Photographing Tragedy: What Victims Actually Want

February 21st, 2013

Published on Dissident Voice, by Ramzy Baroud, February 19, 2013.

When one looks at scenes of fleeing refugees from Syria via images of their squalid refugee camps and hears their pleas for solidarity, mercy or for God’s help to end their suffering, one finds eerie similarities between their experiences and those of the Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqis.  

However, the worse part of the tragedy occurs  when it is so prolonged that video footage, photos and personal accounts meant to delineate an urgent reality, wind up becoming the ever-present state of affairs, a painful and humiliating status quo.

But is there a line of demarcation that people cross, where they cease to represent a real crisis – humanitarian, political, or any other – merely subsisting in their anguish, simply counting days in their UN-supplied blue tents as they await salvation? What is the use of a photo when the human conscience has grown numb, and barely appreciates the artistic expression of the photo, not the moral and political crisis it represents?

These thoughts and more occupied my mind when on February 15, Paul Hansen, a Swedish photographer from the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, convincingly won The World Press Photo of the Year in 2012. This is according to Reuters “the world’s largest annual press photography contest.”

The winning photo documented an event that has been repeated hundreds of times in Gaza in the last few years. Bereaved families and neighbors that are filled with pain and despair, carry the frail bodies of little children who died in one Israeli strike or another. They walk shoulder to shoulder in the alleyways of their towns or refugee camps, weeping, chanting and praying to God to send their little ones to Paradise. Photographers snap numerous shots, selected ones get published and the most prized wins awards. Sadly, even then, nothing changes the persistently agonizing reality.

An almost trademark demand that most victims have is for the world to know of their plight. There is a pervading impression that when the “world” knows, the “world” will not allow injustice to perpetuate. Of course, it is not so simple, especially in the case of the Palestinians … //

… However, the barrier between public sentiments and government action remained erect. It would have made little difference whether US officials viewed Intifada photos or not, for the US government’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was never determined by values such as human rights, freedom and the right to self-determination. The entirety of the photos of all the dying children will not alone alter even a single footnote in the US’ ‘unconditional support’ of Israeli doctrine. These images must be coupled with passionate political activism, decided public pressure, legal action and numerous other methods to hold Israel accountable for the gory images as well as the US for allowing Israel free range in murdering Palestinians.

A photo, on its own, no matter how artistic, compelling, captivating, even incensing, is not enough. It must be combined or followed by solid actions and a clear strategy to ensure that someday no such tragic contexts exist for photographers to freeze them in time and place.

Palestinians – and Syrians – are not mere opportunities for award-winning photos to be snapped. “My people are not animals in a zoo” is the famous quote from Palestinian novelist and intellectual, Ghassan Kanafani to a Danish journalist who later became his wife, as she requested to visit refugee camps in Lebanon. “You must have a good background about them before you go and visit”, he said. Kanafani was assassinated in an Israeli Mossad car bomb, along with his niece, in July 1972, but his words endure.

Palestinians, as well as other peoples who are undergoing protracted tragedies, are neither ‘animals in zoos’ nor only mere subjects of artistic expression, no matter how noble. Their tragedies, no matter how long-lasting, deserve resolutions and tangible remedies. All that victims in photos hope to achieve is for their oppression to end, not for the victimization itself to become such an accepted state of affairs, an end in itself, detached from any serious political dynamics that could propel change.
(full text).

(Ramzy Baroud is an author and a journalist. His latest volume is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London). He can be reached here. Read other articles by Ramzy).

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