Tag Archives: Photography

The Horrors of War Photography

We support a ceasefire in Palestine

Laurie says:

Deb called my attention to the “Picture of the Year” controversy and this article by Dahlia Lithwick and Masua Sagiv. Lithwick and Sagiv make a clear case for why the photo of Shani Louk is exploitive and dehumanizing. However, when Deb and I started to talk about it, we realized that we had some disagreements which we wanted to share here.

About ten years ago, I wrote a couple of blog posts (here and here) about my conflicting feelings about war photography. In the intervening decade, I have made up my mind that the vast majority of war photos are simply shocking and serve no real other purpose.

My nudes are the reverse; they are meant to make people feel “comfortable,” as the Japanese say.

There are probably some exceptions to this, but they are few and far between. A useful photo would end war. It can evoke useful or healthy reactions toward ending a particular war, and the Vietnam war is a good example of how that doesn’t happen. Mostly they activate emotions that are not useful. On a case by case basis, war photographs may occasionally be okay, but I think that’s too rare to justify the existence of the whole war photography genre.

War is definitely a part of our history but the photos of it are not. They mostly only encourage anger and war-like emotions. We might ask when a photograph is a public record and when it’s a stimulus to mostly destructive reactions.

And this is even truer in the world of infinite repetition.

Creating beauty out of man-made horror is wrong.

Debbie says:

It should go without saying that the photograph of Shani Louk is exploitive and, in Dahlia Lithwick and Masua Sagiv’s words, “prurient rubbernecking.” In the same article, they also say, “It is undeniably essential to photograph war and famine and the suffering in Gaza as a means of keeping a public record.” That statement is not undeniably essential, because Laurie denies it, and few people are more discerning than Laurie.

For me, I think it comes down to the question of whether there is value in documenting a human behavior which is (if not inevitable) near-universal and virtually omnipresent. I can dream of times without war, but I cannot produce much evidence for my dreams. As long as we live with war, I see some tainted value in recording war and its horrors. I believe there has to be some method by which the realities of war are conveyed to the people who live outside the war. The world is full of people like me (and so many contemporary Americans) who have never been up close and personal with violent death, let alone organized slaughter for the purpose of “victory.”

I believe it’s important for those of us who live privileged and protected to have access to some records of what we are being protected from. At the same time, I completely respect and honor Laurie’s contrasting view, and her recognition that good photography inevitably beautifies the horrors.

The question of which images are exploitive and which are informational can, in my opinion, only be answered case by case, and depends on the factors Lithwick and Sagiv begin to explore: is it respectful of the victims? is the information readily available in some less evocative form? is the image easy to flip into some kind of gross celebratory story? how is it gendered? who is making the record and what is their role?

But I don’t see how we benefit from avoiding war imagery altogether, until we figure out how to do without war altogether.


Debbie has deleted her Twitter account. Follow her on Mastodon.

Follow Laurie’s Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.


Upside Down Exhibition at PH21

Laurie says:

Ph21 in Budapest is doing an exhibition which is irresistible to me, called appropriately “Upside down.” In putting together my submissions I found one image that I love from Pandemic Shadows that worked even better permanently upside down. It’s here.

The image that was chosen from my Pandemic Shadows project was far more obviously upside down, which I expect was at least partially their point — “Flamingo”. Please click on photo to get best result.



​You can see the exhibition here.

While photographs are valued for their depictive potential and representative content, the non-depictive, non-representational aspects of photographic works are also strongly related to their aesthetic significance. In this spirit, art photography has always aimed for the unity of form and content. Abstract photography has gone even further, celebrating abstract compositions for their own sake, without the need for appreciating or even recognising depictive content in the images. Turning a photograph upside down tends to strip it from its representative function, because the depicted scene and objects are difficult if not impossible to recognise when the image is turned to its side or upside down. However, the formal, compositional aspects of photographs become more pronounced that way, as our attention is steered away from scene and object recognition. In our Upside down exhibition, we would like to show photographs that are indeed turned upside down. Any photograph is eligible if the artist is willing to show it in this unusual way. Abstract photographs might be considered to be the most suitable candidates for this experimental exhibiting method, but there are many depictive works as well whose compositional qualities might also be appreciated in novel ways when turning them upside down, thus liberating us from studying and concentrating on their representational content. Landscapes, bodyscapes, symmetrical compositions, or even architectural and street photography may be good candidates for turning images upside down...

The exhibition is curated by Zsolt Bátori, PhD, director and Borbála Jász, PhD, vice-director.

The exhibition runs from today, March 9th to April 1st.


Debbie is no longer active on Twitter. Follow her on Mastodon.

Follow Laurie’s Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.