Reflections on Images of Violence
Two articles that came out right after the Uvalde Massacre in May 2022 questioning whether graphic images of the mutilated children would change gun policy left me thinking about the role of photographic images. The fundamental question succinctly stated in the New York Times article: “Would dismantling graphic images of the results of gun violence jolt the nation's gridlocked leadership into action?” Days after another mass shooting of school children, we may wish for the answer to be “Yes!”, as it would give us hope that such an atrocity would never happen again.
Why is this question so difficult to answer? It is a question that has been asked numerous times in the history of photography’s intimate relationship with war and violence. Virginia Woolf wrote about it in Three Guineas, Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, and in countless other instances. The question resurfaces and evades answers because it goes to the root of what photography is—and I use “photography” when referring to both still and moving images and how images work on us. The answer that we concoct today will not suffice for tomorrow because the way we produce, consume and understand images is changing as steadily as are the forms of violence and war.
What I think these articles beg us to question is our complex relationship to photographic images. The supposed images from the Uvalde massacre would exist within a context of other images, would be reproduced and disseminated in a particular way, and would be accompanied or not by text. Images function and operate differently today than they did during Woolf or Sontag’s time, or even a decade ago. Today nearly everyone has a camera in their pocket. Digital photography has streamlined and individuated the process of making photos. We have an unprecedented ability to disseminate the images we make more rapidly, nearly instantaneously, and more broadly than ever before. And our tools to fabricate or manipulate images have grown ever sharper. The result of this is that we use images differently and they work on us differently.
We still need and use images to show something to be true—from the political, mediatic, or historical use of images to say "This is” or “This was” to the self-proclamation of the selfie posted on social media to declare “Here I am.” The image is still proof—worth a thousand words. Yet, the gluttony of images produced by everyone and anyone and disseminated everywhere and anywhere has obscured their meaning and interrupted the relationship between the photographer and viewer. We desire the certainty of images but are unable to trust their veracity or intention. Photography is an unstable medium.
PHOTOGRAPH AS DOCUMENT
I studied photography in the ’90s when it was still a practice to print “full frame—” to print with the thin black border around the image that shows it’s a reproduction of the full negative. This was almost a moral position. It was a stamp of “authenticity” and point of pride to declare that the photograph was not cropped, not manipulated. In 1932 a San Francisco-based circle of the most recognized photographers of their time called themselves Group f/64 because they believed in shooting with the highest depth of field technically possible. Sharpness, detail and information were of supreme value in a photograph because it represented the world “as it is.” Framing the image was the extent of the photographer’s intervention or manipulation of reality. These formal trends reflected the intrinsic belief we placed on the photographic image to mirror reality and thus be a witness to truth, a document. It set the foundation for our mistrust in images that are aestheticized, where the photographer’s hand is visible. And it fomented the role of the photographer as an extension of a machine—objective.
Even when Woolf wrote Three Guineas in 1938 she knew to ask, “Let us see then whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things.” She believed photographs to be “statement[s] of fact addressed to the eye.” and did not question the subjectivity of the photographer framing reality, but she believed that photographs worked differently on different people because “the eye is connected with the brain; the brain with the nervous system. That system sends its messages in a flash through every past memory and present feeling.” Woolf argued that while we all see the same image—we all see the same “horror and disgust”—we do not all respond, cannot respond, in the same manner. I believe that if Woolf had continued her essay decades later she would have also argued that the urge to push the trigger at a certain “decisive moment” was also determined by the nervous system sending a message through every past memory and present feeling.
Sixty-six years after Woolf’s essay, Susan Sontag wrote Regarding the Torture of Others, about the horror that the Abu Ghraib photographs were taken at all. Her argument places the photographer at the center analyzing the morality behind the urge to press the trigger.
