In a time where we are constantly in contact with images, memes, cats doing variously ridiculous things, where self-branding and style seems to be built upon weightless, immaterial images that we produce, share, and circulate (wherever they come from); it is all too easy to forget that images can kill. News images, especially those depicting war, human rights violations, and other cases of human tragedy now occupy the same digital spaces where we build our identities and ‘commune with the world,’ but at the origins of these images lies a serious dilemma for those pictured and those doing the picturing: the reality of pain, suffering and the very real possibility of death.
The Overseas Press Club, with the help of CNN correspondent Jim Bittermann, came together in Paris last night for a panel discussion on ‘The Human Cost of News Gathering’ to reflect on the dangers faced by contemporary journalists in bringing us these terrible images. Veteran journalists from Time, AP and Getty Images as well as the head of research and advocacy for Reporters Without Borders and the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Photojournalism Fabio Bucciarelli, who shared his harrowing work from inside the Syrian conflict, fielded questions from journalists and students about the practice, ethics and structural problems of war journalism. Among the issues brought up were the real risks of kidnapping and the targeting of journalists, which Reporters Without Borders has cited as a rising phenomenon since 2012, the deadliest year RSF has on record. Just a few days ago, two journalists for RFI, Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, were killed in northern Mali while interviewing a Tuareg separatist leader. Professor of journalist at the American University of Paris and bi-lingual editor at France Television Georges Kazolias, who worked closely with the two journalists expressed his grief over their deaths, and spoke of their courage and professional integrity, denouncing this kind of indiscriminate violence against journalists, and asserting that non-state violence is just as much of a problem in today’s conflict-ridden Sahel and Middle East.
Also of concern was the shifting production practices of global journalism, where freelancers make up an ever larger part of the workforce. Bucciarelli spoke of the serious risks some freelancers take in order to cover war in the hopes of making a name for themselves, often entering conflict areas without insurance, with no institution backing or specific training. However, Aidan Sullivan, the VP of Photo Assignments for Getty Images said that because of the extreme risks taken by freelancers, some major media have made the decision to not accept any work, even completed work from freelancers in conflict zones because of the ethical implications of promoting this type of reckless image hunting. The veterans in the room seemed to be in agreement: times have changed. Between them probably centuries of war reporting experience from Vietnam, to the Gulf War, to Bosnia and Afghanistan, everyone was particularly worried about Syria, from where Bucciarelli has just returned. The interconnectedness we are experiencing on the internet is making conflict reporting all the more dangerous it seems, as armed groups have easy access to and are not always pleased with the content and images produced by journalists in the field. One of the oldest living photojournalists, John G. Morris, who was embedded with Allied forces in Normandy during the Second World War, took a moment to reflect upon the changing conditions of war journalism, which he says has become all the more deadly since the United States under George W. Bush began creating a global climate of fear. This is a reciprocal fear, it seams, that conflates ideas like Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” and gives them deadly new trajectories.
However, it is not only the dangers faced by journalists in covering war that allows us to reflect upon the human cost of images. The aesthetics of war photographs themselves seem to render death visible, to give it an architecture. Not only is the war journalist faced with death at every turn, death is a structural component of the images that we see on the pages of the New York Times, in the halls of Twitter and Facebook, and on the television. Professor Waddick Doyle, observing the award-winning photographs of Bucciarelli, made the comparison between his composition in light and that of Caravaggio. Tension between life and death seems to be rendered in the play of shadows, reflections, and the positioning of bodies in space. Bucciarelli’s photos, intensely graphic realist representations of war, carry the shadow of death that follows us all from its imminence and omnipresence in conflict zones in Aleppo and Damascus, to the world of images, were imminence and speed also reign, but were mortality has been forgotten. They are beautiful, tragic, reflective yet spontaneous, momentary impressions of real human horror. And, just as they remind us of the scale and intensity of unjust human suffering in war, they also remind us that images do not come out of thin air. Real people die in war photos, and people like Fabio risk their lives to bring them into the world.