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The Photograph as War

Photographs are unique snapshots of time and space that have completely altered the way history is documented. Since the digital camera’s introduction into our daily lives, photography, as it’s popularly known, has become a revolutionary method for documenting our greatest achievements, milestones, and curiosities as a human race. Because of its perceived honesty as a medium, the photograph is moreover, a powerful tool in shifting point-of-view, focus, and curating memories. In a society increasingly saturated with imagery, it seems everyone now has the power to orient our gaze at their fingertips. In cases of surveillance, the documentation of pain, disaster and torture, the power of the photograph, at its most trivial, has become one capable of waging war.

If photographs and videos, then, are considered one of our most trustable sources of documentation, why is it that their presence does not guarantee the conviction of someone who has committed atrocities? The answer lies within the rhetoric surrounding an image, which can be spun in several different ways. This means, that while the photographer holds some level of power in framing the subject, the power over the viewer’s interpretation of the image is counterbalanced by that of the rhetoric used to discuss it. The interpretation of an image is therefore incomplete without the power of language. “There are two side to every story,” in this case, the two sides are image and rhetoric. “The truth normally lies somewhere in between.”

“Memories aren’t just sounds and pictures. They exist somewhere between the sounds, between the pictures.” -Mei Ling

Let’s begin with the photograph. The decisive moment to take a photo is one key to critical analysis that lends the viewer insight into the psyches of the photographer and the one who poses. It prompts important questions about how the scene was set and framed, and who the intended audience is. Focalizing on the moment of intention reveals what power structures may lie behind them. In cases where violence or injustice is documented, the very act of photography is a practice of power –a power found behind the lens. The relationship between photographer and photographed may mean that the act itself is one of taking power back, like in the case of the death of George Floyd in 2020. Caught on camera by a civilian passing by, the video is one of surveillance that challenges the power of the authorities displayed using excessive force. This power dynamic can shift from case to case, but one overarching thing is true: the one with the camera holds some level of power over what will be seen and interpreted as memory in the future, and it may very well result in justice being served, but not in all cases.

A critical audience must remain aware of the often meticulously crafted rhetoric framing what is caught on film –especially in a world where international surveillance, photographs of foreign military facilities, can lead to war and devastation, as we have seen in Iraq. The oriented gaze is therefore found in both the decisive moment and the language of those in power to distribute. Therein lies the responsibility of an audience to question authority on a multifaceted level. In a globalizing society, increasingly saturated with imagery, it is indeed a growing responsibility.

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