Thursday, 10 September 2009

Why Images of Warfare always need Words

Ben MacIntyre in today's Times argues for the 'immediacy' and 'revelatory' force of war photographs. His article is titled 'Pictures of war carry more moral meaning than thousands of words'. He is completely wrong. Images of warfare depend on words. Without words, they invite such an excess of meaning that they become, in effect, meaningless.

Take the photograph above, which is the cue for MacIntyre's claim. What are we looking at? There seem to be three soldiers, one of whom lies on the side of an earthen bank. Their faces are blurred or turned away. There is a tree in the background, which even the most expert arbiculturalist would be unable to identify. This may be a training exercise in the US, or it may be an image from Afghanistan or Iraq. The horizontal soldier may have slipped, or may have been shot. He may be rolling down the bank, or he may be still. Is he dead or alive? Is he fooling around?

Similar games can be played with Capa's Falling Soldier, which is why it matters whether we are seeing a soldier being killed or an actor acting. Without the verbal context to help us read the image, the image loses all force. Francisco de Goya, perhaps the greatest Western artist to depict the disasters of war, understood this well enough to turn it to his advantage. His images are accompanied by his own mysterious commentaries, which unsettle the viewer/reader in their oblique relationships.

I will happily admit that the photograph, reproduced on the Times website, may be clearer in the original, though no amount of visual clarity will provide enough context. That's another thing about photographs: unlike words, they lose detail as they are reproduced. And words can't be photoshopped.

So Ben MacIntyre claims that this picture is worth more than thousands of words. He might have said, more accurately, that it is worth nothing without words. He is immediately obliged to provide a commentary which gives the image its meaning:

Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard lies on his side in the Afghan earth, his gun still clutched in his hand. The air is speckled with the dust thrown up by the rocket-propelled grenade that has just been fired from a grove of pomegranate trees, blowing off one of Bernard’s legs.

As the camera shutter clicks, two other US Marines, blurred in their frantic efforts to save his life, are shouting: “Bernard, you’re doing fine. You’re gonna make it.”

The 21-year-old soldier did not make it.

Powerful stuff, which the photograph is hopelessly ill-equipped to do for itself.


  1. T.E.Hulme letter home 2 March 1915: "It's very difficult to describe anything to you, to at all make you realize what it is actually like.” Even words can fail us!

  2. As a former journalist and news photographer, I think I can speak to both sides of this issue. The context is there in the photo -- it is obviously war and war is the context. It did not need words for me. I saw the photo before I read anything about it and it was a very clear and graphic image in which I could see that the man was mortally wounded simply by the amount of blood visible from his lower body (you can also see his severed leg in another part of the photo). You can tell by the blurred movement in the photo and the position of the wounded soldier that he is probably going to die, bleed to death. It is no training mission. The photographer captured the moment as I often did in an instinctive flash response. No planning, nothing but action on her part -- you do NOT think in situations like this otherwise you would run away. You also don't consider the danger to yourself at such times either.
    When I was a journalist there were times when words were a powerful weapon but there were other times, particularly during the Vietnam war, when images spoke louder and more powerfully than all the words I could assemble. I did not experience the war first hand in Vietnam but over the years I documented its effect on a town in Massachusetts where death came too frequently to local men (some were personal friends)and where anti-war and pro-war factions battled with each other. I could write dozens of words about the death and funeral of a soldier returned home for burial but nothing I wrote ever made a stronger or more lasting impression than the photographs I took at those funerals.
    Yes, images benefit from captions but in the case of the young Marine Joshua Bernard, I do believe that the impact of this single photograph does carry more meaning than a thousand words. Bernard becomes a symbol of the thousands of Americans who have died horrible deaths in our recent wars, deaths we only read about in print but never see in images as stark, uncompromising and real as this one. I am quite hardened to seeing unpleasant and disturbing moments up close and personal but this particular photo caused a rare visceral reaction in me. If I had a reaction like that -- and I'm hardened -- I can imagine what it did to others.
    Governments do not want photos like this in circulation where the public can see them. They damage the image of war. The disgraceful Bush Administration in its effort to make war appear necessary, heroic and sanitized forbade the publication of any photos like that of the dying soldier or even of flag-draped coffins arriving back in America. That tells me a lot about the power of an image over words. Our journalists continue to report on the war in words but hotos are suppressed. Why? Becasue they are so powerful.
    The publication of this controversial image has sent me back to a book I have titled "The Horror of It: Camera Records of War's Gruesome Glories" that was published in the United States in 1932. In his acknowledgments, Frederick Barber, the editor of the book, writes: "Here are pictures that tell the true story of war as words cannot tell it.... Every man who took part in the World War knows that such scenes are not exceptional. Even more gruesome photos could be shown -- some too horrible to print -- but these will serve their purpose if they convey to teh youth of our nation a realization of war in its true colors." None of these photos were published during World War I because they are so graphic and convey the horror of it in a way that words simply cannot. I do not need words to explain photos of the bloated body of a dead soldier hung up on the wires; of men blown up into a tree where their bodies hang in fragments from the branches; of a young soldier whose intestines spilled out of his body, or the soldier who has survived with most of his face shot off to tell me that this is war and this is the horror of it. These images and the one of Joshua Bernard speak with a force that words cannot convey to me.

