Note: I chose to give the warning I missed to find when I came across the image that I’ll be referring to later on this post: a poor resolution image of the inside of the Bataclan after the tragedy that came to be known as the Paris attacks.
The tragedy took place on a Friday night, the 13th of November. It was a heavy weekend. I couldn’t manage to have an ordinary conversation without feeling I was offending the lives of those who had just been killed, by not addressing the issue. I had a class on Monday morning, teaching Visual Language to 1st year undergraduate students, so I decided to prepare something about the subject to discuss with them.
Going thru the usual news and photo agencies, all the photographs appeared to go around the subject, contrasting to what usually circulates when similar tragedies occur on “far away grounds”: no death bodies, only traces of the violence that had befallen the streets of Paris.
Even in a Portuguese newspaper (Público) a similar phenomenon occurred. It was the Photo Paris weekend, so a lot of photographers were visiting the capital. Público took the opportunity and commissioned Daniel Blaufuks a photographic essay on the events. The result, entitled Paris Toujours, takes the form of an unpretentious diary, filled with nostalgia and melancholy. Blaufuks chooses to address the everydayness, as if that was the mark of what is most authentic about Paris. As if the violence couldn’t penetrate the aesthetic grounds of his photographic language.
Magnum had several photographers on the streets. In different manners, they chose to construct a narrative around the traces of such violence. We see the suffering, the despair, the anguish, but not the violence. Once again, as if the violence was unphotographable. I used to agree with this approach. I used to think most photographs of violence were pornographic and unnecessary. But I changed my mind after the Paris attacks.
An article by Emmanuel Taïeb guided me on such a reflection. I teach students that in photography it is often more important what the photograph doesn’t show. What lives on in our imagination is usually more transformative. So, for instances, if one photograph shows the impact of a bullet instead on the bullet hitting the target, it is more successful, for we are left wondering about the event, what happened before and after, etc.
Magnum photographers such as Alex Majoli and Thomas Dworzak did exactly that and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with such approach. The question is: do photographers behave the same way when photographing “at a distance”? Do we discriminate between the death of an European and the death of a non-European? Of course we do. But, once again, there’s nothing tremendously wrong with that, for human beings empathize with what’s more familiar to them. However, we are talking about news agencies, not about a bunch of friends discussion the issue at the neighborhood Cafe.
In the press, whether televised or printed, when a bomb hits the streets of Afghanistan or Iraq we’re immediately showed bodies on the ground, lots of them. Some have cloths over their faces, some don’t. Most reporters don’t care to go around violence, looking for its traces. We saw that just one day before the Paris attacks, with the suicide bombing in Beirut.
As I was preparing for Monday class, I stumbled upon a discussion set around a photograph from inside the Bataclan and the need for such an image to be showed or reserved (here’s the link for the image; not publishing it here, for I’d rather give the option to the viewer – to see or not to see). I found the image profoundly disturbing, though I mistakenly showed it in class and the reaction was close to zero. Knowing how they reacted to it now, I would have chosen to show it, with no reserves. The discussion that followed confirms the arguments I was starting to build to justify the need to share that image.
We all know it, images of violence have attained such a circulation that they are now “part of the landscape”. Not only the photographs have become ordinary, but also the reality they represent. Are we dehumanized for not reacting to such representations? As far as I see it, we are. Photography hasn’t lost the status of proof, of testimony. We are now well aware of the manipulation it often entails, but that doesn’t deny the fact that photojournalists work on documenting reality. So why don’t we care about the bodies covered in blood inside the Bataclan? Do we not care about the photograph and care about the bodies? Thinking about what my students explained to me, for I had to ask them to take me trough their reactions, they don’t really get the concept of the existence of their being a true moment behind the photograph, as if it was all fiction. Not staged or faked, but merely fictional.
So why the need to share such violent imagery? And I go back to Sontag’s idea of “inauthentic beauty”: the need may not exist, but there’s still a reason for it; one shares the image of the Bataclan to avoid beautifying the violence that hit Paris and to be fair in the treatment of events…