No war is ethical. But all images of war are aesthetic. Two sides of the same coin. For the French philosopher Jacques Rancière, art and politics have a common origin, that is, both are founded on a sensitive world. I have been following war images for some time. From the first, coincidentally in Crimea, photographed by English photographer Roger Fenton between 1854 and 1855, to the current war between Russia and Ukraine. I follow these images because some historians of photography claim that it is in the images of conflict that the root of the emergence of photojournalism can be found. Over time, I followed how an aesthetic of war photography developed and how it was repeated. Of course, wars are different, weapons are different, socio-historical contexts are different. But it is in aesthetics that the construction of a meaning resides and not in its content. In the late 1980s, the aesthetization of misery and pain began to be discussed in academia, critics and museums, and the value of conflict photographs was questioned. And since then this has been a discussion that worries many image thinkers. But it always seemed to me to be more of an academic discussion than a real-life one, that is, of the photojournalists who are there looking directly at the conflict.
We can start with Susan Sontag, who decided to create rules between ethics and aesthetics. To think that there was a division between political and aesthetic, as if that were possible. And in the wake of her postmodern and poststructuralist colleagues she urged us to distrust the image. She claimed that photography presented us with scenarios of catastrophes, without explaining the causes or effects, so she did not believe in its political or ethical effectiveness.
These concepts were discussed years later by Susie Linfield in her fundamental work The Cruel Radiance (without English translation): “I am writing against postmodern and poststructuralist ideas and their heirs and for their arrogant and sour disdain for the tradition, practice and ideas of documentary photography”. Times later another author appears and declares herself against this dichotomy created by Susan Sontag. Israeli researcher Ariella Azoulay, who in her book Civil Imagination (also not yet translated in Brazil) states: “Thinking this way is a trap. Every photo is aesthetic and every photo is political. Creation or imagination is not the opposite of political. And he proposes: “Let's talk about political imagination”. And here we return to Rancière, who in his book Modern Times: art, time and politics writes: “Fiction is needed wherever a certain sense of reality needs to be produced. This is why politics, the social sciences and journalism use fiction as much as novelists or filmmakers do.”
As if an aesthetic work were free and a political work followed the rules of a manual. What happens is that the images bother us. What should we see in certain images? Is it necessary to look at them?
This same theme will also intrigue the philosopher and art historian Jean Galard, who in the book exorbitant beauty states: “What becomes of the ethics of this attention when, through the press, television, electronic media, it focuses, accidentally or deliberately, on the images of the bloody, terrifying, barbaric reality of which we are the public? daily?". In his reflection, Galard states that “many spectators express the discomfort they arouse, which should evoke such images in which beauty, it is said, combines too much with pain”.
Continuing in this vein, in 2015 bestselling author David Shields analyzed over a decade of front-page war photos from The New York Times and released the book war is beautiful (also without Portuguese translation) and came to a shocking conclusion: “The process of editing the photos of the 'official newspaper' through a beautiful, heroic aesthetic forces us to face not only the complicity of the media in dubious and catastrophic campaigns military, but also ours. This powerful media spokesperson, the Times, far from being a brake on government power, is actually a great amplifier of its dark forces by virtue of the way it aestheticizes war.” He divides the book into themes: Nature, Playground, Father, God, Pietá, Painting, Cinema, Beauty, Love and Death. Themes that the author believes are constantly repeated as an aesthetic of war.
I have always wondered why war photographs iconographically refer to other wars, not only as a memory, but as an aesthetic of convincing. Syrian refugees were treated differently in the images of most mainstream newspapers – not all, thankfully – of refugees from Ukraine, especially in the US and European press. As many Syrians as Ukrainians are fleeing a war. Through the images, the first should be repelled, the second welcomed.
I believe that we should think of photography as a sign loaded with ideology and representations. As researcher Boris Kossoy says in his book the times of photography: “Documentary fictions: imagistic contents transferred from contexts. Typical situation of the creation/construction of realities process”.
For this column I chose two magazine covers: the Time, North-American, and the Italian independent journalism magazine Internazionale. The first portrays an Albanian fugitive and won the 2013 World Press Photo; the second a Ukrainian refugee.
To end this column, I bring one last statement, this time from researcher Martine Joly:
“The perception of forms and objects is cultural, and as what we call resemblance or analogy corresponds to a perceptual analogy and not to a resemblance between the representation and the object: when an image appears similar to us, it is because it is constructed in a way that leads to deciphering it as we decipher the world itself.”
Perhaps we should reflect more on the images we receive!