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Capturing Violence: What is it to photograph conflict?

Digital Collage by Shreya Sharma

The image of Mohammad Zubair beaten by a group of men chanting pro-Hindu slogans during the Delhi Riots in 2020 is an emotionally charged image, evidence to the increasing hatred in the country. In her work “On Photography”, Susan Sontang writes, “What the moralists are demanding from a photograph is that it do what no photograph can ever do-speak.” Here, her words feel in stark contrast to what the photograph of Zubair had conveyed. How could one ignore the blood stained body convulsing on the ground, with the broken wooden rod swinging mid air? But her words are not empty, for they hint at the conflicting nature of photography when capturing violence.

Sontang observes how photographs which aim to create a moral conscience are linked to history. For them to create a ripple in a community requires the image to be set in an appropriate context. They do not create any moral position in themselves but reinforce a present one or at least, begin with building one. A photographed atrocity, if unable to fit in a context, simply comes off as a sad emotional blow. Evidence to this is the proliferation of images of all sorts of horrors around us, yet the absence of any drastic change as one would expect. This proliferation is also a reason for the anesthetizing effects that images can have. We all have been exposed to photographs of malnourished, starving children living in abject poverty with unemployed parents indulging in domestic violence and drugs. Faces of sickly, big-eyed babies have often been used by NGO’s to coax donations by the general public. But how many of us actually take action as a result of it? We may feel momentarily guilty, some may even donate. The repeated exposure to such images slowly annihilates their suffering and numbs oneself.

But one may object that not every image is meant to be an art form inciting morals. Photography has also been used for recording purposes and does not necessarily require the photographer or the observer to be engaged in the process or the end result. Think of the Delhi Police, recording student protests and taking their own photographs of the happenings as a catalog of identification. What moral incitement can they be aiming at, even though they capture violence through their lens? But Sontang saw no separation between the two forms, “…both are logical extensions of what photography means: note-taking on, potentially, everything in the world, from every possible angle.”

Such an outlook presumes that everything is there to be ‘seen and recorded’. Another unforgettable picture is that of the Burning Monk. Captured by Malcolm Browne during the protests against the treatments of Buddhist monks by President Ngo Dinh Diem, the photograph had an impact powerful enough for the U.S. administration to question their ties with the Vietnamese government. In one of his interviews, Browne recalls how his main thought had been to ‘get the pictures out’ and that the subject, Thich Quang Duc, was ‘self-illuminated’ requiring such and such lens.

Browne’s thought process during the self-immolation is one example of the distance a camera creates. It certainly brings forth an uneasy sensation due to the ease with which the alienation takes place. But his case is not an exception nor should it be questionable. The question here which one must ask then is not of the intention with which the photograph is taken but the intention of the observer. A camera may be inherently violent but how would one respond to such images? Can they be ‘appreciated’?

The uniqueness of the medium fails to provide us with a framework on how to interpret it. But, it is this uniqueness which provides us all with photographs as “transit visas”, termed by Ariella Azoulay in her work “The Civil Contract of Photography”. Pushing aside the emotional factor, Azoulay argues that the need of the hour is action. Being made witnesses to events of suffering, one can be warned of any dangers and be provided with the ability to prevent them in future course. With such a perspective, we shift from Sontang’s passivity of the photographer to Azoulay’s active role of the viewer. Would this mean that the viewer is bestowed with an ethical responsibility? Azoulay would certainly say yes.

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