Conflict and Visuality
Ships on the high sea, people in overfilled boats, seemingly endless camps stretching into the distance with their tents, barricades, fences – men, women and children, being led carefully down gangways, human beings in flatbed trucks in the desert, exhausted, waiting – playing children and the wounded, helicopters and people in uniforms, observation posts. The scenarios are just as well known as the places: the Mediterranean, the Hellinikon Stadium outside of Athens, Idomeni, the Calais Jungle, Berlin Tempelhof and many more. The presence of refugee movements in the media,1 which, even as it portrays what it is to be a refugee, excludes them as well, its causes and its consequences, gives a sense of the significance of visuality in reporting and the ability of photography to elicit strong emotions. We all have a set of images in our minds that we associate with refugees and we find them again in Richard Mosse’s oft-discussed and controversial 2017 project Incoming, which he, cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and the composer Ben Frost produced as a video installation.2 Mosse and Tweeten traveled through Europe, the Middle East and North Africa to collect images for Incoming. And yet for all of our familiarity with these regions and the issues of refugees, for all that it is a main focus of current medial conflict reporting, with its repetition of a sometimes all too well known and stereotypical iconography, there is something very unfamiliar in Incoming. For their portrayal of the plight of the refugees, Mosse and his team use a specific camera aesthetic: a weapons-quality infrared camera that can sense and make visible thermal radiation and, thus, human bodies from a distance of over 30 km. The camera was originally developed for surveillance purposes and for border patrol in war zones and conflict areas, but has also been used for search and rescue operations. As a technology of control it is an instrument of the “military-humanitarian complex […] with which the EU reacts to the continuing crisis of mass immigration” 3. Despite the intended use of this camera, it conveys worlds of images that have an unexpectedly aestheticised effect. Using different brightness settings and a finely graded black-and-white tonality, the objects recorded in Incoming are reproduced according to their heat signatures, so that shades of grey correspond to the amount of heat radiated by the things being photographed. Mosse also makes use of the ability of the camera to vary the coloration of warm and cold areas. Thus, in certain sequences, warmer zones appear dark and colder ones bright, in others, the aesthetic is reversed so that warmer areas appear bright. There are images like fire scenes, for example, in which this function seems to allow Mosse to adjust the aesthetic to the visual habits of the observer. Within the work overall, however, these colour alterations seem to have a rather sinister affect that continually puts our routines of perception to the test, as for example, when water, through a dark-light alteration, is suddenly reminiscent of blood. As regards the skin colour of the people depicted, which we almost automatically want to see as an indication of origin, our ability to make any reliable assessment begins to waver, since all faces, regardless of their actual colour, are portrayed uniformly dark or light, depending on the camera mode.4 The technology of the camera creates an ‘alienation effect’, in which the abstraction of the monochrome takes the worlds created by the images, removing them from the idea of a photographic mimesis, and instead exhibiting the means by which their visualisation is achieved. Even when Mosse’s aesthetic emphasises the constructedness of the images, his images can still be read as indexical signs. What the camera is recording is thermal radiation, which, outside the spectrum of perception for human eyes, classical cameras or films, is here made visible as a photographic trace.5 The idea of making visible the invisible – an undertaking which is aware of its own limitations since, with every visualisation, some part of the visible always retreats – drives Richard Mosse’s work. He has already pursued a concept similar to Incoming with his work, Infra, in which he used Aerochrome film, developed by Kodak during the cold war in conjunction with the US military, to take on the bloody conflicts of the Congo. The infrared/colour film records a spectrum of infrared light invisible to the human eye, and renders green landscapes as intense lavender, crimson and pink tones. The point of departure for Mosse is an attempt to grapple with photojournalistic conflict reporting 6 and the question of how to talk about conflicts, how to make images matter.7 Mosse understands the limitations of his own tools and distances himself from a school of thought that sees photography merely as a means of documentation. He says, “[in] my photography there was a personal struggle with the disparity between my own limited powers of representation and the unspeakable world that confronted me” 8, a thought which seems to confirm Fred Ritchin’s call for a new visual vocabulary:
“Being there should be only the starting point, especially given the number of others with cameras.[…] An enlarged under- standing that photographs are not incontrovertible recordings of visible reality, but interpretations and transformations of it, leads