The photographic relationship is triangular—photographer, subject, viewer. If we consider the classic Dorothea Lange photograph Migrant Mother, Nipola, California, we can clearly see these three elements at play. There is the tight framing of the mother, flanked by her two children looking away. The mother’s gaze is piercing; she knows she is being photographed. The turned heads of her children allow us to see their shame without shaming them. Lange was on assignment to photograph the despair of the Great Depression to create political propaganda for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It was the great documentary project of the ’30s that employed the best photographers of the time for a clear political purpose. It was not dissimilar to the photographers of the Cuban revolution who all published under the name “archivo.” They were instruments of the revolutionary project, and Fidel Castro knew he needed them as much as any rifle. Their photographs aimed to inspire and mobilize “el pueblo” to join the revolution. They did not simply document the Cuban revolution; they were revolutionizing. And the Granma, where they were published, was the “official organ of the communist party.”
The photographer who claims that they just happened to be there at the right time and the right place; who attributes their images to luck; or who truly believes that they were simply filming life happening—observing like flies on the wall. These photographers are confusing their privilege and power with objectivity. They believed their subjectivity to be objective, even universal, because their perspective and authority were never questioned. Their freedom to bare witness, to take with their cameras, was unbridled. As a result our archives are filled with their views on the world, of the things they deemed worthy, interesting, curious. And as a result our archives are also full of misrepresentations and lacunae—invisible, silenced people who have no archive, no collective memory to reference. Perhaps there was a time when this arrogance or “blindness” was pardonable as a systemic wrong. The Cuban photographer “archivo” was like Arendt’s dehumanized bureaucrat—a cog in the machine not acting in self-will but simply obeying the predominant hegemony. But in the time of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, these positions can no longer be claimed naively or innocently.
In a postmodern world where subjectivity reins, the idea of an objective representation of the world “as it is” has no place. One can aim to be transparent, fair or principled, but not objective. Throughout the evolution of the medium, photographers—artists and photojournalists and documentarians alike—have come to understand the camera to be a tool of (self) expression. A tool to show you the world as I see it, not as it is. A tool with an intention. Photographers understand that the F-stop is not just the diaphragm of the lens opening that determines how much light passes through, but a decision about the image’s relationship to “reality” and “truth.” Framing, depth of field, aperture, focus when photographing; saturation, contrast, color when printing—these make up the photographer’s palette for (self) expression.
Yet somehow, the belief that the camera is an objective witness prevails in society at large despite all evidence of the contrary—even when we are all participating in the camera’s capacity to create a certain “reality” and ignore another. Each decision we make about what, when and how to photograph, and which images we share and like is determined by an intention. What do I want this photograph to do? Yet, we stubbornly hold onto the idea that the photographic image is document, with an unfiltered relationship with the real. When the images pertain to war and violence, these questions of authenticity, morality and intention become much more critical.
The Abu Graib photos are often compared to other images of violence taken by perpetrators, like the lynching photographs of slaves in the United States, or the photographs of tortured priests and Catholics during the Mexican Cristiada war. The compositions and their publication as postcards tell us that they were meant to send a message. They affirmed who held power and how was to be feared and admired. In this they differ from the Abu Graib photographs that were taken as “selfies” and never intended for publication, but as a perverse trophy. The feeling of these images is quite different from the photographs printed in the nota roja (tabloids) of narco violence in Mexico. Those images of mutilated bodies and large bold text entice us to look at the forbidden, like porn. The images intrigue us by not revealing everything, but by suggesting. Perhaps the image that gets closest to simply pointing at the thing the camera sees are the photographs taken by the police as evidence. Their intention solely being to say “this happened.” The images are meant to be purely informational, like xrays, or surveillance footage that acts like a recording mirror. Perhaps those images function the way Woolf’s images of war function—“as statements of fact addressed to the eye,” allowing us to see the same “horror and disgust.”
So what is a photographer doing when they pull out their tool kit of F-stops, shutter speeds, lens focal lengths? We are asking you to see something a certain way. We are trying to articulate our perspective and intention through an imageor as Serge Daney so beautifully put it, “to touch with the gaze that distance between myself and where the other exists.” Perhaps we are seeking to arouse compassion, disgust, empathy, rage, a call to action or to reflection. And this is why we photograph. We want to do something to you, the viewer/consumer of our images. We don’t just want to show you something that is; we want the image to move you a certain way. And that determines how we take the photograph.
