‘The Controversial Archive: Negotiating Horror Images in Syria’ is part of the upcoming INC Theory on Demand book titled The ArabArchive: Mediated Memories and Digital Flows edited by Donatella Della Ratta, Kay Dickinson, and Sune Haugbolle.
On the 4th of April 2017, early morning, Adham al-Hussein intercepts a call with his walkie-talkie. The call informs him that a chemical attack is underway in Khan Shaykhoun, a small town situated in the middle between Hama and Ma’arrt al-Nu’man, and that assistance is urgently needed. Al-Hussein immediately takes his car and drives with a few other people towards the location where the missile supposedly fell. When he arrives, he finds the White Helmets, a group specialized in helping civilians, already lining up the bodies of those exposed to the gas.
He helps with the first aid activities. He faints for a few minutes, as the effects of the gas have not yet vanished. As soon as he can, he grabs his camera and begins to shoot video and take pictures. Because he is a freelance journalist, providing visual content to different local and international media. He decides to send the videos and the photos to Smart, a Syrian media organization born after 2011. The material is received by Nisal al-Haddad, herself a photographer and photo editor at the outlet. Usually, she says, Smart does not publish pictures showing corpses. However, in this case, the children are shown alive, even if they are suffocating. It was a difficult decision, she adds, but they decided it was necessary. She mentions the massacre of Deir Ezzour, in January 2016, when ISIS killed hundreds of people, but no pictures that documented what happened there were published. Around 9 in the morning, the first images were already online.
Smart selected five photos. They all include very emotional content. One portrays men lying down, half naked, their clothes and shoes abandoned between them. One is a close shot of a child in agony. Another shows a group of children huddled together. The last portrays a young man in extreme pain, his body visibly contracted. The images rapidly invaded social media. Several professional media outlets also republished the material. Additional images and videos, produced by media activists and journalists, soon begin to circulate. The news of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhoun provoked strong international reactions. A few days later, the US navy bombs a Syrian military airport in retaliation. President Trump explicitly mentions the images of ‘poor children’ as the main trigger behind the attack. The story of Khan Shaykhoun, Adham al-Hussein and Smart offers a typical example of the context of production of horror images in Syria, i.e. photos portraying forms of violence against individuals.
A large part of the visual content in Syria is produced by local, freelance, or citizen journalists. The victims portrayed in their photos may be friends, relatives, or people from their neighbourhood. Only a very limited part of the content makes its way to international media, while most of it is archived and circulates only on the web. In the process, often the name of the photographer and the victims disappear, and the images circulate alone. They are orphan images, images that, in the words of the photographer Muzaffar Salman, ‘do not have a father, a mother, or a story, or a background, nothing’.
In this specific case, Adham’s name is reported with the photos on Smart News’ website. However, his name soon disappears while the images are published on Facebook profiles and groups. In other cases, Smart News does not disclose the name of their reporters operating in Syria for security reasons. The names of the victims also often remain unknown. In the end, the images circulating on social media circulate without references, as bare documents of what happened: a chemical attack against civilians. Who were those children and the other photographed persons; who was the photographer; why was s/he there and what was the relationship with the photographed subjects; under which conditions did s/he shoot those images and with what kind of equipment?
All of this is forgotten and only a symbolic image of a war crime remains, in this case an image strong enough to trigger a foreign intervention.
However, not all anti-regime activists share the pictures on their Facebook profiles, and some of them criticize the exposure of the victims for ethical and strategic reasons. Some of them invite those involved to stop publishing them, pointing out that they deprive the victims of their dignity and do not provoke any form of international solidarity.
It is not the first time for this to happen. On similar occasions, a debate on how to handle images including violent content emerges among Syrian civil society groups and figures: artists and intellectuals, journalists and media activists. It is an intermittent discussion, surfacing whenever violent pictures flood social and corporate media. Indeed, the Syrian uprising that spiralled into a conflict, constitutes an unprecedented case when it comes to visual documentation. The production of audio-visual material by journalists, media activists and ordinary citizens is overwhelming, probably making the Syrian issue one of the most documented international events of all time. As a recent article by AFP describes, the verification and contextualization of the available material is prohibitive for any media organization.