to a moment at which, like writers, the authors of the imagery must work harder to convince – an image on its own is not automatically proof of anything. This shift then leads to a greater rhetorical conception of the picture, a consideration of how to persuade with one’s imagery.” 9
Thus, Mosse makes the question of representation – the limits of visibility and representability – the topic of his work. In Infra as well as in Incoming, he shows images that demonstrate the conditionality of their visibility and how fields of visibility are limited. Mosse’s works negotiate the literal conflict, be it the war in the Congo or the subject of refugees, and not only on the level of the motivic – in that it shows images of war zones, actors and victims, in order to reflect the suffering of refugees, to trace their movements, or to attempt to depict the conditions in which they find themselves – but also by localising the conflict on the side of the medium. Thus Richard Mosse takes up one of the core themes of this publication: the question of the relationship between conflict images and image conflicts, a theme which acts as a central focus in the contributions featured in this publication. Mosse’s example not only introduces and makes clear that there is an increasingly intense search for new forms of narrative that move toward or along the limits of a classical photojournalistic ideal of reporting, but also that images of conflicts always mean conflicted images as well. Image conflicts arise not only as ‘conflict in the making’ for those photographing on-location or as images have become part of a war, which has spread to the laws of representation and which uses these very laws as weapons, but also as conflicts on the level of representation. The relationship between conflict and visuality arises in a multitude of discourses – of an aesthetic, ethical and political nature. In so doing, it raises many issues, including the possibilities and the limitations of what can be represented as well as the basic relationship of “representability and the presence of that which is represented” 10. Images in Conflict follows the conjoining lines and points of contact between representation and conflict. How do images here obtain meaning, how do they become effective, how can images speak about conflict and how does the conflict enter the image? Images come by their eloquence 11 by means of aesthetic coding, whose specific expressions and strategies this publication seeks to trace. Images in Conflict turns its gaze to the rhetorical laws of visual messages. Since neither conflicts nor images can be understood as “prelinguistic entities” 12, Images in Conflict begins with the premise that the relationship between conflict and visuality is not located beyond speech. It attempts, instead, to detect and reflect the expressions and constructions of meaning in conflict images. Central to this discussion is the contextual environment in which conflict images may be found and their insertion into various discourses. When, for example, Felix Koltermann goes into production conditions and discovers that images “can be seen as a product shaped by polished routines and selection mechanisms”, he is perceiving a field of meaning beyond what can be concretely seen in the image. And when, for Paul Lowe, testimony and credibility can only be produced by means of a combination of various perspectives, as a “network of trusted witnesses, collectively providing testimony and evidence from a wide and varied set of situations”, both authors show that “an image alone means nothing” 13. The articles in this publication do not see photographs as static units that can be analysed monolithically. Instead, they “identify techniques, methods and tools for engendering meaning and determine the fields, contexts and relations within which they are effective” 14. Against this backdrop, Fred Ritchin’s Four Corners Project 15 can be seen as an experiment that allows photographers to more broadly contextualise their own images beyond the level of the picture. Both the conditions of production as well as the history of an image’s reception are part of its field of meaning because photographic images do not just depict, rather meaning is first produced within the image and at the moment of its reception. As representations are made readable, they are integrated into active processes of meaning-construction. Although the meaning of images cannot, in this respect, be located, it is present within every publication context and at every instance of reception; it is not fixed, but circulates, migrates. According to Stephen Mayes, this phenomenon of the migration of meaning has massively expanded with the “ontological shift from analogue to digital” 16, but this paradigmatic shift can be understood not only technically, but also, of course, culturally. An understanding that images cannot be pinned down to certain meanings in the first place generally changes our way of approaching them. The tension that the competing claims of authenticity, testimony and propaganda put on the truth, as it is determined by the image politics and ‘image wars’ of current conflict images, has taken on a certain explosiveness because the idea of an open conception of meaning, the idea of an image as an “open text” 17 or the “image as open source” 18 runs counter to the idea of the photographic testimony – guaranteed through the very fact of its mediality – upon which conflict images, in particular, draw.
A “great tool for telling very simple stories” 19 ?
