You’ve been seeing so many charity appeals over the last 26 nights; images of pain, suffering and devastation. Have you become desensitised? Do you change the channel and forget? Have you become a War Photographer?
A hundred agonies in black-and-white
The reader […] stares impassively
Dr Uthman Lateef comments on the poem ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy.
…Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.
A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.
The above excerpt from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem War Photographer begins at the third stanza. Though it is the death of a soldier that the photographer recollects, the words speak of a more general reality, one that relates to the ‘image’ of every innocent victim of violence. The photographer is confronted by two memories, the first being his own recollection of the ‘stranger’s features…a half-formed ghost.’ Since he is only a ‘stranger’, it is what Judith Butler in Precarious Life calls ‘foreclosing our apprehension of the human in the scene’, and in the case of the world’s ‘unworthy victims’ then Butler reminds us that ‘there never was a human, there never was a life, and no murder has, therefore, ever taken place.’(1) Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas suggests that exposure to images of human suffering can perhaps transcend gender boundaries, that there is something intrinsically awful about what ‘we’ have ‘produced’. Though Woolf asserts that such images ‘are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye’, she deliberates on whether males and females respond equally to those ‘statements’ of fact, ‘Whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things.’ Essentially, she ascertains that we should since ‘we are looking at the same picture; we are seeing with you the same dead bodies, the same ruined houses.’ (2) But in our world there are those in far corners of the world who do not speak our languages or share our worldviews. They are ‘unworthy’ and there is no death if victims are ‘unworthy’ – faceless or formless and whose suffering is mostly quantified and whose lives are rarely humanised. The poet’s line, ‘how the blood stained into foreign dust’ seems to speak again of a memory that cannot be erased, the fact that the blood from his wound has seeped into the earth symbolises a permanence of war, just like blood is stained then so too are collective memories ‘stained’ by the exploits of injustice.
The final stanza leaves us with some grim truths. From the countless photos that have been taken, ‘a hundred agonies in black and white’, the photographer knows that the images of decimated life will be reduced to a mundane, random selection by an editor to print in a ‘Sunday’s supplement’. It is in the selection of such photographs, their framing and the narratives (or the lack thereof) that accompany them that dictate our emotive responses. Butler notes, for example, how the ‘photos of children maimed and killed by US bombs were…supplanted with footage that always took the aerial view, an aerial view whose perspective is established and maintained by state power.’(3) The poet reminds us that any sympathy with the victims is momentary, only tears ‘between baths and pre-lunch beers’. People have adopted more of a fascination than a disgust with the horrors that they encounter. In John Dean’s account of the tragic and infamous killing of Sylvia Likens in 1964 he notes how ‘the city’s curious, many of them from the several thousand workers in the City-County Building, had come to get a glimpse of the sadistic Likens murderers.’ An attorney in the crowd remarked, ‘If some of these people had been this concerned about Sylvia earlier, she probably would be alive today.’(4) Stanley Cohen highlights a similar observation in ‘States of Denial’ when commenting on the Israeli killing of Abd al-Samad Harizat on 22 April 1995, a Palestinian who collapsed after fifteen hours of violent interrogation, ‘literally shaken to death – yanked up and down by his shirt collar. A practice designated as perfectly okay in the Israeli High Court. Cohen writes, ‘I overheard two fellow bus passengers casually arguing about what the lawyers actually meant by tilltulium, the Hebrew word for ‘shaking.’’
Cohen, in his assessment of images of suffering highlights how ‘the political problem is the media’s framework of reporting, rather than the public’s capacity to keep absorbing.’ It is therefore less about compassion fatigue and more about media fatigue: ‘The media has deemed ‘ordinary revelations as no longer newsworthy, and had decided that only extraordinary exposures would attract public attention.’’(5)
By the end of the poem the photographer, high up in altitude, ‘stares impassively’. He too has succumbed to the general state of apathy; ‘they do not care’ so neither should he. Perhaps the poet here is alluding to the way that distance equates to a qualitative distinction in death. An RAF aircrew member who flew over Hamburg on July 28, 1943 during the fire raids that killed 70,000 people, said: ‘I saw no streets, no outlines of buildings, only brighter fires which flared like yellow torches against a background of bright red ash. Above the city was a misty red haze. I looked down, fascinated but aghast, satisfied yet horrified.’(6)
Notes: J. Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London, 2006), p. 147.
2 Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas London (1991) pp. 13-14
3 J. Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London, 2006), p. 149.
4 John Dean, House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying, p. 90.
5 Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, p. 193.
6 Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, p. 101.