All this production shapes what I define here as a ‘controversial archive’. The very notion of whether we can call it an archive is indeed an object of debate. Some writers, as Marlene Manoff points out, tend to consider a digital archive everything that exists anywhere in digital format. However, the storage dynamics of social media, the access to the material, and its classification pose several questions to the political nature of archival processes at their core.
The archive of horror pictures is especially controversial because its inner raison d’être is often put strongly into question by the same constituencies (Syrian activists, journalists, intellectuals) who are supposed to be its main producers and consumers.
This article aims to analyse the cultural negotiation surrounding the controversial archive in the Syrian networked public sphere that emerged from the 2011 uprising against the Syrian regime. How do Syrians discuss and define the status of the horror images, and how do they frame and react to its current apparent failure?
Indeed, if, as many of the interviewed photographers describe, one of the main aims of the archive’s production was to create visual narratives capable of changing the course of the conflict according to their political desires, its failure appears undeniable today.
The cultural negotiation of images takes several forms: public and private discussions, articles, but also individual practices characterizing the approach to digital images (To look or not look at them? Share them or not? How to use them? How to comment or present them?). These forms shape a discourse denouncing the deficiencies of the ‘field of vision’, as photographer and photography theorist Ariella Azoulay defines it, that characterizes the ways most horror images are produced, distributed, and looked at. The discussions around images can be considered as an archival work aimed at collectively negotiating what of these events should be remembered, and how.
Also, the negotiation of horror images serves as a base to elaborate strategies of resistance against the dominant field of vision. It helps to create alternative individual and collective ways of approaching horror images in order to establish, even if only for limited time and groups of people, strategies of resistance. In the end, the aim is to identify a status for the horror image that is more respectful of the relationship between the photographer, the photographed, and the spectator.
The Interpretive Communities of the Visual Narrations
From April 2017 to May 2018, I engaged several Syrian photographers and media activists in conversations about their relation with horror images and their consideration of the media, political and social environment in which such images are immersed. Some photographers are well-known and worked or work for International News Agencies: Mohamed Abdullah, Hosan Katan, and Muzaffar Salman. Others are experienced photographers and video-makers: Maya Abyad, Orwa al-Mokdad, Rafat al-Zakout. Others are less known, but have produced many of the images that have come out of Syria in the last few years: Abd al-Kader Habak, Adham al-Hussein, Mohamed Abo Kasem, Amer al-Mouhibani, and Yahia Alrejjo. Finally, some, mainly because they still live in Syria, asked that their names not be revealed. Almost all the conversations took place on Skype, and the translations from Arabic, as with the quoted articles, are mine.
One’s relation with the controversial archive is an individual matter. Each individual has a personal approach to images depending on her or his past experiences, current living conditions and psychological state. The relation changes not only from individual to individual, but also according to different phases in a single individual’s life. Even during the same day, some Syrian photographers point out, there are moments when you feel you can look at the horror, and there are others when you just cannot.
At the same time, distinct patterns shared by different groups can be identified. Around the controversial archive different interpretive communities emerge: fluid groups of individuals who constantly discuss the status of horror images and the practices surrounding them. The negotiation produces shared values and behaviours, even if a definitive agreement can never be achieved.
In this context, a specific tension has emerged in the last few years in relation to the controversial archive. At one extreme, we find image-savvy communities composed of individuals who carry a more critical approach to images and who mostly live today outside of the country. They are able to follow the entire cycle of life of the images and their effects on different publics. These people are generally above thirty years old and have lengthier experience in cultural production. At the other end of the spectrum, we find groups of younger activists and citizen journalists who live inside the country and who produce most of the material that constitutes the controversial archive. I will refer to these groups as the unknown photographers, as their names are usually lesser known or even completely lost in the networks and the flows of information.
All these communities are quite fluid, and contacts between single individuals enable a continuous exchange between them. In fact, they embody diverse stances towards the images that can often coexist within one single individual. Some of the professional photographers who work or worked for international agencies and organizations have a particularly relevant role in connecting different communities, having worked inside Syria after 2011 and often trained young photographers.