Conflicts, crises and wars are classical terrain for photojournalism. Considering medial phenomena, like photography as an object of mass consumption and a form of mass communication, or like visualisation via algorithms and software-generated data, which put long-established ideas regarding what is specific to the photographic medium to the test, or the fact that we see ourselves confronted with a world communicated more and more via medialised means, photojournalism is going through profound processes of change, which call into question our ideas about representation, documentation and photographic testimony.20 Classical photojournalism seems to be approaching its limits. Is it actually, as Don McCullin fears, threatened by extinction,21 “a great tool for telling very simple stories” 22, or is it, as Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin prophesise, deprived of any faith in its effectiveness? “If one of [photojournalism’s] motivations for representing tragedy has been to change the world then it has been unsuccessful.”23 Broomberg and Chanarin continue:
“Do we even need to be producing these images any more?
Do we need to be looking at them? We have enough of an image archive within our heads to be able to conjure up a representa- tion of any manner of pleasure or horror. Does the photographic image even have a role to play any more?” 24
This publication, in connection with the conference and exhibition of the same name, which took place at the Fakultät III of the Hochschule Hannover and in the GAF – Galerie für Fotografie – in May 2017, 25 shows to what extent photographic and filmic images of crisis and conflict situations have changed with respect to their aesthetic and their applications and why these images have started to turn their own sights on themselves. Because, for one thing, due to the developments that have occurred in the digital sphere, the possibilities as regards the production and the distribution of images have proliferated. This proliferation expands perspectives and enables new narrative forms. For another thing, these changes have caused upheaval in the classical self-image of the photojournalist. Against the backdrop of the relationship between conflicts and their medialisation, this volume is dedicated, over four chapters, to the central aspects of current visualisation strategies and image conflicts. In a dialogue between the practice of creating photographic images and discourses in visual studies, the focus is directed toward future perspectives in the field of photo- journalism and documentary photography. What is common to the contributions is the search for forms of narrative that expand the scope of the practice of photography beyond the narrow limits of the genre and seek to evade traditional visual habits and expectations. Where is there potential for a “reinvented visual journalism” 26? How can one currently talk about conflicts without being taken in by an iconographic and all too familiar repertoire of forms and by the repetition of an unvarying emotional symbolism? How can the desire to eliminate the difference between representability and the presence of those represented – encoded deep in the history of visual representations – be countered?
The first chapter of Images in Conflict focuses on the actors and the perspectives of the images of wars and crises and shows which actors – and which interests – are involved in the production of images. Especially in the last few years, a strong change can be observed in this area. Where once classical photo and TV journalism was the only producer of images, actors from all groups involved in conflict are now medially present, each with their own interests: ISIS maintains public relations departments just like the Pentagon; those affected by violence can get their stories out via smartphones and social media, and citizen journalists and other amateurs report from areas and in situations where the professional media are not present. Most of the people involved rely heavily on visual testimony and emotional persuasion. The degree to which these different visualisation strategies will prove viable and which effects they have is the topic of an examination by Sophia Greiff into the different functionalities used in professional photographs and mobile phone pictures in the work of Geert van Kesteren and Dona Abboud. Philipp Müller deals with the question of potential complicity through virtual testimony by surveying the status of the image and viewer of violent videos, while Felix Koltermann examines the conditions of photojournalistic work beyond aesthetic codes and image strategies for the different actors in the conflict space of Israel/ Palestine.
Under the title ‘Nothing but the Truth’, the second chapter turns to the topics of testimony and the credibility of photographic images. The specific mediality of photography does not, in and of itself, guarantee a privileged access to reality and truth – of this all of the authors in this chapter are certain. And yet, in the era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, they see all the more reason to initiate a new discourse about the credibility and integrity of images. Paul Lowe develops the concept of “triangulating truths”, in which the photographic medium – unable to guarantee credibility on its own – nevertheless takes on a meaningful role, and
Stephen Mayes concentrates on the process by which digital images are created and its consequences for photographic credibility. In so doing, he establishes the need to create a new vocabulary that would enable digital imagery to express its – in contrast to analog photography – extraordinary range of possibilities. He sees this development as a difficult process, which runs the risk of allowing truth itself to be taken for lies, but one that offers enormous opportunities:
“But if we consider the value placed on visual imagery as a medium of ‘truthful’ expression we must open the door to a weighty discussion about the nature of truth as we replace our confidence in factual records with a willing engagement with interpretative processes.” 27
A contribution by Susanne Krieg and Emma Daly and another by Michael Ebert shed light on two practical contexts that deal with the issue of photographic testimony. In a discussion between Krieg and Daly – who is the Communications Director at Human Rights Watch – the extent to which an NGO uses photographic witnesses as evidence in the struggle for human rights is examined, while Michael Ebert, looking at the history of the reception of Napalm Girl by Nick Ut, demonstrates the tension created by competing claims of veracity in the practice of journalism.
