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Are war images necessary to provoke change?

Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change? Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses? Read your answer again when you’ve read the next section on aftermath photography and note whether your view has changed. (OCA C&N)

Don McCullin explains in the eponymous documentary of his life as a war photographer that he wanted show people the horror of war and send an anti-war message. He believed that the photos of Vietnam were instrumental in turning public opinion against the war and felt that the US military held the journalists and photographers responsible for this. McCullin explains that this was the last time photographers were allowed the freedom to be close to the action and photography what they wished. In following conflicts (he mentions Afghanistan) the photographers were kept under close control. He poignantly recalls how he was not permitted to travel to the Falkland Islands War with the British forces and feels that was because his direct style of photography was not  wanted – such images could be politically damaging.

James Natchwey’s website’s homepage uses these words  as an introduction:

I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.

War photographers clearly believe in their purpose and why would they otherwise repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way to shoot such photos. But this doesn’t answer the question from a viewer’s perspective.

Paul Mason argues that ‘pictures of war should not only show us what bodies look like. They should educate us about the absurdities, the accidents and pointless killing.’ He makes the point that it is self-evident that gruesome pictures of dead bodies don’t stop wars; we are swamped with such images and still wars continue, people are not deterred from fighting.

I believe that a viewers response to any subject matter can be dumbed if over-exposed to that subject matter – at the other end of the spectrum to war photographs, many people would find their senses dulled to fine art with a not even a full day of visiting galleries. I believe that we do not become numb to pictures that contain powerful messages and make us thing about what has happened. For example pictures of dead corpse after dead corpse are likely to feeling me numb, whereas an image that provides greater understanding  would provoke me into a search for answers and change (for example the piles of spectacles from the victims of Auschwitz, or the children’s toys scattered across the ground in the aftermath of MH17).

My personal response to horrific images of war is not dulled through what I see in the papers, but if it were my job to continually deal with such images, I think my response would become necessarily muted, in order to mentally cope with the images – a psychological response of dissociation. So, in the context of a normal level of exposure to such images, I do not agree with Sontag’s view. Perhaps she attempts to make a direct connection between the lack of action to stop war and the effectiveness of photographs to provoke change, whereas there are many other factors that come into play, with photographs being only a small part of the whole. For example there is the political will of a nation to act against another, whether through sanctions or military means to ultimately bring about peace. I think that without the images, the provocation to initiate change would be greatly reduced.


McCullin (2012).  Directors: David Morris, Jacqui Morris. Frith Street Films
In Association with Rankin Film Productions

James Natchtwey [website]. Available from: http://www.jamesnachtwey.com [accessed 5.10.15]

Mason P (2014) . Horrific pictures of dead bodies won’t stop wars. The Guardian [online]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/23/horrific-pictures-of-dead-bodies-wont-stop-wars [accessed 5.10.15]


Ritchin F (2014). Syrian Torture Archive: When Photographs of Atrocities Don’t Shock. Time [online]. Available from: http://time.com/3426427/syrian-torture-archive-when-photographs-of-atrocities-dont-shock/ [accessed 5.10.15]

Tooth R (2014). Graphic content: when photographs of carnage are too upsetting to publish. The Guardian [online]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/23/graphic-content-photographs-too-upsetting-to-publish-gaza-mh17-ukraine [accessed 5.10.15]

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