Robert Capa’s famous quote “The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda” gains resonance when we investigate the politics of representation in the photojournalistic field. What does this statement mean, especially with “truth” and “propaganda” invoked in the same statement?
Truth and propaganda in the context of mediatised events are words that indicate the aporetic relations between image and reality, the inherent contradictions of reality revealed when it is manipulated to generate pictures in accordance to the intention and interest of the media producers.
If Capa is referring to the photographic capacity of picturing the realism of war atrocities, then he may have to contend with the contemporary critiques of photojournalistic representations, critiques that note the politics of simulation, substitution and imitation. A distinct feature of modernity is the incessant encounter, at a distance, with the horrific portrayals of human suffering.
And it is the argument here that the screen, as a figure of the public platform, can either incite the viewer to action or inure the observer because of the barrage of images encountered.
The following inquiries are in line with Slavoj Žižek’s psychoanalytic reading of political fear and terror: is the screen a protection from the actual horrors suffered by others or is the screen also that which makes us question the extreme violence of the atrocities enacted in conflict zones and care about the grief and horror suffered by the victims? Are we brave enough to face reality out there, the actual violence inflicted, without the protection given by the screen? There are those who take the risk because they feel that something of the truth must be told even though it has been qualified that the photographic image cannot be the absolute truth of the occurrence.
As representations, its politics inadvertently comes to the fore, considered as sites of contestation. Gadi Wolfsfeld’s Media and Political Conflict provides a comprehensive study of the politics involved in battle broadcasting. Some of the theoretical concerns include who determines what is photographed and transmitted, the various frames used in order to adhere to government policies as well as promote narrative coherence, and the embedding of authorised news personnel.
Wolfsfeld’s theoretical model for war reporting, termed “political contest model” and crucial to the discussion here, is predicated upon five arguments. And these arguments imply that the authorities and challengers alike use four techniques, censorship, concealment, manipulation and deformation of information, to incite support for an “us against them” perspective. However, the thesis questions not only the idea of journalistic intervention in representing reality but also the concept of truth in and as mediated events, encryptions underscored by the argument that the art of war is also the war of art, aestheticised politics and politicised aesthetics. Hegemonic events when elaborated tells us more about the principles of judgment involved in war productions, made evident by analyses of the camera angles and the editing process. And this is made evident by Wolfsfeld’s definition of contentious politics: “Political conflicts are characterised by moves and countermoves” which, in a way, testifies to the appropriateness of the cinematic medium, a language known as movement-in-writing, in this reflexive discussion on politics and aesthetics.
Capa’s meta-aesthetic/political thoughts on war and representation are used to examine the hegemony of truth and its ambiguous relationship to photography, problematised by the filmic portrayals of radical violence in ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009) directed by Kathryn Bigelow and ‘Nanking’ (2007) by Bill Guttentag and David Sturman.
Working with the semiotic function of cinematography with its photographic beginnings, the thesis attempts to answer the following questions. Can the arts function as means to democratic ends after Theodore Adorno’s comment on the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz? What are the ways in which the arts can aid in resolving the discrepancies between the democratic aspiration and the brutal violations of human rights in various parts of the world? Perhaps the response has to come from Adorno’s poetic impossibility after Auschwitz, the silence when confronted by the unspeakable horrors of massacres, which is arguably the launching pad for thoughts on the extremity of violence. And it is the assertion here that the paradoxical impenetrability of terror simultaneously makes impossible an absolute and responsible address and makes possible the many attempts to acknowledge, make known and prevent totalitarian terror.
Photography is one of those means to that end, fostered by the recent critique of how war images may result in demoralising propaganda instead of gaining public support for war effort.
Surrounding the ethics of representing warfare are polemic arguments with which this chapter will negotiate. By depicting war atrocities, the photographer/director’s complicity not only has to do with the graphic representations of torture and killings during combat as well as the destruction and casualties after the conflict.
Although the uncalled-for attention on the victims’ humiliation is cited as an unethical response, prompting assertions such as “war images are the pornography of photojournalism”, at stake is the politics implied by the ethics of picturing human misery, one that renders obvious the horrors of hegemonic control in structural and cultural terms.
The fact that the image is an extraction and a composition of elements from reality testifies to the above mentioned structural violence, an aggression predicated on the semantic play of the word ‘abstraction’ to which the metaphysical emphasis on conceptualisation reinforces.
Not only should one assume that the visceral impact of war images leads to the desired outcome in sense-making; the images themselves are used in ways to contest the opponent’s privileged meaning. While the brutal actuality of warfare must be acknowledged, photojournalistic representations may shield the psychological impact of a face-to-face confrontation with extreme violence, of which the military personnel in ‘The Hurt Locker’ and the characters of ‘Nanking’ are instances. Can there be an impartial conflict resolution?
Derrida explains the concept of mondialisation and his version of tolerance to Borradori: “It is once again a question of the Enlightenment, that is, of access to Reason in a certain public space, though this time in conditions that technoscience and economic or telemedia globalization have thoroughly transformed: in time and as space, in rhythms and proportions. If intellectuals, writers, scholars, professors, artists, and journalists do not, before all else, stand up together against such violence, their abdication will be at once irresponsible and suicidal”.
Speaking of the madness of decision in the midst of ontological indeterminacy, Derrida alludes to Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of ethics, predicated on illeity, an ethical submission to the Other as God and the other as the neighbour, the bearer of the divine face. This ethics of welcoming the unforeseeable other may be inconceivable to some and yet it is taken up by Derrida in his response to Levinas because the ethics of alterity destabilises the very politics of recognition, a rupture that gestures to the unaccounted for, the ones who do not have a voice and, yet, need to speak.
Derrida’s list in the above citation on the Enlightenment insists that these representatives, who can use the very same resources that mediatisation accords to challenge extreme authoritarian violence, must work with this power given to them for the suffering of others, an act that he calls hostipitality, a type of speaking out that may prompt action to relieve suffering. ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Nanking’ are instances of this hostipitality.