The chapter ‘Visibly Invisible’ turns our focus to photographic and artistic practices and shows how image productions locate themselves within the field of visibility – and which images become visible at all. Using paintings from the 19th Century up to Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk and Jackson Pollock’s Drippings, Susanne von Falkenhausen starts the discussion off with the relationship between visuality and violence. She asks, “where and how in an image violence ‘speaks’, or becomes communicable [and] with which codes of representation”. That every form of visibility also brings invisible elements with it is a central premise of this chapter, which offers a multitude of image practices as a means of verifying this assumption. For instance, Lars Bauernschmitt and Tony Hicks, in their discussion about the practice of the photo agency Associated Press, deal with how selection processes and image politics determine which images are printed in which publications, and Valeria Schulte-Fischedick’s analysis of Ziyah Gafić’s serial method and Ilaria Hoppe’s analysis of Donovan Wylie’s, as well as Anna Stemmler’s conversation with Christoph Bangert and, likewise, Ann-Christin Bertrand’s with Adam Broomberg make clear to what extent they work both with and on the limits of that which is visible and visualisable through the medium of photography. They show that meaning is created beyond the framework of the visible and refer to perspectives that can transcend the idea of a completely visual recording and final truth.
How do images of conflicts become meaningful? How do they acquire meaning? In the final chapter of this volume, Anna Stemmler deals with the effectiveness of journalistic photos, their immersive qualities and their ability to affect the viewer in her article on Restrepo and Sleeping Soldiers, while Vera Brandner introduces the idea of visual literacy in an article where she describes the construction of meaning and impact, by seeing the photographic field of tension as a structure, in which everyone involved in the photographic process assumes a constantly shifting role and perspective. Rolf F. Nohr and Fred Ritchin turn their gaze to the current environment of and future perspectives for the medialisation of conflicts. Nohr examines the extent to which wars change and – as an object of visual and textual analyses – the extent to which war itself changes in Dirk Gieselmann’s and Armin Smailovic’s Atlas der Angst (Atlas of Fear). Since many current conflicts evade immediate visibility anyway, Fred Ritchin argues for a visual approach that concentrates less on the spectacle of violence and its direct documentation and shifts its focus, instead, to an examination of the underlying systems. Ritchin calls for a more complex and multilayered language of images that involves the viewer more actively in the process of creating meaning.
Photography as a Medium of Interpretation
The search for new forms of narrative and the focus on the limits and contexts of photographic practices and – here in particular – on the tension between art, documentation and journalism also drives the visual contributions in this volume. They all take up current or historical fields of conflict, and most refer to warlike confrontations, whether it is the Second World War, the Vietnam War, the war in Bosnia, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the conflict in Northern Ireland or the so-called global war on terror. Which relationships between visuality and conflict, image and violence do they describe? The field is stretched taut: We see this in the example of Christoph Bangert’s project War Porn – which is collecting precisely those photos that have fallen victim to ordinary processes of censorship – or in Broomberg / Chanarin’s The Day Nobody Died, in which the entire photographic index seems to reject any sort of mimesis and yet, with its (presentation) context, attempts to imbue the traces of one with an aura and, thus, breathe new life into the idea of representation. As Images in Conflict the works presented here, each with their own individual approach, pose different questions and find different answers, but all plumb the possibilities and the limitations of the portrayable. They examine image conflicts, by reflecting on different modes of communication and representation and make evident that, as much as representation creates a presence, it also creates an absence. Thus, the different projects use the mediality of photography to create new avenues for critique. They see photography less as a means of recording than of interpreting. Instead of attempting to smooth out the difference between representability and the presence of the represented, it is precisely this division – between presence and representation – that they emphasise. Thus they achieve a semantic shift in the sense that they visualize the framework. Or rather they frame the framework. The goal is a deconstruction of the seemingly dogmatic belief in the potential of images to overwhelm us – the so-called ‘power of images’ – without denying visual representation as an important field of conflict.