  3. Pam --- thanks for this. But I can't see the things that you're seeing. Obviously there's a problem with the reproduction of the photograph: detail is being lost. You've seen a better image.

    Leaving that aside, it's revealing that Ben MacIntyre dramatises the moment when 'the camera shutter clicks'. He wants the dialogue, which the image can't provide. He wants the outcome (the soldier's death), which the image can't provide. He wants the effects of verbal metaphor ('The air is speckled with the dust...') which the image can't provide. He gives the soldier's name, rank and age, to personalise the tragedy, none of which the image can provide. Doing all this, he sees no irony in his claim that the image is more powerful than words. His words regulate the meaning which he wants us to draw from the image.

    This makes me think of the famous image from Tiananmen Square, of the student standing in front of the tank. In the West, the image was interpreted as a sign of the power of democracy and the individual spirit. In China, I'm told, the image was offered as proof of the caring nature of the regime. The tank could have squashed the student, but the State cares for even its most disruptive citizens. I have no way of knowing whether this is an accurate account of how the Communist party in China used images of the uprising, but it's easy enough to think of other images of war and uprising which are controlled by the (verbal) context in which they are received.

    None of this invalidates your points. But I maintain that images need words. Imagine what someone who had never heard of the Spanish Civil War and the aerial bombardment would make of Guernica.

  4. In going back over Ben Macintyre's essay, I do not think that the headline statement "Pictures of war can carry more moral meaning than thousands of words" belongs to him. I think it belongs to an editor or headline writer who drew his/her own conclusions from comments in the text. What Macintyre actually wrote was "This desire to control the imagery of war reflects the capacity of photography to convey the blunt truth about conflict in a way that no other art form, including the written word can achieve". The key word in the headline is "can" while the key word in Macintyre's comment is "capacity". "Can" and "capacity" suggest the potential of photographs to achieve more than the written word but neither statement is an outright dismissal of the power of words. They leave these statements open to interpretation, leave it for readers to decide if the photo of Joshua Bernard achieves moral meaning without words or if it needs to be explained and put into some context in order to be understood. Macintyre also observes that the "power [of photographs] to shape our collective consciousness is immense" and that "A single, stark photograph like this can encapsulate an entire war". I agree with him.

    However, I am not suggesting that words are unnecessary when writing about war or that we do not need them for context nor do I think that Macintyre is saying that either. I am suggesting that sometimes a photo can say more than words, that it can evoke a stronger and more immediate reaction and response than words can. Words are necessary -- we are dependent upon them -- but not necessarily when an image is strong and speaks for itself. When I look through "The Horror of It", I do not need words to tell me what I am seeing. The editor of this little book seemed to feel it necessary to put meaningless captions of two or three words with the photos -- for example "Life's Blood" for a photo of a soldier shot in the head, his blood staining the road where he fell. I don't need to know who he was, where he died, in what battle or anything more than what I see. I can draw my own conclusions, feel my own response, create my own scenario. I can see for myself just as I can see what happened to Joshua Bernard. Other might need words to tell them what they are looking at, I don't.

    I sometimes feel that we have become too dependent on the words of others to tell us what we are seeing, how we should interpret it and what we should think about it. Does everything need to be explained to us or described, I wonder? Facts are important, of course, but can we not look at an image and draw our own conclusions, interpret through our own eyes and think our own thoughts? Do we need to be guided every step of the way? To me, what is important in the Bernard photo is what it captures -- in Macintrye's words, "...a single frozen moment in which the nature of war itself, both in its heroism and horror, seem to be localized and symbolized". He writes that Bernard's name will be forgotten, that the battle that brought about his death is already a footnote but that "his influence on history is likely to be profound and lasting...the image of his last moments does not demean his death, but immortalizes it". To me this photo symbolizes the human waste of war and in so doing becomes an important document peopled by anonymous players.


  5. General Baril, who restarted the Canadian war artist program (CFAP) stated, and I paraphrase, that he could send journalists and photographers into theatre, but to really understand and see what was going on, he needed to see it through the eyes of the artist. Until now, CFAP has sent painters and photographers. Currently, CFAP has a children's author, a performance/conceptual artist, a photographer (art) and a poet.

    As a poet, I am witnessing a hunger for words from the war. A huge hunger. Whenever I do a reading, audiences are engaged and eager to ask questions, make comments etc. afterwards. My website has had over 25,000 hits and I still have to go to Afghanistan (soon).