The image savvy communities and the unknown photographers are bounded by a complex relationship, symbiotic and conflicting at the same time.
The complex relation between different approaches to horror images among Syrians encourages us to avoid any simplistic analysis of the controversial archive. If it is true that images in Syria failed, the controversial archive offers the raw material that individuals and collectives can experiment with, study practices of resistance, and develop different relations to the images.
The (Im)-possible Syrian Civil Contract of Photography
The debate Syrians engage with in relation to horror images can be interpreted through the lenses of what photographer and photography theorist Ariella Azoulay defines as the civil contract of photography. Azoulay describes the civil contract of photography as a social fiction: a tacit agreement that is never formally set up. It primarily embroils the participants involved in the act of photographing (the photographer and the photographed) as well as the public (the spectator).
In her view, the photos can be a powerful, and often the only tool to express the flawed, non-existent, or temporarily suspended nature of the photographed persons’ citizenship. The picture can rehabilitate a negated citizenship and testify to the violations perpetrated by human violence or natural disasters against it. It exposes how some citizens are not granted the same rights as others. In the community of photography, everyone is a citizen, independent from state institutions, gender, origin, or class.
However, the civil contract of photography requires that a certain field of vision be set up. Azoulay gives to the act of staring at the picture a great responsibility in this process. The spectator has to take on a ‘cinematic watching’, which enables the photographed victim to become an active participant in the act of photography. A single photo is only ‘a projective surface that never discloses anything in itself’. It is a statement among other statements and its content is always partial and obscure. Approaching the photo through cinematic watching also implies not reducing it only to what is immediately visible within the frame. Rather, the picture has to be treated as a document that in the first place testifies to the immanent encounter between the photographer and the photographed person. In this sense, a sort of archaeology of images has to be established. As Georges Didi-Huberman does with four photos taken by the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz in his book Images in Spite of All, the spectator has to use the photo as a fragment to reconstruct the act of photography, including the positioning of the photographer.
Cinematic watching enables the avoidance of an ‘identificatory gaze’, reducing the photographed persons to a pre-fixed meaning that ruling systems of vision try to impose. The photo has to be approached critically, as a space through which new political relations can be constantly re-negotiated and the grievances of the photographed person rightly addressed.
The criticism of the controversial archive is an appeal against the systematic violation of the civil contract of photography in Syria, even if this concept itself is never explicitly mentioned. In the aftermath of the chemical attacks against Khan Shaikhoun, when images of dying children were circulating on social media, Razan Ghazzawi, a prominent feminist and dissident activist, wrote on her Facebook profile on 7 April 2017: ‘disseminating images of naked children bodies on social media as means of documentation does not help restore their humanity killed by Assad’.
In a statement entitled ‘We are not artists’, the cinema collective Abounaddara writes:
The world’s screens showed corpses deprived of Dignity, talking only of religions and sects, of geopolitics, and The Thousands and One Nights. […]. Remember: images of the victims of terrorist attacks in Europe and North America are never published in the name of a principle of Dignity inscribed in the charters of journalistic ethics in both the traditional media and YouTube.
The Syrian leftist magazine al-Jumhuriya hosted a series of articles between March and June 2015 dedicated specifically to the issue of horror images. The debate begins with an article by Yassin al-Haj Salah, a prominent dissident intellectual, criticizing Abounaddara’s stance towards images. Even if problematic, al-Haj Salah maintains, there is a moral obligation to stare at the horror for those who have not witnessed it directly. The rights of the single individuals to manage their own images come only after the right of the public to know what happened, and the need for Syrians to build up a visual memory for future generations.
Other authors, however, respond to al-Haj Saleh on the same magazine, criticizing in turn his position. Al-Hay al-Sayeed, a human rights lawyer, says:
‘We will not break this system of watching unless we present the pictures of the victims differently: a critical presentation that aims at making accountable the pre-existent meanings of the predominant system of watching, and the recognition of the necessity to deeply shake it, and this will not happen by flooding the market of vision with pictures that attract little or no attention.’
