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Syria and the power of images

What is the relationship between imagery and action in Syria?

AP Photo-Shaam News Network

What is the relationship between imagery and action in Syria?

Following the horrendous chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, two international actors have made statements that suggest some link.

In UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s 26 August “Remarks on Syria” he stated:

We have all seen the horrifying images on our television screens and through social media. Clearly this was a major and terrible incident. We owe it to the families of the victims to act.

Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, tweeted:

Images distributed via social media have been significant throughout the war in Syria, especially as photojournalists were barred from entry in the early days of the conflict. And it is interesting to note how Ban Ki Moon spoke of television and social media, and not newspapers and magazines.

Atrocities like the chemical weapons attack are made present through videos uploaded to social media sites – The Guardian reported that within hours 120 videos had been put online:

most depicting scenes of men women and children in respiratory distress, on watery floors, and doctors describing the victims’ symptoms. Other videos showed scores of bodies wrapped in white shrouds, or lying on grey concrete. White foam was bubbling from the mouth and nostrils of many victims. Some writhed in distress, apparently struggling to breathe.

The connection between imagery and action is not strictly causal. Streams of distressing images over the last two years have not forced international action despite the death toll in Syria exceeding 100,000. Yet now, when the “red line” of chemical weapon use is crossed, high-level officials invoke imagery in order to establish a reason for action. That suggests images do not automatically produce specific responses, but they can function as the impetus for a response when backed by political will.

Note: thanks to Mark Esplin for the Ban Ki Moon reference to social media.

Photo credit: ‘This image provided by Shaam News Network on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show mourners next to bodies of victims of an attack on Ghouta, Syria on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network).’


3 replies on “Syria and the power of images”

Patti – “Let us be cautious when we talk of the power of images and perhaps a justification for action” – that is exactly my point.

Let us be cautious when we talk of the power of images and perhaps a justification for action.

These photographs of human suffering do not answer the question of ‘who’ used the gas.
Justification for action (retaliation) by either side does not lead to justice. I am frightened when comments by Power ‘verdict is clear …’ are distributed throughout the world.

The verdict is not clear. And these photographs can become dangerous tools, to justify either side.

Why can we not look at these photographs and say to ourselves, we need a different kind of response, and a desire to not kill each other.

One of my many favourite quotes … “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

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