So when thinking about images of the children massacred in Uvalde, we should ask, Should they be taken? Should they be shown? Should we look at them? And if they should be taken, then by whom? If shown, to what end? And if looked at, what should they do to us?
A GLUTTONY OF IMAGES
John Berger and Neil Postman wrote about the accidental juxtaposition of images in magazines and on television. They were both concerned with how these random associations created a sense of disorientation and incongruence. They created a kind of emotional roller coaster for the “innocent/unsuspecting” viewer/reader/consumer. How was one to make sense of a world in which a photograph from the Vietnam War was mirrored by a cigarette ad? Or a news report interrupted by an advertisement jingle?
Both Postman and Berger delved into the complexity of what that does to us and our understanding of the world. Both were writing before smart phones, 24-hour cable news, the Internet and social media. The incongruence and disorientation that preoccupied Postman and Berger have amplified exponentially with the Internet and cell phones. Back then, one had to actively chose to engage in looking at a magazine or turning on the television set. The images were contained even if the juxtapositions within the containment were random and potentially disturbing.
Sherry Turkle picks up where Berger and Postman left off, in her writing on the feeling of urgency created by the immediacy of our connectivity—the interruptions of the present moment by our devices “connecting us” with the absent. The mobility of the images on our portable devices allows them to insert themselves into our lives at any time, any place, any moment. There is no containment. They invade us not only when we look at our devices but by the knowledge that they are there waiting for us to decide whether or not to look. Like an itch. We also live with the constant enticement to participate, to post. Why is this desire so powerful and irresistible? Is it the fear of being forgotten? Of becoming irrelevant and invisible? The result of living in this highly connected and mediated reality is that we have lost agency over our thoughts and our time, and it has compromised our ability to connect with what we read and see, and with each other. We are not so readily moved; empathy evades us.
The result of this kind of (dis)engagement with images is two-fold. First we are pulled out of our present context and disoriented. The juxtaposition of images that Berger wrote about in magazines has become our lived experience. I may be picking up my kid from school when an image of the war in the Ukraine appears on my phone. That image lingers in my mind when I kneel down and open my arms to catch him running towards me. What does this do to us? How does it impact the way we relate to our present and to each other? I am neither able to receive my child’s joy full-heartedly, nor am I able to empathize with the Ukrainian people under attack. Images have lost their power to move us because they do not command our full attention. An image of violence, of the lost children of Uvalde deserves more.
In 2009 I began shooting a film in a cemetery in the north of Mexico, where I am from. At the time over 8,000 people had been killed in violent incidents related to drug trafficking. (That same year the civilian death toll in Iraq was approximately 4,500.) Shortly after taking office, President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels and put the military to the task of fighting the drug trade in Mexico. The nightly news ran a daily tally of deaths, and the tabloids published graphic images of the decapitated and otherwise tortured and mutilated bodies. It felt like violence was in the air we breathed. You couldn’t walk down the street without passing newsstands plastered with horrific images of the atrocities being committed. The images fed our collective imaginations of what could be done to us. Perhaps it was one cartel’s way of instilling fear in another cartel by using the tabloids to send their threats to one another. Regardless, it first instilled fear in all of us and then we turned away exhausted by the horror.
These images did not stop the violence. Instead, they made us see the perpetrators of such atrocities as monsters, inhuman, and therefore undeserving of basic human rights—which, in turn, released us from accountability. It framed their behavior as their inevitably “human nature” and not as a product of unjust and historical socioeconomic conditions. It was in this context that I decided not to show images of violence. I wanted to linger at the threshold of violence. By refusing to show the graphic images that the press was feverishly disseminating, I wanted you to dwell in the moment when violence had just left its mark and when violence was imminent and I wanted the viewer to fill in the gaps with their imagination. I wanted to enter this world with patience, restraint and tenderness—to humanize it.
