The photo may endure even if its subject does not.
In the New York Times Lens Blog, the recently returned photographer Tyler Hicks talks with James Estrin about his search for the “enduring photo in Gaza” during his stint, covering the conflict in his first two weeks.
You can see the edited interview and a slideshow of his work in Gaza here:
Hicks: “So I ask myself, what contribution am I making as an individual when I show up and there are 10 other photographers on the scene? How are my photos going to make a difference compared to the others’? My goal is to find that specific image that is going to have a lasting effect.”
For Hicks, that photograph was “a man running with a lifeless body of a boy on the beach. That one photograph was my contribution of my two weeks there. It’s like distilling everything down to one photo or one scene that you photograph.”
In his own view, Hicks’s contribution was to create the iconic picture that shows us the essence of what occurred on his watch. But for some others, his purpose should have been to create a balanced photographic reportage that would tell the entire story in pictures. Criticism has been leveled against the alleged partiality of his pictures, and to the New York Times for choosing biased photographs. Hicks, so goes the argument, failed to photograph any Hamas combatants that might illustrate the motivation for an attack that caused an unintended massacre on a beach. The argument makes grand claims about photography’s seemingly limitless power.
A more legitimate complaint, if it is that, might follow from photography’s limitations: because photography shows only the visible, photographs can be coopted precisely by the people who make the first complaint. Any child killed violently in Gaza is an affront to morality. But to whose morality? For one speaker, an opponent of the Israeli strikes, the child shows the ruthlessness of an Israeli military that kills civilians indiscriminately or even viciously. To another, who supports the strikes, the child represents a Hamas public-relations coup. One argument goes: Every dead child discredits the Israeli army and thus helps Hamas’s cause. Therefore they use such children as human shields, launching their weapons from their midst. For what it is worth, Hicks’s own account of the process resembles the Israeli government’s account of the civilian killings, according to which the Hamas’s fighters are invisible: Hamas does not distinguish them through uniforms, and it launches its rockets from within the civilian populations who then become targets. In part, this argument is a response to the criticisms about his partiality, mentioned above. He knows that most people looking at this picture will blame Israel and its army for this death.
Even if the evidence for one or another view were in the picture, few people could look at it long enough for more than the simple fact of the horrific act to register. Even if they share the photograph or join in the outcry against the bombardment, they will nevertheless turn the page, click on the next photograph, and try to put it out of their mind.
Another complaint with some legitimacy is that the very artistry of such photographs paints the people in them only as victims. They seem to be passive and nameless. Our right to see this child’s suffering is legitimized by the fact that this one child stands for other children. To show his suffering to others may help end the situation, once the right words manage to tie the picture to a convincing argument for the cause and the solution. If Hicks is right, this child’s image could help end this war, as still images once helped end America’s war in Vietnam. Moreover, the picture will stand not (only) for the child who is its subject, not (only) for all Palestinian children killed in this war, but for all children killed in all wars, for a long time to come.
For the record, I find that civilian deaths rather than photographs of them are doing a good job of discrediting the army and the Israeli government, but I do hope that the photographs help to put an end to this war – or to make permanent the ending that at this writing seems to be in the works. I am sorry if the photographs also help Hamas. There are, however, other ways in which photographs are being deployed in Gaza, which I will hope to discuss in my next post.
text © 2014 Margaret Olin