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Overwhelming Pictures, Perturbing Reportage

Sina Odugbemi's picture

David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, opened a recent piece brilliantly titled ‘Aflame’ thus:

"Because memory, particularly historical memory, fails unfailingly, this summer feels like a uniquely horrific season of dissolution and blood."

Wars seem to be kicking off or intensifying everywhere. States are unraveling in what someone called ‘a great sorting out’. Global leaders and global institutions are struggling, unsuccessfully thus far, to contain, manage, and end not one conflict but several. And some of the conflicts are merging, evolving, transforming in ever more macabre ways. Above all, civilians are being killed in every one of these conflicts. Mortars are landing on homes. Women, children, the old and infirm are being slaughtered. The hard men – and they all seem to be men – leading these fights have welded iron into their souls. They have decided that they will not allow moral or legal niceties about protecting non-combatants to get in the way of an all-out drive for ‘victory’ by any means necessary.

Then there is the reportage about all these wars. Global media organs – both traditional and modern – are focused obsessively on all the wars. They are bringing the pictures into our living rooms everywhere, to our smart phones, our laptops, and our tablets. There is no getting away from the harrowing pictures of babies maimed or killed, of civilians blown away in the skies. And the reporters seem determined to make sure that armchair spectators of these wars are shocked out of their indifference.  They are motivated to unquiet us. Says veteran war reporter, Christina Lamb of the Sunday Times of London:

“If I see something that’s really shocking that’s happening I want people outside to know about it…because I hope that will change.”

Unsurprisingly, as the world seems to go aflame this summer, a debate about journalistic ethics in the reporting of all these wars has erupted. Here is the question: should journalists report these wars, and the atrocities and horrors they see, in a calm, detached manner, or should they show emotion, cry, even rage? Writing in the Guardian of London, Giles Fraser argues that:

“…in the midst of unimaginable suffering , the idea of calm objectivity feels like a desperate attempt to maintain some thin veneer of civilization protecting us from the total futility of it all […]Being calmly rational about dead children feels like a particular form of madness.”

Strong, powerful words these.

But, writing in the same newspaper, David Loyn of the BBC, entered this counterblast:

“This is a dangerous path. Emotion is the stuff of propaganda, and news is against propaganda. Reporting should privilege the emotional responses of audiences, not indulge journalists.”

It is a difficult debate to moderate. My lived experience right now is that the great media houses are bringing us overwhelming pictures from these wars, even with all the editing we know they do; and the reportage is profoundly perturbing, even though we know that the reporters try to be restrained.

And how are we coping with all these pictures of killing and devastation? I can only tell you how I am reacting. What I am finding is the limit of my empathy bandwidth.  As these reports and pictures come in, true empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of every victim – every child, woman, every devastated family – imaging what they are going through, what loss on that scale, with that horrific suddenness and brutality, must feel like.  Each time you do so, the psychological impact is massive. But these are not rare instances. The cases, the macabre images, are piling one on top of the other. So, it gets to be too much.  And you do have to tear yourself away and get back to work, and back to the demands of your own private life, of your own loved ones. Nevertheless, the pictures stay with you, weigh on you, prey on you, and haunt your wakefulness.

Finally, for me, two emotional responses predominate. The first is a sense of powerlessness. You see unbearable human suffering and it is not clear that there is anything that you can do to help. The ruthless men driving these different wars, and their equally Machiavellian backers, are not, it seems, open to persuasion right now. The second reaction is the gnawing fear that, perhaps, in spite of all the progress humankind claims to have made; in spite of how much more civilized we claim or pretend to be; perhaps, at bottom, in the words of W.H. Auden: “We are all barbarians.”

Still Photograph from Swiss Documentary "War Photographer" by Christian Frei with James Nachtwey via Flickr.

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Submitted by Claudia Melim-McLeod on

Thank for for this interesting post. I think strong images can actually play an important role in influencing policy and sometimes even ending conflict (It is said that the TV images of endless rows of coffins coming to the US in airplanes helped end the Viet Nam war) and one can always turn off the TV if it is too much to cope with in a busy day. The question in my mind is, how can development agencies best alleviate the underlying conditions for the competition for resources and their benefits(land, water, oil, minerals or whatever)that ultimately lies at the root of this? What can we do to help shift incentives so that the costs of oppression outweigh the gains? Nothing is immutable. Think about the 100 Year War in Europe, the independence of India, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid. What incentives have to be there for current aggressors to pursue their goals by peaceful means?

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