Reading War Photographs: Who is the photographer?
María Manuela Fernández Sánchez
In an interview published in the newspaper El País (April 17, 2015), José Palazón, president of the nongovernmental organization “Prodein”, and winner of the XVIII Luis Valtueña Humanitarian Photography Award, remembers a conversation that he had with a prosecutor, twenty years ago, when he was denouncing the abuses against immigrants in Melilla, the Spanish enclave on the North African coast. Palazón complained that his efforts to gain visibility were not getting anywhere, to which the prosecutor replied: “Look for evidences. Take photographs”. Since then, it seems that Palazón has learned his lesson and the photograph “Desolate landscapes”, which he submitted to the Luis Valtueña photography competition has travelled around the world.
“Desolate landscapes” is an unusual reflection of the invisibility of undocumented immigrants, and the indifference to their suffering in developed countries. The contrast between the vulnerable location of a group of immigrants, precariously perched on the high border fence dividing Spain and Morocco, and the view of the luxurious golf course where two golfers are blithely immersed in their game is doubtlessly the ironical reflection of the evident failure of Spanish government as well as of European immigration policies to face and successfully deal with the immigration crisis from Africa.
In documentary photography, the question about who is taking the photograph is one of great significance. James Curtis explains: “If we are to determine the meaning of a documentary photograph we must begin by establishing the historical context for both the image and its creator. A documentary photographer is an historical actor bent upon communicating a message to an audience. Documentary photographs are more than expressions of artistic skill; they are conscious acts of persuasion”.
The use of photographs to tell stories has accompanied photography since its invention in the first half of the nineteenth century and has paralleled the evolution of independent journalism. Documentary photography has mirrored the desires of their audience as well as their prejudices (Curtis, ibidem). In a similar way, press photographs and propaganda images in war time ‘speak directly to the cultural concerns of the society at which they are directed, both in the subject chosen for representation and in the way those subjects are portrayed’ (Brothers 1997: 2).
In wartime, governments place great importance on graphical testimony. The control and use of the images, depending on the evolution of the conflict and the public support of the war effort are a key element in any propaganda campaign. In this sense, a high percentage of war photographs show carefully prepared scenes in which the participants posed for propaganda purposes. If the field of military history is one of the most productive in terms of primary sources for the study of wars, this is basically because military activity generates a lot of documentary work.
The analysis of war photographs must thus include the consideration of many signifying elements, not the least of which is the broader process of the production and distribution of images. David Simpson (2010: 13) observes that our current wars are highly mediated. He continues by saying that sometimes a portion of what is seen is taken without question as real, other times, some items “are held up to a compulsively sceptical inquiry about what has or has not been spliced and doctored. Some things remain unseen”.
The debate about the authenticity of war photographs has been recently in the news, though this time, in regards to allegations of criminal abuse by Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad. On January 20, 2014, CNN and The Guardian reported that a team of internationally renowned war crimes experts had found direct evidence of systematic torture and killing in Syrian prisons. The report, based on thousands of photographs of dead bodies, is the testimony of a Syrian government defector codenamed “Caesar”, who during his secret work with a Syrian opposition group, smuggled out the photographs and fled the country. The defector worked as a photographer in the military police. When the war broke out, his work consisted of taking photographs of allegedly murdered detainees.
In conversation with the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Tepperman (Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2015. Vol.94. No.2, 58-65), Bashar al-Assad called into question the irrefutable evidence of such images of terrible torture and abuse. He stated: “None of these allegations that you mentioned are concrete; all of them are allegations. You can bring photos from anyone and say this is torture. Who took the pictures? Who is he? Nobody knows. There is no verification of any of this evidence, so it’s all allegations without evidence”.
When Jonathan Tepperman mentioned that Caesar’s photos had been looked at by independent investigators, the Syrian President replied: “No, no. It’s funded by Qatar, and they say it’s an anonymous source. So nothing is clear or proven. The pictures are not clear which person they show. They’re just pictures of a head, for example, with some skulls. Who said this is done by the government, not by the rebels? Who said this is a Syrian victim, not someone else?”
In his political interest, it makes perfect sense for the Syrian President to repeatedly deny any responsibility for these deaths. What is more striking, however, is the way his words evoke timeless issues which are never out of the limelight, such as the usefulness of photography as primary historical evidence and the ambiguity of photographic meaning.
The argument that the source is anonymous, and consequently the images might come from anywhere else the world is not conclusive. The point is that the author of the photographs is a witness. It can be a singular individual or a group of people. The photographs were “shot for the record” (Curtis, ibidem). They show an undeniable reality, which is currently the object of inquiry by independent experts. The images are disturbing because they record something that actually happened. In fact, they show one of the harshest realities of wars, and their authority is derived from that harshness. In this respect, they can be regarded as a special kind of raw material. Consequently, the photographer had no need to adopt an aesthetic agenda. This descriptive function of photography represents the main use of the medium when it is at the service of scientific and historical investigation.
However, it would be misleading to think that images that provide evidence are easy to understand. Their content is dependent on a network of technical information and cultural knowledge. Furthermore, even the most realistic photograph can be manipulated “according to a variety of contextualizing factors, such as caption and layout, which may be outside the photographer’s control” (Ritchin 1999: 89). In this sense, the demand for verification on the part of the Syrian President is logical though extremely awkward.
The question about how an image is to be understood is also crucial in the area of our research interest, namely, the contemporary history of interpreting. When wartime interpreters are studied as photographic subjects (Fernández Sánchez, 2014), one should always bear in mind that most of the photographs were taken on commission for the government or for press agencies. In these cases, captions, dates, and information concerning the publication are vital in order to be able to correctly read the photographs. Through the photographic image, interpreters and interpreting experiences have become visible. These language intermediaries were present in historical events and in different settings, which contributes to document an important dimension of armed conflicts that often goes unnoticed.
Today, the increasing ubiquity of images from civil wars, ethnic conflicts, and terrorism also focus on local translators and interpreters, or “fixers”, as witnesses and victims of war. Their role, their proximity to the local population and their low occupational status in many cases deserve a closer look.
Brothers, Caroline.1997. War and Photography. A Cultural History. London and New York: Routledge.
Curtis, James. 2003. “Making Sense of Documentary Photography”, History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, HYPERLINK "http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/Photos/" http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/Photos/.
Fernández Sánchez, María Manuela. 2014. “Interpreters in the Field: Friends or Foes?”. In Framing the Interpreter. Towards a visual perspective, edited by Anxo Fernández-Ocampo and Michaela Wolf. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 172-180.
Ritchin, Fred. 1999. In Our Own Image. The Coming Revolution in Photography. Aperture: New York.
Simpson, David. 2010. “Seen through the Loopholes”, London Review of Books, Vol. 32, No 5, p. 13-14.
About the author
María Manuela Fernández Sánchez (aka Mariela) holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Granada, and a Ph.D. in Translation and Interpreting from the same university. A former free-lance translator and interpreter, she teaches at the Department of Translation and Interpretation of the University of Granada. She has also taught abroad and she has published widely in the areas of translation theory and interpreting history.