. That’s a deeply problematic position as it is in the moment of crisis where our ideas and theories are tested, not just our concrete actions.

What follows is not a concrete, finalized theoretical position, but a wavering and hesitant attempt to consider certain aspects of our world and its reaction to events on social media through the lens of critical and theoretical thought.




“This morning’s collection contains the photograph of what might be a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig. But those certainly are dead children, and that undoubtedly is the section of a house. A bomb has torn open the side; there is still a bird-cage hanging in what was presumably the sitting room . . .”

                                                                        Virginia Woolf – “Three Guineas”, June 1938

There is something seductive about photography – whereas the word or the text is inescapably a matter of interpretation the modern world grants an authority to the image, particularly photography. To phrase it as the great Susan Sontag did, where the text renders a particular opacity, we credit photographs with a particular transparency. Where words fail, it seems photographs can speak.

On social media then, the proliferation, ease of access and distribution raises several important points – both about the image itself, and its means of communication to an audience. Firstly, let us turn to the images themselves. To fail to be moved, outraged, to have one’s empathy stirred passionately is the action of a moral monster. Yet there is something still troubling if the responses we hold see’s images from Gaza as comparable to other locations or sites of war; as if tragedy and death and suffering were generic categories distinguished by quirks of geography. What we’re seeing is not WAR in the generic sense or even war as such. What we’re seeing is a region and ideologically specific assault, refined and perfected over generations by an advanced, industrial militarized power. To see these images as ‘another tragedy’ is to refuse to engage with Palestine as a country and it to make the fatal mistake of ignoring politics entirely.

There is a second problem here however that is more subtle and often harder to spot. Supporters of the Palestinian people and campaign groups share images in the hopes of inspiring support, raising awareness and building solidarity. Whilst praise-worthy aims the sharing of these graphic images in this way fails to understand the viewer/power dynamic inherent in the medium of photography, especially in a context so defined by its audience such as Twitter. Aside from the obvious issues of consent when sharing pictures of fractured, damaged and grieving families the dynamic is unalterably one of viewer and subject. The victim thus is once again “othered” even as we see the image of them as a transmission of truth. How can there be any sense of “we” when there is a viewer, and, as in the stomach churning quote from Woolf, a subject so hard to identify?

This becomes more problematic when we consider that the victims of the Israeli assault (I hesitate to use the word conflict as the term seems to imply a binary power configuration between roughly proportionate forces) have been majority civilians, families and children. Children killed by the Israeli military have produced righteous anger across the globe yet this too will affect what the Palestinian people become. They are made the silent subaltern in these images (to borrow a phrase from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) small, bloodied, vulnerable and displayed as rhetorical tools for either the outrage at or the grim justification for military might. It seems that even Israeli politicians acknowledge this – as in Benjamin Netanyahu’s grotesque rhetorical justification here.

To answer Nick Kristof’s column as to where the Palestinian Ghandi might be, their picture is on Twitter, after they were shot by Israeli rockets.  There should be no conflation or similarity drawn but its worth maintaining an awareness that a response to Israel’s militaristic ideology is not non-ideological.

It’s this ideological angle that brings the wider context of social media into play – according to Wittgenstein communication can only happen within certain contexts and according to rules formulated therein. Communication on Twitter has evolved a series of shorthand rules, syntax and abbreviations that allow communication to function fluently, albeit only within the confines of the medium. This however creates a problem with images – for all the appeal of authenticity and transparency a photograph yearns for its caption. Context and identity are vital – to quote Sontag:

“During the fighting between Serbs and Croats at the beginning of the recent Balkan wars, the same photographs of children killed in the shelling of a village were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings. Alter the caption, and the children’s deaths could be used and reused…”

Change the place names and such things have happened on Twitter and may well happen again – where massacres are moved from their original time and place and given new meaning by Twitter’s ability to radically decontextualize the image.

Photography was originally the realm of the expert, when cameras where first invented only the scientists and the buffs had the ability to manipulate and control the recorded image. The grief, outrage and hurt from the pictures coming out of Gaza should be affirmed, and the protest should not be dialled down. However don’t let them become a distraction. We should not be distracted from our structural power and privilege, and perhaps most vitally from asking who’s death, which tragedy, which assault is not being photographed and why?


3 thoughts on “Radical Decontextualization – Fragments On Photography

  1. While I enjoy your insights, alas! credibility is strained with an egregious mistake: it’s means it is. Its is the possesive form., not as in, “…it’s [sic] means of communication to an audience.” from your first sentence, second paragraph.

  2. Right here is the perfect site for everyone who would like to understand this topic. You realize a whole lot its almost hard to argue with you (not that I personally will need laugh out loud). You certainly put a brand new spin on a topic that’s been written about for a long time. Excellent stuff, just excellent!

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