Karen Fromm, on behalf of the editors.
Published in: Karen Fromm, Sophia Greiff, Anna Stemmler (eds.): Images in Conflict / Bilder im Konflikt, Weimar 2018, p. 8-18.
|1||A comprehensive examination of the topic of refugees in the German media can be found in Michael Haller: Die „Flüchtlingskrise“ in den Tagesaktueller Journalismus zwischen Meinung und Information (The‘Refugee Crisis’ in the Media. Up-to-date Journalism between Opinion and Information), a study supportedby the Otto Brenner Stiftung, Frankfurt a. M.2017.|
|2||Incoming, 2014–2017, three channel HD video installation with 3 surround sound, 52 minutes, produced in Europe, the Middle East and NorthAfrica, co-commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and Barbican Art Gallery, London, Director / Producer: Richard Mosse, Cinematographer / Editor: Trevor Tweeten, Composer / Sound Designer: Ben Frost, Production Assistants: Daphne Tolis, Marta Giaccone and John Holten, Colourist: Jerome Thelia. Cf.http://www.richardmosse.com/projects/incoming (Accessed 21 September 2018). Richard Mosse has also published Incoming as a photo book project. Cf. Richard Mosse, Incoming, London 2017; design by Lewis Chaplin and Michael Mack.|
|3||Petra Roettig / Stephanie Bunk (ed.): [CONTROL] NO CONTROL Texts on the exhibition. The exhibition took place in the Hamburger Kunsthalle from 8 June to 26 August 2018, Hamburg, 2018, p. 16. Translated from the German.|
|4||Mosse himself described this effect as an attempt to deal with the question of skin colour: “Human skin is rendered as a mottled patina disclosing an intimate system of blood circulation, sweat, saliva, and body heat. Yet the camera carries acertain aesthetic violence, dehumanizing the subject, portraying people in zombie form as monstrous, stripping the individual from the body and portrayinga human as mere biological trace. Itdoes this without describing skin colour – the camera is colourblind – registering only thecontours of relative heat difference within a given scene. We are portrayed as vulnerable organisms, corporeally incandescent, our mortality foregrounded.” Richard Mosse: ‘Transmigration of the Souls’, in: Richard Mosse: Incoming, 2017, without page citation. In my opinion the aesthetic functions less as a message about the universality of everything human, or as an allusion to Agamben – whose essay ‘Biopolitics and the Rights of Man’ is referenced in the book version of Incoming – and his concept of the “naked life”, but creates, rather, something more like an effect of uncertainty that makes observers aware of their own visual habits and reading expectations. I am thankful to Malte Radtki for the idea of the disorienting effect of the changing coloration.|
|5||Regarding theemphasis on indexicality as opposed to iconicity, there is an interesting reference to the work The Day Nobody Died from Broomberg / Chanarin and the specific form of testimony that Adam Broomberg attributes to it in his conversation with Ann-Christin Bertrand in this volume.|
|6||“I felt Aerochrome would provide me with a unique window through which to survey the battlefield of eastern Realism described in infrared becomes shrouded by the exotic, shifting the gears of Orientalism […] The film gave me a way of thinking through my role as a white male photographing Congo with a big wooden camera. By extension, it allowed me to begin to evaluate the rules of photojournalism, which always seemto be thrust upon me in my task of representing conflict, and which I wished tochallenge in my own peculiar way.” Richard Mosse, quoted by RobertShore: Post-Photography. The Artist with a Camera, London 2014, p.246.|
|7||“I originally chose the Congo because I wished to find a place in the world, and in my own imagination, where every step I took I would be reminded of the limits of my own articulation, of my own inadequate capacity for I wished for this to happen in a place of hard realities whose narratives urgently need telling but cannotbe easily described.” Ibid.|