‘Unfortunately the majority of the images that detail the torturing and defaming [tashni’] of Syrian bodies circulate in the Western world, where they are consumed without any accountability […]. How and why do we accept and contribute willingly to being treated in that world as second-degree citizens?’
For al-Atassi, al-Sayeed, and others, horror images should be collected only within non-public, organized archives, and not circulated on social media.
The ruling system of vision is accused of exploiting the image of Syrian victims for different reasons than those for which it is produced. As Azoulay points out, the ‘hit-parade’ of images automatically prevents the spectator from establishing a cinematic watching. The orphan image, deprived of the name of the photographer and the photographed, condemns the victim to be a symbol of any victim, a ghost of the real photographed person. A process of territorialisation of the disaster becomes impossible, and also a reaction against it.
The over-exposure of Syrian pain, Abounaddara and others point out, trivializes the horror, de-politicizing it to represent an abstract, universal, human condition. As Rana Aisa writes: ‘the problem the artist today faces is not that of spatial definition, but rather the emptying of this space of its meaning, […] and the artist contributes to the coverage to a political obscuration that is part of how the peaceful world deals with the world at war’.
In the Syrian case, the visual insistence on violence also culminates in reinforcing the narratives that local and international powers try to impose on the Syrian conflict. It encourages the representation of Syria as a sectarian, barbaric, orientalist conflict, in which political responsibilities are nowhere to be found and Syrian society and identity disappears.
Another problem is inherent to the photographic act in and of itself. The photographed Syrian is treated as a citizen of ‘second order’. As Abounaddara points out, Western victims have a right to privacy and dignity that is not conceded to Syrians.
Ali Atassi asks:
‘How can we persuade a mother or a sister or a wife, or a son, that someone has the right to publish the image of their tortured son or his corpse? How do we allow ourselves to do this, in the name of what is right, according to which human principle, heavenly legitimacy, legislation, logic, or art?’
Dellair Youssef, a video-maker, adds:
‘In Syria we do not respect privacy. There is no photographic culture […] I am against showing the victims and especially their faces. This does not respect the dignity of the victims, nor the identity of those victims.’
The lack of professional ethics among many young and unknown Syrian photographers is then associated with their exploitation by a global media industry they do not know or control, caught as they are in a desperate act of photographing the horror. However, the criticism of the controversial archive and its failure also exposes some paradoxes and unresolved issues at its core.
Reviving the Unknown Photographer
While the condemnation of the ruling field of vision in which horror images are immersed is crucial to identifying the violations at the base of the civil contract of photography, it also comes with a paradox: thousands of Syrians keep producing and spreading these images. We should then recognize that the problem cannot be reduced to the commodification of Syrian pain by international media. Syrian photographers inside the country keep incessantly documenting the horror, and many Syrians all over the world often decide to stare at and share violent images.
The photos are orphan, circulating mostly without the name of the photographer or the photographed. Often without even a caption or any other reference. The photographic act is very problematic, as most of the times the victims do not formally agree to be photographed. Without other information, the photo alone is vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation even more than it usually is. And yet the photos are there. The unknown photographers keep taking and spreading them.
These photographers are predominantly young people, well under their thirties, and they mainly started to take pictures with their mobiles and then cameras only after the eruption of the protests. There are several reasons why they remain unknown. Sometimes it is for security reasons. Other times it is because of the policies of local media and organizations. Other times because the photographers want to avoid any publicity or reward for their activity.
When asked about the criticism that some other Syrians throw at their work, the reaction is always of astonishment. Not only do they not see the problems inherent to the ruling field of vision, they also do not see any alternative to their actions. Usually, they do not even get in contact with critical stances towards images. None of the photographers inside Syria I talked to had ever heard of the name Abounaddara.
