As the brutality and ugliness of the war in Gaza takes on a new dimension with every day passing, Western media outlets face a growing dilemma: how can they visually represent the horrors of war? It is quite clear that photo editors have a difficult task at hand because the pictures that they choose for their magazines and newspapers become representative for the conflict as a whole. Scanning through a variety of Western mainstream media reveals quite quickly that the photographs chosen for publication rarely, if ever, directly depict the true destruction in Gaza. In newspaper articles journalists consistently address this fact by speaking about images that are ‘too graphic’ to show in the publication. It’s as if they can’t burden the readers with what they have seen themselves. There is a growing sentiment that the viewer must somehow be protected from what is really going on.
In light of this, newspapers have come up with a strategy that addresses the horrors of war not directly, but indirectly, through visual metaphors and allegories. A case in point is the recent front cover for The Guardian in the United Kingdom. Running under the headline ‘The world stands disgraced’, the newspaper chose an image of a young girl who was photographed in the aftermath of the bombing of a UN school in Gaza. This choice of photograph is important in a variety of ways. In the first instance, the fact that she is both a young child and a girl signifies the innocence of the victims killed in the bombing. Her age and her gender clearly align themselves with the quote ‘The world stands disgraced’. The girl in this context becomes a proxy for the numerous other victims in the bombing.
In the second instance, The Guardian‘s photo editor avoids depicting the actual destruction of the school by focusing on the young girl’s face as a visual allusion to what she has experienced. The blood and the dirt on her face are further evidence to the living nightmare unfolding in Gaza. Yet most importantly, in the photograph her eyes are directed away from the camera as she looks down thus signifying her grief. By depicting a child whose eyes are averted from the camera The Guardian alludes to the notion that the things that this child witnessed are also ‘too graphic’. The Guardian thus follows a visual trick commonly used by Western media: instead of depicting the full atrocity, they depict a witness to this atrocity as a metaphor for the atrocity itself. Please note that there are multiple levels of ‘seeing’ going on in this schema: the witness that sees the atrocity, the photographer that sees the witness, and the viewer who sees the photograph taken by the photographer.
As much as I understand and appreciate why photo editors legally, morally and ethically choose to depict the war in this way, it must be emphasised that by doing so a lot of information also does not get shown. There is a danger that by consistently reverting to visual metaphors and allegories, the actual brutality and the psychological trauma associated with war get ignored while other images become an aestheticised version of the event itself. Another effect of this strategy is that the viewer is subconsciously removed from the conflict because he starts to see it as an abstraction (the dictionary defines ‘abstraction’ as following: ‘the quality of dealing with ideas rather than events’). Those looking at the photograph of the child must understand that this picture is a visual allegory for a far bigger event – too horrific and brutal to be accurately captured by anyone.