How photography has shaken and purified however, it has not changed much

Photographed immediately following the cease-fire that brought an end to that first Gulf War in 1991, Kenneth Jarecke’s image of the burned corpse of an Iraqi soldier who was killed in a burned-out jeep is among the few images that stand out from the war. However, as a recent piece from the Atlantic provides, top editors of news magazines in the US did not publish the photo in the moment despite being told to take it up by their photo editors.

The issues and discussions around these images of violence, war, and atrocity will never cease to be a source of discussion. It is also striking that many of the issues they tackled emerged at the time of and following World War I.

The strength of the Iraqi photograph is not a sole property of the photograph but is based on the relationship it has with other images in the media of earlier Gulf War. The Western press provided a clean perspective of the war. This was partly due to the control of journalists by the military within the war zone as well as the widespread use of images that were produced by the military’s optical technology.

This technology helped in the precision targeting of weapons during “surgical strikes” and was later disseminated via news broadcasts on TV and led to what John Taylor terms the dissolution of the body.

The targets of violence are elusive and far away or placed in groups and are not distinct … The killing process is carried out from a distance. If the victims are visually separated from the perpetrators, the separation of viewers and the combatants from the scene is likely to be increased.

“Surgical strikes” in Operation Desert Storm, 1991. US Air Force

The public’s understanding regarding the war in Iraq during the First Gulf War was determined to a large extent by optical technologies operating at a median distance. If this distance is reduced, such as in Jarecke’s photo, we are confronted, according to some, faced with the reality of the war. This argument was made forcefully in the words of Jonathan Jones in response to the controversy surrounding the publication of photos and video footage of the last days of Muammar Gaddafi. According to Torie Rose DeGhet in the Atlantic piece: “Photos like Jarecke’s not only show that bombs drop on real people; they also make the public feel accountable.”

Sanitisation and war

However, the past could cause us to doubt the importance of photography’s role as a way, to tell the truth with the unique ability to hold people accountable to acknowledge the full horror of war and bring about changes in the political landscape.

At the time of World War I, both Germany and Britain employed a primitive method of embedded journalism. The reporting of the war in newspapers was heavily cleaned with strategies that will be familiar to readers of today.

The majority of pictures depicted the daily routine of cheerful, well-nourished troops encircling the line. Material and soldiers captured by enemy forces demonstrated the military’s success. Photos of wounded soldiers emphasized the need for rehabilitation and medical treatment. In the German media, military equipment, as well as its destructive capabilities, were often presented as a positive, uplifting expectation of victory based on the notion of technological excellence.

Recovering in the sunshine, World War I. National Library of Scotland

The connection to more recent war reports is striking, particularly the importance placed on technology’s superiority and medical care for wounded soldiers, as shown in the daily BBC news stories featuring the most advanced prosthetic limbs and prosthetic limbs for amputee veterans who have returned to Iraq and Afghanistan.

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