|9||Fred Ritchin: Bending the Frame. Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen, New York, 2013, p. 48 See also Fred Ritchin’s contribution in thisvolume.|
|10||Susanne von Falkenhausen: ‘How Violence ‘Speaks’: On Visual Codes of Violence in Art’ in this Translated from the German.|
|11||Cf. W. J. T. Mitchell: ‘What is an Image?’ ,in: Volker Bohn (ed.): Bildlichkeit, Frankfurt a. M., 1990, pp. 17–86, here pp. 52 f., and Susanne von Falkenhausen in this volume.|
|12||Susanne von Falkenhausen in this volume. Translated from the German|
|13||Friedrich Weltzien: ‘The Image as Haulier. An Introduction to the Chapter ‘How to Make Images Matter?’’ in this volume. Translated from the German.|
|14||Ibid. Translated from the German|
|15||Fred Ritchin: ‘Parsingthe Paradigm’ in this volume. Cf. also, International Center ofPhotography: The Four Corners Project, at: https://www.icp.org/news/the-four-corners-project (Accessed 29 September 2018).|
|16||Stephen Mayes: ‘Truth, the First Casualty. Conflict Photography Considered as Bellwether for a Dawning Understanding of Digital Imagery as a New Medium’ in this volume.|
|17||Gilles Peress, quoted by Paul Lowe in this volume.|
|18||Fred Ritchin: Bending the Frame, 2013, p. 48.|
|19||Simon Norfolk, quoted by Fred Ritchin: Bending the Frame, 2013, p. 52.|
|20||For an interesting essay on the comprehensive processes of change in dealing with digital images, see Trevor Paglen, who examines a completely changed reception of images, brought about by the fact that digitalimages are above all machine-readable, and many reading processes are now carried out alone, without human participation, from machine to “The machine-machine landscape is not one of representations so much as activations and operations. It’s constituted by active, performative relations much more than classically representational ones.” Trevor Paglen: ‘Invisible Images (Your Pictures Are Lookingat You)’, in: The New Inquiry, 8 December 2016, https://thenewinquiry.com/invisible-images- your-pictures-are-looking-at-you/ (Accessed 22 September2018).|
|21||Cf. the interview with Susanne Krieg / Emma Daly: ‘Facts Matter, Images Matter. Working with Photos and Videos for Human Rights’ in this volume. Don McCullin has repeated his pessimistic view of current photojournalism. Cf., among others, Don McCullin: ‘Photojournalism has had it. It’s all gone celebrity’, in: The Guardian, 22 December 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/dec/22/don-mccullin-photojournalism-celebrity-interview (Accessed 5 October 2018); James Estrin: ‘The ‘Shame of Memory Haunts a War Photographer’, in: The New York Times, 9 September 2013, https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/ 2013/09/09/the-shame-of-memory-haunting-war-photographers/ (Accessed 5 October 2018); Stuart Franklin: ‘In a world of words, pictures still matter’, in: The Guardian,5 December 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/05/world-words-photos-matter-photojournalism-reportage (Accessed 5 October 2018); David Clark: ‘In conversation: Sir Don McCullin at 82’, https://www.canon. co.uk/pro/stories/don-mccullin-interview/ (Accessed 5 October2018).|
|22||Simon Norfolk, quoted by Fred Ritchin: Bending the Frame, 2013, p. 52.|
|23||Adam Broomberg / Oliver Chanarin: ‘Unconcerned But Not Indifferent’, in: Julian Stallabrass(ed.): Documentary, Cambridge 2013, p. 100.|
|24||Ibid., p. 102.|
|25||Symposium Images in Conflict – Bilder im Konflikt, FakultätIII – Medien, Information und Design, Hochschule Hannover, 17 – 18 May 2017, and exhibition Images in Conflict – Bilder im Konflikt, GAF – Galerie für Fotografie, Eisfabrik Hanover, 18 May–18 June Cf. http://image-matters-discourse.de (Accessed 16 September2018).|
|26||Fred Ritchin: Bending the Frame, 2013, p. 47.|
|27||Stephen Mayes: ‘Truth, the First Conflict Photography Considered as Bellwether for a Dawning Understanding of Digital Imagery as a New Medium’ in this volume.|