Their act of photography is desperate and immediate. For them, it is the only possible way to create a memory of the victims against attempts at erasing them from history and the world. The conditions of photographing are often extremely dangerous. Planes often come back to bomb the same site a short while later, in order to prevent both relief operations and documentation. Many photographers have died while they were documenting, and many I spoke with had been injured several times. Under these conditions, the relationship the photographer establishes with the photographed is very problematic, and cannot be compared with other, much more controlled, disaster situations in the West, as for example in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
The photographic act becomes the last resource against the danger of oblivion. Here we can clearly identify the deepest impulse that drives any other archive building: the need to retain memory. As Saeed al-Batal, a documentary maker, writes:
The camera, as it films, mirrors the plane: it is the exact opposite. The camera strives to protect, clinging on to every reflected shaft of light in order to preserve it forever, while the plane seeks to obliterate everything, to wipe out every memory and the keys to that memory, even smell itself.
Film director Orwa al-Mokdad writes about taking images of the victims after the bombings:
Here the camera that insists on a mutilated body becomes a ritual that replaces the burying of the dead. The anonymous death and the dehumanization of the human being are the worst forms of oppression and humiliation practiced by the regime, even in death. The camera is not only an eye or tool that accompanies the event: it is a ritual through which the victims’ beloved want to give meaning so that the dead did not die unknown. […] Because the killer wants to erase his crime, and when a barrel bomb, missile or grenades fall on an inhabited area, the names, features, and forms of the victims are lost.
Some of the photographers burst into tears when they tell you about losing their photo archives in Aleppo and other areas that have fallen back into the hands of the regime.
How the figure of the unknown photographer is considered plays a crucial role in the cultural negotiation of horror images. Many Syrians who distance themselves from a total rejection of the photos do so in the name of reintegrating the unknown photographer into the frame. This comes with a conscious change of perspective towards the issue. While it should be acknowledged that the civil contract of photography is globally hindered by a ruling field of vision, there is also an individual moral responsibility when it comes to establishing a different relationship with the photo. The single individual, and specifically a Syrian, has the responsibility to set up a cinematic watching, in spite of the wider field of vision. This implies, first of all, re-imagining the unknown photographer as an indispensable actor within the civil contract of photography.
When the photos begin to circulate, the focus is no longer on the effects of the photos on the public but rather on the cultural meaning of the photographic act itself.
The unknown photographer in this context is not to be evaluated as a professional photographer. S/he often comes from within the community, or a neighbouring village. S/he lives the same war reality. The photographic act not only documents the victim portrayed in the photo, but also what the photographers see every day and their state of mind.
On this point, Muzaffar Salman says:
‘I know that those images are not effective in relation to the West, but my relation with them is not to think about the victims: I think about the photographer, who sees these images each day. He shares this with me so that I can see it. He does not feel the violence [of the images]. So, I developed another kind of empathy: the empathy towards those who see this violence every day, and do not perceive the violence anymore.’
In this context, we could say those images have to be stared at ‘in spite of it all’, to paraphrase Didi-Huberman. As Maya Abyad, a Syrian video journalist and trainer, points out: ‘I look at them because I think it is the bare minimum responsibility we have to undertake. We are not being subjected to the same level of violence. And we are hiding way too much in our bubble if we refuse even to see it’.
The Controversial Archive and its Different Uses
Through the controversial archive, different interpretive communities can agree on what is wrong and what is right when it comes to visually narrating the horror. Its bare presence avoids the issue Azoulay describes in relation, for example, to the absence of images documenting rape in Western culture. Without those images, it becomes extremely difficult to properly analyze what rape, in all its forms, looks like, and its divergences from and similarities to other portrayals of women in advertising or the porn industry.
Even when Syrians decide to critically reject horror images, they can do so only because these images are there. Anyone can stumble on them, decide when and how to look at them, and, in this case, evaluate what has to be changed in the field of vision.
The controversial archive is pervasive. Even when not explicitly mentioned, its presence offers a materiality that floats in the background. It is a necessary point of reference for any other visual production that tries to narrate the horror.
We could ask ourselves: would Abounaddara’s productions make sense, or simply possess the same critical power, if the controversial archive did not exist? Orphan horror images, in other words, play a dirty but not eliminable role in exposing fragments of reality in a way that can then be criticized, rejected, and transformed.
