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Why did it take Ukraine to remind us of war photography’s relevance?

When war feels close to home, images function differently

A man in Bucha, Ukraine, carries a coffin past body bags on April 6. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)
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This article contains a graphic photo.

Even the most horrifying war photographs may leave you with the odd sense of being an unwanted tourist. It is a dreadful tourism, at a terrible cost, but almost as soon as the eye notices the carnage and destruction, it starts registering small and perhaps irrelevant details. The dirt is a darker red, the trees a deeper shade of green, the architecture and dress are different, as are the street signs, the pavement and the cars.

It feels grotesque to look at suffering and suddenly find yourself noticing the same things that strike you when get off a plane after a long flight to another hemisphere. But that’s how photographs work, and it may be one of these small details that conveys what the French critic Roland Barthes called “the punctum,” the photograph’s “sting, speck, cut, little hole” that gives the image emotional power. The truth we must wrestle with is the pile of bodies in black bags, so why does the mind travel to the odd black draping of the coffin lid, and the curiously short handle of the shovel in the background?

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The punctum of the photographs coming out of Ukraine is different from that carried by photographs of recent wars and disasters in Syria, Haiti and Myanmar. At least, it functions differently for audiences in Western and developed countries, where Ukraine feels closer and more familiar. This fact must be acknowledged simultaneously with the role that race and cultural difference play in how photographs are read and circulated. In the West, ugly but resilient ideas about civilization, exoticism and the primitive are used to keep the suffering of Brown or Black people at a safe, emotional distance, often by minimizing or dismissing their full humanity.

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But the fact that Ukraine feels more culturally familiar to many people watching these events closely has had a profound effect not just on the kinds of images that are circulating, but also on how they circulate. And it has changed the terms of some of the essential debates about war photography, including the dignity and privacy of victims, as well as the status of traumatic images within an image-saturated media world.

A CBS reporter stumbled with the power of cultural proximity early in the war. “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, you know, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades,” said correspondent Charlie D’Agata. “You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European … city.”

He apologized, as he should have, because Ukraine is not more civilized than any other country, and the destruction of European cities is not more terrible than the destruction of cities in Afghanistan or Iraq. But because Ukraine is European, people in Europe and culturally adjacent to Europe process these images differently, with fewer detours into those tourist details. Images may circulate and accumulate meaning more quickly in the Western media world, because their content requires less basic interpretation or captioning. The punctum of these images is not difference, but sameness, and that seems to bring the horror of war more efficiently to the foreground.

One striking photograph to come out of Bucha, where hundreds of civilians were allegedly massacred by Russians, shows a narrow table crowded with dozens of cellphones, plugged into a maze of power strips. Cellphones are not unique to Europe or any other continent. But this image centers ideas of dependence, connection and the fragility of infrastructure that will be particularly disconcerting for people who take infrastructure for granted and who have had little occasion to contemplate the fragility of their bonds to far-flung relatives and friends.

War reconfigures public space, no matter where it happens. An April 6 image made in Lviv is, in some ways, a more powerful introduction to war and public space than many of the more horrifying images of bombed-out buildings from cities farther east in Ukraine. It shows a child dragging a scooter past a street-level window that has been stuffed with sandbags, a defense against bomb blasts. The ordinary child’s toy makes the extraordinary sandbags all the more jarring. It defamiliarizes an urban space that many residents of similar cities might never give a second thought.

War photography, as practiced by reputable news agencies and outlets, is one of the most hyper-self-conscious subcultures in journalism. Read through the interviews collected in the 2019 “Conversations on Conflict Photography,” edited by Lauren Walsh, and you hear smart, sensitive photographers and editors agonize over how much to show, how to maintain the dignity and agency of victims, and how to break through the complacency of audiences far from the scene of war.

The cultural closeness of Ukraine to many of the journalists documenting the war seems to have pushed some of these concerns to the background. The images seen in many outlets, especially newspapers, still follow most of the rules of discretion and synecdoche that have become commonplace in war photography: Faces are often obscured or hidden, a hand or foot substitutes for the whole of the body. There are hundreds or thousands of more gruesome images from Ukraine sitting on computers and circulating on social media, but few images encountered in mainstream media are as graphic as what emerged from the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

At the same time, the sense that it is inherently exploitative to photograph the victims of war — an argument of grave importance when there is a wide economic disparity or cultural gulf between the photographers and the people being photographed — doesn’t seem in play in Ukraine. In Bucha and other devastated towns, the witnessing function of war photography is less encumbered by concerns about privacy, agency and dignity. Photographers, audiences and those whose images are being made seem to be in accord: The world needs to see this.

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Throughout Walsh’s book on conflict photography, practitioners grapple with an anxiety that has haunted the discipline for decades. Do these images have impact? Can they break through the noise of distraction and our resistance to acknowledge pain? Answers are offered, including variations on the legendary photographer Robert Capa’s dictum: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Good images always have power, they argue. Others grapple with the recurring sense that we are simply desensitized.

More substantial is an argument borrowed from critic Susan Sontag, that we hold ugly images at bay because they make us feel impotent, or helpless.

Capa’s idea of closeness was literal: The photographer must get as close to the violence as possible to make images that have power. In Ukraine, it is the cultural and metaphorical closeness to Western audiences that gives many of these images unexpected force within the Western news ecosystem. They are breaking through, which is forcing audiences to grapple more urgently with Sontag’s idea about impotence. Given that Russian President Vladimir Putin has nuclear weapons and has suggested that he might use them, people horrified by this war face perhaps the most profound crisis of impotence in the history of war photography.

The West is guilty of terrible complacency and indifference to the suffering caused by wars outside the ambit of what we call the developed world, wars too often instigated, prosecuted or provisioned by the United States and its allies. But few people are blessed with a universal conscience, and most of us must labor to expand the power of empathy in radiating circles, from family to community to country to planet.

There are at least two lessons to be learned from the photographs coming from Ukraine. One is about our failure to include the seemingly distant “other” in our sporadic and inconsistent outrage about war and barbarity. The other is that war photography still plays a vital role in expanding the conscience, and that this war, which feels close to home for many, may renew the power of photography to enlarge our sense of that home.