Visual Allegories and Media Depictions of the Gaza War

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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.

A Palestinian girl cries while receiving treatment for her injuries
A Palestinian girl cries while receiving treatment for her injuries caused by an Israeli strike. Photograph: Khalil Hamra/AP

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.

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3 thoughts on “Visual Allegories and Media Depictions of the Gaza War

  1. Perhaps the cropping of the Guardian image “A Palestinian girl cries…” tells a different story from the Guardian’s image. The Guardian image depicts the person, caught up in something that she has no control of. The cropped image depicts dirt and blood. The world /does/ stand disgraced by this, and the Guardian’s image highlights the death and maiming of innocent children. Because of lines in the sand prevously drawn by the UK government and others, and the affiliations of the US? And the inhumanity of politicians all over the world, who cannot put an end to this. Arms-r-us?

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  2. Well pointed out Brad – ” Because of lines in the sand prevously drawn by the UK government and others, and the affiliations of the US…” – Europe, & near East are is still suffering greatly on the absurd Versailles dictates/”treaties” after WWI, where Imperial greed created these never functioning “lines in the sand”. When war, protecting these lines, is the “legitemized” terror of the rich – than terror is and will be the answer of the poor.

    Sadly enough, this picture signals a traumatized child, out of control – and even the most optimistic among us will consider ” the inhumanity of politicians all over the world” does not give a glimps of hope for change in her near future.

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  3. A cogent reading of the image and food for thought. I propose 2 caveats, however.
    First, I think it would be interesting to analyze statistically whether photo editors are, or are not, really protecting their readers from the true horrors of the war. The photo chosen here appears to but I have seen many other, far more graphic (meaning bloody and destructive) images in the last few weeks so it may be true only that some journalists and editors are acting in this way, limiting, a little, the significance of the observation.
    Second, all photographs of people, looking at the camera or not, can be said to have the 3 layers described here (the observed person, the photographer and the photo-observer) so I’m not sure how significant the context of war and its atrocity changes that multi-layered equation.

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