The Syrian Archive
Hadi Khatib is one of the founders of the Syrian Archive. The organization was founded in 2014, with the aim of collecting, verifying, and analyzing visual documentation related to human rights violations in Syria since 2011. The material is collected primarily in order to support legal court cases and advocacy campaigns. Another of its aims is to build up a memory repository for a future process of transitional justice. Until now, the organization has focused mainly on chemical and other illegal weapons, as well as attacks on hospitals and other civilian facilities.
The eight people who work within the organization are mainly software developers, engineers, and data analysts. They have developed software aimed at automatically collecting visual content (videos and photos) from over 5,000 sources on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Here lies the complex relation between organized archives such as this and the controversial archive. Hadi Khatib presents it as a dilemma. There is overwhelming content distributed on social media that often does not abide by basic professional and ethical norms. He recognizes that the amount of violent content and the way it circulates can bring about a de-humanization of the victims. Additionally, valuable but isolated videos and photos risk being lost in the networks, and ignored.
For these reasons, the content should be verified, contextualized, curated, and stored. The Syrian Archive takes care of all these aspects, congregating the material on only one platform. Significantly, Syrian Archive chose to make the database available online, so that anyone can further use the material.
At the same time, the Syrian Archive could not have been created without the controversial archive and its dispersed, unregulated and pervasive content. If the flows of content production on social media suddenly stopped, so would the organized archive. The pervasiveness of the networks is what assures preservation and completeness, at least in the Syrian context. Local, smaller archives are always in danger to be lost because of the war, and the country is not accessible to journalists. Without the controversial archive and who produces it, Syria would be engulfed in silence. The availability of content on social media exists without any realistic alternative in terms both of safety and outreach.
Khatib explains this point clearly:
‘We are a small civil society organization. Even if we had many more resources, we could not compete with those companies (Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter A/N). They have a huge outreach and infrastructure. Even if people were willing to send their material directly to the archive, well, many of them may not even know about us. Also, the archive would need the capacity to store everything, and this is simply impossible.’
From photographing to curating
Mohamed Abdullah is a Syrian photographer known as Artino. Before 2011, he used to take photos as a hobby, but during the conflict he started to work for Reuters. He lived for one year and a half in Eastern Ghouta, documenting the siege, until he left in August 2014. Artino describes how his relationship with horror pictures changed gradually during his years as a photographer in Syria. In the beginning, documenting the war’s impact on civilians was an automatic, more uncritical operation. He used to publish pictures with violent content on social media, guided by the idea that the public had the right, but also the obligation, to look at what was happening. With time, he started attributing more importance to the relationship with the photographed persons and trying to produce more photos of daily life or personal portraits. Also, he began to investigate the effects of his work on the spectators.
‘I was talking to other people, friends outside the agencies, asking them what the impact of these pictures was. I also started to pay attention to what some NGOs and organizations were posting and publishing. I started to receive comments from people telling me that too much blood was coming out. I started to avoid sharing pictures of violence in the way I used to do in the beginning. In 2014, I met with Abounaddara in Beirut and I learned a lot from them and about their way of showing the situation. And I met many Syrian artists who were narrating the horror in different ways. I learned a lot while I was still under the siege. I learned how to show the situation but in a different way.’
The case of Artino illustrates the cultural negotiation around horror images and their ramifications for creating common guidelines when it comes to deal with them. Like many other photographers, he stresses the moral obligation of documenting the horror and staring at it. However, he also acknowledges the issues related to the visual narratives characterizing most of the images’ production.
The predominance of violent pictures in Syria is itself a problem. As photographer Muzaffar Salman describes, Photojournalism has almost no tradition in Syria. When, in the context of the 2011 Uprising, the power and the political relevance of photography emerged, combined with the availability of cheap digital devices, the lenses were directed almost exclusively at the war. As he relates:
‘When I was in Aleppo, I was working with activists who were also working for Reuters and I was training them. And I was trying to tell them what it means to produce photos of daily life, because they do not know how to do it. If there is violence they shoot and publish it. If you ask them to portray daily life, they do not know what you are talking about. One day a young photographer asked me: were you photographing before the revolution? Yes? But what you were photographing?’