After a year of filming at the cemetery, I arrived one morning unannounced at 7:00 a.m., as usual, to catch the sun rising behind the mausoleums and the arrival of the construction workers. Shortly after setting up my tripod in front of the first burial in the new hole, I was informed that I had to leave, and it was very clear to me it was to be taken seriously. The images in the media had shown me again and again in minute detail what El Narco is capable of doing—This time, the threat implied, to me. I had always been able to talk my way out of or into situations, but this time there was nothing to say, because there was no one to say it to—only the messenger. That early July morning, I felt an invisible, omnipresent power over me. It is this perfect combination of invisibility and visibility that makes us powerless. And once the morbid sensationalism of the photos of the decapitated, burned and executed fade away, all we are left with is fear and a desperate feeling of impotence and numbness. By refusing to show these graphic images, I proposed that we take an unflinching look at violence.
I stand behind the film I made and the decision to not show images of violence, but my film did not stop the violence in Mexico (the death toll since 2006 is over 150,000). At best, it created a space for reflection and a counterpoint in the discourse around narco violence. While El Velador received critical recognition and even premiered at Cannes, it did not attract the audience numbers that Hollywood productions from Sicario to the series Narco had, all abounding with graphic images of violence. My film’s slowness and “nothing happens” quality tests the viewer’s patience. It does not thrill, shock or entertain with graphic images, fast cutting, sensational stories or emotive music.
There is a particular way in which we are entertained by violence. These images thrill and seduce us. Perhaps it gives us relief to know it is not us. Perhaps it reminds us how close we are to death, making us feel more alive. But the question is, Can these images also change us? Change our minds? Change our policies?
THE VERACITY OF IMAGES
In our household, we have a very strict selection of videos and movies we allow our children, who are four and six, to view. Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet series is one of them. It was not without hesitation, however, that I sat with my child to watch. The images are unbelievable. The epic moments in nature captured, the rich colors, the crisp sounds. I worried that nature seen through our eyes would seem dull and boring, a lot of waiting to see uneventful moments without an emotive score. Recently Apple produced the Prehistoric Planet series with Attenborough, and I couldn’t resist showing it to my kids, who of course love dinosaurs. I found myself needing to remind them that those dinosaurs weren’t real the way the dolphins, whales and cheetahs from the other documentaries were. And I wondered how they would categorize these differences of what is real and what is fake in their little developing brains, given that their experience watching the dinosaurs is no different from their experience watching the “Frozen Worlds,” “Jungles” or “Coastal Seas” episodes from Our Planet, not having seen any of those exotic animals either.
It is easy to dismiss this as a child’s experience of something we all know—dinosaurs are prehistoric, as the title of the series indicates. Yet watching those dinosaurs hunt and give birth while hearing the narrator explain things to us allows those dinosaurs to slip into the real. We see them as something someone filmed, not as something someone modeled based on scientific research and imagination. We see them differently than we do the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993) not only because technology has improved its ability to render such imagery but because this is not fiction; this is documentary.
The dinosaur series underscores the conflict we find ourselves in between our knowledge (these images are not real) and our experience (these images feel real). In this conflict, it is our trust of images that is the vanquished. At best we develop a healthy suspicion that sharpens our eye and makes us more discerning. But more likely, in our state of overwhelm and laziness, the sentimental response overrides the critical response. The images wash over us.
This is a far cry from the full-frame printing I so ardently believed in when I started studying photography. It seems naive to think that a thin black line around the image mattered at all. And it seems I have drifted far from the Uvalde question about whether showing images of what a rifle can do to a child can change policy that will end this kind of violence. I have not. What I have tried to show is that images aren’t just images. They are in a battle with truth and in a futile fight for our attention. I believe in images, and I believe that we can use them to change people’s minds. I make images because I believe I can do something to you through them.
So my answer to the question is, Yes, an image can change gun policy. But not any image, anywhere. This image must be taken with intention and viewed deliberately. It must command our full attention. It must move us. Anything less would be morally reprehensible and would fail to respect and honor the lost children of Uvalde.
Natalia Almada is a 2012 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and two-time recipient of the Sundance Documentary Directing Award for El General, in 2009 and Users in 2021. Her directing credits include Todo lo demás (New York Film Festival 2016), El Velador (Cannes 2011), Al Otro Lado (Tribeca 2005) and All Water has a Perfect Memory (Sundance 2002). She is a professor in the Stanford University Documentary MFA program.