Images of War

Visiting the exhibit was a sobering experience for me; some of the photographs really struck a chord with me and opened my eyes to the destructive nature of war. Besides being an emotional experience, it also made me think about analyzing historical photographs. I agree with Sontag on her point that we are doomed to be spectators, but only when applied to images of events that were before our time. I felt this first hand while at the exhibit. For example, when I viewed an image from WWI, I felt very detached from the event I was looking at, in this case it was a group of soldiers loading a cannon. I tried to immerse myself in the work and gain a better understanding, but I couldn’t escape my role as a spectator. However, when I saw the sequence of 4 photos of a soldier fighting in Iraq, I was very engaged in the images and found it difficult to stop looking at them. I definitely had a different experience looking at the more recent photos than the older images, and wouldn’t classify myself a spectator by any means when I looked at the newer photos. 

But why was I feeling like this? Was it because I felt more connected to the newer images because I understand the context in which the conflicts are happening? Thinking back to what Burke wrote in Eyewitnessing, that seems like a very likely case…I’m grasping the intrinsic meaning of the photos. If I read more about WWI and gained a better understanding of the events surrounding that conflict, would I feel the same way about images of that time? Or am I doomed to be a spectator? I think Sontag’s claim applies to images of events that occurred before our time, but that isn’t to say we still aren’t able to analyze and learn the intrinsic value of a historical image. However, I think it is fair to say that an analysis of an image that occurred during our time would be much more detailed than an analysis of an image from the deep past. 


3 thoughts on “Images of War”

  1. Before I walked through the exhibit, I had written in my sketch that there was more options than just being a spectator or coward when viewing gruesome historical images. However, actually viewing the exhibit made me see that you really have only two choices when you view a historical photograph: look at it, or don’t. In other words, be a spectator or be a coward. I acted as a spectator for most of the images, due to the fact that they weren’t that graphic. However, some disturbing and gory photos made me look away at first. This was my “coward” reaction. Agreeing with the post by MITTSBRO, I too found that I was able to engage more in the modern photos of war rather than the older ones. I think this is because when I look at something horrible from WWI, I think to myself “Wow, that’s terrible but it wouldn’t happen again.” However, when I saw disturbing images from wars that took place during my lifetime, I felt more attached to the photo and cared more about what happened and why. Another reason I felt more attached to modern photos was because I knew the context of the photo. I knew the background behind photographs of events such as the Iraq War and September 11th, whereas some older photographs of smaller wars left me feeling confused and wanting more information. Therefore, analyzing some of these pictures was difficult because it was hard to identify some elements of the photograph. For example, one large photograph displayed a dying man and it was simply titled “Taliban”. I was acting as a spectator when looking at this photo and was really intrigued by it until I realized… I didn’t know if the man was a victim to the Taliban, or a member himself. Even after learning the methods from Burke and Barnet on how to analyze, it was difficult to analyze a photo like that because of my lack of knowledge and the lack of description on the photograph. However, I was able to analyze the picture using both methods. I analyzed it twice, once as if he was a victim and once as if he was a member of the Taliban. I almost kind of enjoyed the vagueness of the photo because, through analyzing the photo, I concluded that maybe the artist wanted the viewer to be uninformed on who the man was to get his message across- that whatever side your on in war, there is always destruction and death.

  2. Also: really interesting thoughts on the vagueness of the caption & how that triggered different interpretations for you. I wonder if that was intentional on the photographer &/or exhibit curators’ part?

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