Ethics of Aesthetics – Reflecting on the war photograph

The Brighton Photo Biennial’s 2008 programme Memory of Fire: the War of Images and Images of War, explored conflict photography, the making of, use, circulation and relevance in today’s society. The exhibition was curated by Julian Stallabrass, who took the Iraq War as his point of reference.

Whilst researching this topic I came across:

Are You a Vulture? Reflecting on the ethics and aesthetics of atrocity coverage and its aftermath Rughani, Pratap (2010). Book Chapter published in: Peace Journalism, War and Conflict Resolution Peter Lang : Oxford, pp 157 – 172.

Which also covered many similar points but I will probably do a separate review on this essay.


This exercise asks that we read the two essays in the BPB 2008 programme and look at the work and the curator selected for the exhibition, writing a short press release of about 250 words in our learning log.

  • Making an ugly world beautiful? Morality and aesthetics in the aftermath by Sarah James.
  •  The Power and Impotence of Images by Julian Stallabrass.

Firstly I thought I would research WHY press releases are made in the first place, sounds obvious I know but a good starting point.

Different from an invitation, a press release contains background information about the artist, the work, and the show. It is targeted to members of the press who may want to check out, write about, or even review your show. That having said, you can also send your press release to clients, galleryists, curators, or anyone you think might be interested in knowing more about your work.

I thought I would also check out the original press release and found one here, which had a word count of 175.

A  review of both essays…

I found the essay by Julian Stallabrass to be uncomfortably informative. During the Iraq war and subsequent War on Terror, we were all made aware of the torture that was being meted out to detainees. Probably most of the general public thoughts went along the lines of ‘good they deserve it.’ But does anyone ‘deserve it’? Many people commit atrocities due to indoctrination or mental issues. Many of the victims of torture, we are told, are innocent, or if not completely innocent have no real information to give.  Should we even trust information given under duress?

The fact that many of these torture sessions were photographed makes me wonder why? Was this for further degradation? Did the powers that be learn anything from observing still images of a man tied to a bed with a pair of panties covering his face?

Stallabrass does not talk about the morality of torture but informs us that the power of imagery has altered from a historical point of view. Torture during the Vietnam War was a state secret, whereas by the Iraq War it had become an overt policy. The nature of photography had also changed and his essay explores the ‘changing relationship between military strategy, the conduct of war, the media and its technology.’

He asks us to consider the vast amount of amateur footage that was published, the embedding of photojournalists with the military, giving unfettered access to military operations, and the encouragement to produce positive propaganda images only. This had a restrictive downside; narrow points of view, some censorship meaning highly controlled and sanitised images, those that Kenneth Jarecke railed against. How much was staged for the cameras, to sell a clean and anodyne war to the folks back home?

The media controlled the publication of stronger imagery due to fear of upsetting viewers and advertisers, proving the old adage that money talks. The rise of TV news and digital photography has probably exacerbated the decline of the paid rate for printed materials. Newspaper barons now have profit as a prime motive, information is published unchecked. ‘cliché reigns..[the] press has become degraded in public opinion…thought of as unreliable, gullible, mendacious and venal.’ To this effect ‘unrestrained capitalism works against the interests of democracy.’

There are seemingly two facets of photography; the photo-journalistic – speeding and intimate – and the ‘aftermath’ images which tend to be exhibited in museums – slow, sometimes artistically beautiful and ‘severely composed’. Whichever facet you view people remain cynical of the press and the imagery served up before them. There appears to be a lack of opposition to war, the Coalition seemingly allowed to engage in Nazi like tactics with ‘inadequate comment from the press…and with little published photographic representation.’ This is why the biennial and the work of Edmund Clarke is becoming more and more important.

Stallabrass concludes that whilst he believes that the biennial is ‘powerless’ in greatly swaying opinion or changing the course of these forces, ‘if…we have become to behave like Nazis, and if that cannot be grasped…if it does not cause a fundamental questioning…then something about our democracy is broken.’

I think I agree with him.

Sarah James looks more at the aftermath, the Sublime and the ethics behind making an ugly world beautiful. The examples of photographers who fulfil this criteria she cites as: Simon Norfolk, Paul Seawright, Joel Meyerowitz and Sophie Ristelhueber. (note to self to research more on SR)

Yet again these bodies of work link to the war on terror, Harlan K Ullman and James P Wade defined the new mode of warfare as shock and awe. James links the political strategy of shock and awe to the imagery also produced, describing an aesthetic of violence, a staging of the key events exploited to create ‘a dangerous range of…war-mongering emotions.’ It is her opinion that this war is also being fought over the precise meaning of the photographs, that these images depict ‘highly aestheticised’, surreal depopulated landscapes. The fact that they appear devoid of life adds to the abstraction.