This contributes to creating a huge gap between ‘normal’ and ‘horror’ images, augmenting a portrayal of Syrians based on the dichotomy of victims and executioners. For these reasons, many professional photographers like Mohamed Badra, Sameer al-Doumi, and others consciously began trying to produce visual narratives that could balance out the blood filling most of what was being produced.
Artino went even further. He started to work for the organization The Syria Campaign selecting photos for circulation on the web and writing short articles about them. Instead of only producing photos, he also curates already existing content. Having identified the issues related to the orphan images and their negative impact on the civil contract of photography, Artino acts as a curator of the controversial archive. In fact, he provides a ready-made archeology of the images, making the identity of the photographer and the photographed, as well as the story behind the photographic act, immediately accessible to the public.
As an example, he mentions a photo taken in Douma. The photo depicts a number of people, among them children, sitting in what appears to be an ancient cave or catacomb. The photo is in black and white, and, in the background, under an arc, a religious metal frame hangs. The photo circulated on Facebook without the name of the photographer and the photographed people, and without any description. It was difficult to reconstruct when and where it was taken, and what it represented. Artino thought the photo was interesting, but also that it needed more information in order to be properly contextualized. He decided to search online for the photographer and soon found him. His name is Abou al-Hussein and he is not a professional photographer. He revealed that the people in Douma dug the cave themselves, as a refuge against the bombings. It took a month and a half to make it. Given the lack of space, it was reserved mainly to children, old and injured people. Poor people in Eastern Ghouta, who do not have the possibility to flee, often dug these holes in order to have more chances of survival. The photo was then republished, together with an interview with the photographer.
Art as cinematic watching
Diala Brisly is a Syrian drawer and painter. Her work focuses mainly on children.
She defines her relation with the controversial archive as a constant and irresolvable ‘internal battle’. On the one hand, she completely understands those who tend to reject horror images. For many Syrians, it is a matter of protecting themselves from the horror. Also, she recognizes that the overabundance of visual violence can anesthetize or even push people away from the Syrian tragedy. Horror images do not necessarily make one understand or feel what it means to live through a war.
On the other hand, Brisly’s work relies heavily on the controversial archive. This is not only because of a moral responsibility to those who left the country. It is also because, if someone from outside pretends to produce narratives about Syria, this is the only way s/he can maintain contact with the reality on the ground.
At the time of writing, she was currently working on an illustrated book about a group of Syrian children who left Syria between 2015 and 2016. The book covers their stories in Syria during the war and then as refugees in Lebanon and is based on a series of interviews conducted by the Italian journalist Francesca Mannocchi.
Brisly uses the controversial archive extensively when it comes to producing her illustrations. When the children describe scenes of war, she does not feel she possesses the necessary visual knowledge or proximity in order to draw them immediately. She then engages in what she calls ‘visual research’ into the horror. She goes on Facebook or Google and looks for images related to a certain scene. A young girl, for example,
relates in one of the interviews that she goes out to buy something for her mother and on her way back a bomb hits her. She wakes up in the hospital. In order to depict a scene like this, Brisly collects several images portraying children in field hospitals. Most of the time, they are photographed sitting and waiting, often covered in their own blood, someone treating them. She then creates ‘puzzles’ of images. She stares at them for a long time before she is able to start drawing. She is interested in understanding how the children feel after going through such a traumatic event.
Most of the time the children look at their own bodies. They are shocked and they do not understand what has happened. Their gaze is empty. Sometimes they stare at their hands, so as to see if their bodies are still complete. The horror is present in their gaze and in their minds, even more than in the scene itself.
Other times, she works on a single photo she has spotted on Facebook. She is especially interested in images taken through mobile phones by non-professional photographers. It is this kind of image, she says, that sometimes strikes her as particularly relevant. Some of these images can reveal fragments of reality if you stare at them properly, but on Facebook, as they are, they often pass by completely ignored.
