photography politics

Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza

Israel’s three-week war against Gaza was a devastating assault. Retaliating to Hamas rocket attacks, Israel’s military campaign caused the death of some 1,300 Palestinians and the destruction of thousands of buildings.

The story of this operation dominated the world’s media in January 2009, yet many felt that the reality of the conflict had been hidden from a global audience because of Israel’s exclusion of the international media from Gaza. However, European newspapers published the work of many photographers from inside Gaza working for international news agencies.

To consider how this photojournalism visualized the conflict, I have been researching the coverage offered in the UK by The Guardian and its Sunday sister paper The Observer. I am presenting a paper on this research – “Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza” – at the “Aesthetics of Catastrophe” symposium today at Northwestern University in Chicago.


Much of the pictorial coverage offered a familiar – and often literal – face of war, as the first photo from the conflict, the injured girl on the front page of The Observer of 28 December 2008, demonstrates. While the victims deserve coverage, and it is necessary to see the consequences of war, does the rendering of the Palestinians as suffering subjects above all else provide a comprehensive visual understanding of the conflict?

Given the paper is intended for eventual publication in an academic journal, and thus 45 pages and 8,000 words long, I won’t summarise the full argument. But the paper covers the following:

  • The assumptions behind the demand to see;
  • How IDF media controls did not so much blind the world as structure a particular visuality of the conflict;
  • What we did see via the photojournalism of two British papers (with the photographs discussed printed in the paper);
  • Whether what we did see was what we should have seen (i.e., the strategy of catastrophization in Gaza I have posted on previously here, here and here);
  • The implications of this for our understanding of the photography of catastrophe.

The draft paper is available here. This is the first time I have put such an early version of work out into the public realm. The arguments are not finalised and would benefit from constructive engagement, so I welcome responses as I develop the analysis. Please read and comment.

Photo credit: Hatem Omar/AP; Abid Katib/Getty

Updates in the Comments below

6 replies on “Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza”

The continuing Israeli blockade of Gaza — aided and abetted by Egypt’s closure of the Rafah crossing – means that post-war reconstruction is severely hampered, as this report from The Guardian’s Rory McCarthy makes clear. However, Gazans are working around the absence of material from the outside world in their effort to reconstruct life. See this video for one family’s story.

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