Both Meyerowitz and Norfolk refer to the sublime and how this art term may need a new definition. Is it wrong that such destruction can look beautiful? This is a question that has been asked many times before over different subject matters for example Edward Burtynsky with his take on pollution and the oil industry. I think it is warranted as the slow process, several of the photographers used large format cameras, offers a different perspective. I don’t think that the empty landscapes, urban or otherwise, make me dismiss the people who once dwelt in the battered tenements. More so I wonder what happened to them, question the right we have to bomb the innocent populous. I don’t think a ravaged building needs to have a dead body or displaced person out front to make me empathise with the situation.

I don’t know that I fully agree with her summation that these aftermath images are totally detached. The Ground Zero imagery had a poetic beauty about them but that added to the poignancy of the event. Sebastião Salgado’s images of Kuwait are stunning, but they also reveal the horrendous effect that the war had on the oil fields and the workers.

James asks ‘does a war photography that seeks to represent the inhuman, abstract and even horrifically beautiful world of this contemporary military sublime offer any resistance against it?’ This was also a question asked by Stallabrass. Is there resistance to the war? I ask is it the photographer who is creating little resistance or the political will of the people that is influencing the imagery?

The article leaves us to contemplate the success or failure of this type of work, reminding us that ‘the sublime is the peculiar place where aesthetics and ethics merge, and that it is an uncomfortable coalition at the best of times.


followed by the press release…

Press Release


Memory of Fire: the War of Images and Images of War – BPB 2008
The Brighton Photo Biennial feasts on strong meat this year. Guest curator Professor Julian Stallabrass, lecturer at the Courtauld Institute, is also a writer and photographer, with a keen interest in the relationship between art and the political. Along with other renowned theorists he investigates the urgent issues which arise from the depiction of war, the use of these images by the media, the circulation of unofficial amateur images, censorship, the military as a PR and image-producing machine, and the impact of digital media.

The Biennial, housed in several venues from Bexhill on Sea to Chichester, Portsmouth, Winchester, as well as in Brighton, will display images ranging from the Russian Revolution to more recent conflict, focusing predominantly on Iraq and Afghanistan. It will analyse how images are informed by the changing social and political climate.

Fully embracing the multimedia experience itself, this year BPB 2008 with three exhibition venues in Brighton, will have on offer an extensive film programme, talks, workshops and portfolio reviews along with a series of participatory and publicly sited projects. Furthermore, BPB 2008 looks to inspire the vast online community by launching a new website as a platform for ideas and discussion around the theme of photography and conflict.


Research    [Accessed 4/07/2017] [Accessed 4/07/2017] [Accessed 4/07/2017] [Accessed 4/07/2017] [Accessed 4/07/2017]

Are You a Vulture? Reflecting on the ethics and aesthetics of atrocity coverage and its aftermath Rughani, Pratap (2010). Book Chapter published in: Peace Journalism, War and Conflict Resolution Peter Lang : Oxford, pp 157 – 172.

Ethics of aesthetics – To print or not to print

Contrary to popular belief a photographer has very little editorial control over how their work is published or even which images are used. An infamous image we are asked to consider is a photograph taken by Pablo Torres Guerro, of the heinous destruction caused by the Madrid bombings in March 2004. The original image was fairly graphic, showing damage done to property and bodies in the aftermath, including a bloody severed limb in the foreground. One paper printed the image as it was, but on the back page – El Pais, whereas The Guardian chose to desaturate the image to make it less graphic and indistinguishable, whilst The Times, Daily Telegraph, The Sun and the Daily Mail appear to have airbrushed the limb completely.


Read Clare Cozen’s Guardian article about Guerrero’s photograph and also read the core resource Should You Print it? pdf.

Editors ‘clean up’ bomb photo – The Guardian – Friday 12th March 2004

The newspaper article asks us to consider the different ways in which the press treated a photograph of the Madrid bombings, some examples are given above whilst other papers, including the Independent and the Daily Mirror, printed the image in black and white.