Other times, she works on a single photo she has spotted on Facebook. She is especially interested in images taken through mobile phones by non-professional photographers. It is this kind of image, she says, that sometimes strikes her as particularly relevant. Some of these images can reveal fragments of reality if you stare at them properly, but on Facebook, as they are, they often pass by completely ignored.
One such example is an orphan photo portraying a group of people removing a child from under the debris of a bombed building. The episode takes place at night and the rescuers use mobile phones to illuminate the scene. Brisly has made an illustration based on the photo (see Fig. 2). The light is much stronger and its range wider than in the original photo, and she has also added more mobile phones in the hands of the people surrounding the hole.
This is a typical scene in Syria that has reoccurred thousands of times during the last few years. The added light stresses the value of the nocturnal rescue act. The abundance of mobile phones represents the role of this technology in Syria today. They document the scene, producing that original photo that has served as inspiration. They are also the lamps enabling the search for the people buried under the rubble. Instead of being used for entertainment purposes, as anywhere else in the world, the phone-as-lamp acquires a completely different meaning.
Another example is a photo of a young boy in a hospital. He is photographed standing up, with bandages enveloping him, and blood sacks swinging from his body. Brisly reworked the photo with only a few changes (see Fig. 3). The boy’s feet do not touch the ground, as if he is levitating. She
also added, next to the blood sacks, other objects: a kite, a heart, and some photos. Brisly says her idea was to shift the attention from the physical loss (the blood, the wounds) to other elements: the boy’s dreams and memories, his childhood and innocence.
In both these cases, the translation of the images into illustrations can be interpreted as an operation of cinematic watching. Both photographer and the victim remain unknown. However, the illustration imposes on the spectator a type of cinematic watching that the artist has performed on the original photo. The horror cannot be trivialized anymore. The drawing does not document the horror that has happened: it becomes a visual document trying to understand what the photographed persons (and the artist) may feel in that instant. It avoids the identificatory gaze, inviting the spectator to indulge in the meaning of the framed event. The child is no longer only the ghost of a victim, and the scene over the rubble is isolated from the series of photos of destruction that risks reducing it to a normal event of war.
Different stances towards the controversial archive, declined at a collective or individual level, constantly confront each other. From those who uncritically contribute to a ‘slaughterhouse’ of images generated from a desperate photographic act, to those who would prefer to relegate these images to organized archives, keeping them out of the public eye. However, even the criticism of horror images relies ultimately on the controversial archive. It is the presence of images that make it possible to identify the deficiencies of the field of vision, the issues arising from the current visual narratives and their consumption.
The overwhelming, unprofessional and dispersed production of orphan images in Syria arises due to a lack of control over the field of vision, rather than the opposite. In contradistinction to conflicts in which military powers can more easily regulate the flows of images, in Syria the overabundance of audiovisual material reveals how the regime, as any other armed actor, has limited control on the ground of the production of visual narratives. In this sense, the Syrian conflict is at least not invisible. The deregulated production of horror images, albeit very problematic, offers the raw material through which the issues inherent to the current visual narratives can be debated and, in the end, even rejected.
The very presence of these images is what enables people to denounce the failure of the civil contract of photography in Syria and discuss the unresolvable questions related to how to narrate the horror. A contradiction exists at the heart of those who reject horror images when their rejection relies on ethical and strategic grounds. Without the controversial archive, it would be extremely difficult to explore innovative and different types of narratives. Individual or collective efforts in relating differently, and painfully, to the controversial archive expose this contradiction.
As the cases show, endless interpretations of and approaches to horror images coexist, at the same time recognizing the problem inherent to the wider field of vision.
Enrico De Angelis is a researcher specializing in Arab media. His PhD thesis focuses on journalism in Syria before 2011. He currently works as a consultant for organizations such as Free Press Unlimited, International Media Support, Deutsche Welle, and others. He is one of founders of the Syrian media project SyriaUntold. ‘The Controversial Archive: Negotiating Horror Images in Syria’ is part of the upcoming INC ToD book titled The ArabArchive: Mediated Memories and Digital Flows edited by Donatella Della Ratta, Kay Dickinson, and Sune Haugbolle.
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