Why the Pictures from Fallujah Shock





Charles Leroux, in the Chicago Tribune (April 4, 2004):

The dead were four Americans working under Pentagon contracts who had been killed and mutilated by guerrillas in Fallujah, Iraq. On Tuesday, images of the atrocity landed in the laps of TV producers, Web masters, newspaper photo editors and their bosses almost like live grenades, things to be handled with extreme care and respect for their power.

What made these particular images so incendiary? Was it because they showed not just death, but difficult, violent death; not just violent death, but violent death of some of our own? And did the political back-story and the jubilant crowd ramp up the emotion?

"All of that," said W.J.T. Mitchell, professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago and author of "Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation."

"First, there's a taboo on photos of dead bodies," Mitchell said. "That's somewhat recent." He noted that, in Victorian times, photos would be taken of dead loved ones and kept in albums. They were thought of as comforting, an image of the person as though sleeping.

There also was the 1973 book "Wisconsin Death Trip," which reproduced death portraits taken by the town photographer in Black River Falls, Wis. These shots were taken during the economic crash of the 1890s and document the end products of the strain of failure and harsh weather and diphtheria. Looking into the face of a young mother, one wonders, "What made you drown your children?"

Later photographers such as Weegee captured the violence of late night New York City in the 1940s, shooting the bodies of suicides, murder victims and those who had run afoul of the mob.

Even with that history, the photos from Fallujah packed a huge, visceral punch, a wallop, Mitchell said, that isn't at all blunted for a public already hammered by pervasive violence in films, television, video games.

"People," he said, "even children down to a fairly young age, know this is not fiction; they know these pictures come with the credentials of truth.

"There are psychologists who talk about viewers becoming desensitized to violence by seeing it in entertainment. The scientific studies, however, don't support that. I think that view has more to do with the politics of the regulation of entertainment."

Awareness of reality

He noted that knowing the images are of reality may intensify them for someone who sees them and identifies, empathizes with the people shown.

"They imagine the scenario. They think what it would have been like for them to have been there. That's not just for the bodies of the Americans, but for the crowd in the foreground of the bridge picture as well. What would it be like to be swept up in such rage?

"That photo is like old photos of lynchings in the South. Part of the horror comes from the expressions of delight on the faces of the men, women and even children in the crowd."

He said that if the images acquire a name, the longevity of their punch will be assured.

"Just as the mention of the 9/11 images brings them all back to mind," he said, "if these become known as, for instance, the Fallujah pictures, they will persist."

"Powerful? Absolutely; yes," said Marshall Blonsky, who teaches seminars in semiotics (decoding symbols and images to reveal societal and cultural meanings) at New York's New School University, Parsons School of Design.

He explained how one image can trigger memories of other images, the emotions from each piling up to create a devastating effect.

"The photo of the charred bodies hanging on the bridge creates what we call intertextuality," he said, "an image that starts a whole cascade of other images. What I'm looking at on the front page of The New York Times [the same photo that appeared on the front of Thursday's Chicago Tribune] is a slaughterhouse scene, the way animals used to be hung by the feet and their throats slit back before there were laws against cruelty. You can almost imagine that you see a tail and a head that isn't humanlike.

"It's also bodies burned in effigy, but in this case there was no need to create the straw man, the effigy; they used real men. There are hints of crucifixion in the picture, and, with the blackened bodies hanging, hints of racial lynching. The man in the foreground has his arm raised much like the famous photo of Saddam holding up a rifle. Behind him, you can see someone's hand with the index finger extended. It's like a sporting event image: `We're No. 1.'"

The photos take on extra force not just from the cascade of recalled related images, he said, but also from repeated viewing.


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