Photographs in Gaza 1. “What contribution am I making?” Tyler Hicks

Cover of the New York Times, July 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Tyler Hicks

Cover of the New York Times, July 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Tyler Hicks

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

9 thoughts on “Photographs in Gaza 1. “What contribution am I making?” Tyler Hicks

  1. While I have a subscription to the Times, I first saw the photograph posted on a friend’s Facebook feed. FB is not the place to go into the tortured history of Palestine, the increasing social separation between Arab and Jewish Israelis and Gaza/West Bank resulting from the Wall, economic strangulation, settlers, the lack of a Palestinian Gandhi and general awfulness of the leadership, the despicable complicity of Arab nations in maintaining a culture of grievance and stateless status of refugees, vicious anti-Semitic education, etc. Those Hamas bombs don’t come out of nowhere. But we’re not going to solve that here any more than bombs on either side will. War is the failure of politics. There is always a political solution, turning the other cheek has nothing to do with it.

    A problem here is escalating response. Escalating response is the failure of politics. There has to be incentive for de-escalation on both sides, or this will never end, and always be tipped off again at the drop of a hat. I personally — personally — will never place any country or individual’s right to defend themselves — however they define that — above the right of a child to not be dead. Period. I also want to make it clear that both “sides” here — Hamas and the Israeli government –are currently, IMHO, exacerbating and increasing the level of war here. Both sides are culpable, and the people on both sides will die and suffer as a result.

    My heart bleeds especially for the non-militant people of Gaza, who essentially have nothing to do with this and suffer all the horror. As it bleeds for all the people of Israel cowering in bomb shelters and by roadsides, and all the many enduring horror as the result of the power struggles of the few.

  2. My heart bleeds also. Neither side has even a minimally decent leader and hence they are destroying one another and themselves. Both sides have enablers who fan the flames and contribute financially to the carnage – On the Israeli side it’s the USA. I’ll mention only two points in your note that have been on my mind: 1) those who have been studying the subject have not found that schools in Palestine, including Gaza, are not generally worse at portraying Jews or even Israelis than the Israeli books are at portraying Arabs. Neither portrays the other in a dehumanizing way, and both sides are about equivalent in their general negativity. For an example of current research, take a look at 2) The other thing I ask you to keep in mind also is that one party is an occupier with lots of resources, and the other is an occupied country with few resources. Even if the conflict were a “fair fight,” however, it would be unacceptable all the same. May peace come. I meant also to thank you for taking time to read and think about my post – it just shows how obsessive I’ve gotten that I failed to express my appreciation.

  3. Thank you for offering this perspective. I nearly didn’t read it–as educated as I need to be on the Conflict, personally and professionally, media fatigue has set in. I so appreciate the inquiry and the respectful conversation.

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