Paul Johnson, the Guardian’s deputy editor in 2004, justified his decision by stating: .

 that while the colour change was ‘not perfect by any means’, it was the best solution…

The photograph encapsulated the scale of this very human tragedy. It’s an extraordinary photograph that was just in the margins of what we could use on the front page, but in that left-hand corner was an identifiable body part. To my mind that put us over the threshold…We could have cropped it out, but someone came up with the suggestion that we bleed out the colour. It is not perfect by any means but I felt it was the best solution all round because it didn’t eradicate anything from the picture.’

The Telegraph’s Bob Bodman thought the action was warranted:

We try not to do it, but at the end of the day we make decisions that are right for our readers, not for other journalists… adding that an image of an Iraqi boy published in the Telegraph during the war had prompted dozens of complaints because body parts were visible in the background.

We thought they were murky enough not to worry us, but we still got calls from readers…

International news agency Reuters said British newspapers tended to take a ‘more conservative approach to such images’ and David Viggers, the senior pictures editor at the time said:

Our view is that we don’t like any removals of any kind. We do not tolerate it on behalf of our photographers. Our view is that anything that could have been done in a dark room is acceptable, but we can’t tolerate anything that changes the editorial context – we couldn’t afford to do otherwise.

The ‘cleaning up’ of photographs is fairly commonplace, but more substantial changes are considered unacceptable.

The article gives examples of where some have fallen foul of these deals: the Los Angeles Times sacked a photographer, Brian Walski, for superimposing two images to ‘make them more powerful.’

With the emphasis on a free and accurate press and prizes being withdrawn due to manipulation, it may seem strange that so many reputable newspapers readily altered this photograph. The Press Complaints Commission’s code bans newspapers from publishing “inaccurate, misleading or distorted material including pictures”.

I am asked to consider what would I have done as an editor? A difficult question which may be slightly easier to answer in 2017. Sadly, there is gratuitous violence around us everyday, from films, video games, live internet feeds, Instagram and other social media. Young people commit suicide at their PC’s, terrorists execute people on YouTube, by-standers film live tragedies as they unfold. Whilst I would not wish to feed this appetite for graphic visual content there is a larger percentage of the population who would not be shocked or offended at seeing these images in their daily paper.

An event of this magnitude should be represented in the press, it is news, I would like to know what images were not printed. If given a selection, was this the least graphic? I doubt that only one shot was available. To be honest I think I would have printed it, but without manipulation, ie it could have been cropped in tighter still revealing the horrendous damage, been pixellated or had a censorship mark over the top as is often used to cover celebrity nudity. I think air-brushing is a step too far.



But Should You Print It?

The article by Michael Ignatieff gives some observations on the ethics of journalism, with there seeming to be four areas of sensitivity:

2.Invasion of privacy
3.Sex & public decency

If responding to this article using Guerro as context, the Times, Daily Telegraph, Sun and Daily Mail treatment of the his image would be considered as faking it or manipulation. Ignatieff stated: ‘the credibility of photojournalism must not be eroded by covert manipulation’ and believes that if any manipulation occurs it should always be acknowledged. I agree wholeheartedly with this ideal.

Decency seemed to cover (no pun intended) the realms of bringing  an organisation’s/team’s or person’s reputation into disrepute, e.g. footballers behaving badly.

Invasion of privacy touched on photographing celebrities with telephoto lenses, the paparazzi, trespass and the invasion of private space.

Then we get to violent imagery, which seemed to take up a large percentage of the article. Most people seem to be more affronted by gratuitous violence than a gratuitous nipple.

We have to consider what, where and when to photograph. Does the very presence of a camera incite violence? The example Ignatieff gives is of a bayoneting on a polo field in Bangladesh. Kevin Carter said the same about the ‘necklacing’ that he witnessed, would it have happened if he had not been there to photograph it?

With Kevin Carter in mind he also asks is it right to win prizes with distressing images?

Photographs of violence do cause distress to many people and that has sometimes to be accepted; but to inflict distress at random is to weaken the case for doing it at all.

It is interesting how history interprets events. We are given the example of what not to print: the death of Jayne Mansfield with her head ‘impaled on a shard…her body lying several feet away…’ the crash was gruesome, her head injuries were traumatic, but this reads as if she was decapitated and this was not the case. I am amazed at the amount of sensationalist reports I have read in this part of the coursework, why worry about manipulated images when the written words are just as bad!

How do we decide what is an offensive image? Does it matter if the story is more local, more intimate, with chances that the readership will have known the characters involved?

Ignatieff suggests we ask ourselves the following four questions:

1.Is the event of sufficient social or historic importance to justify the shock?
2.Is the objectionable detail necessary to understand the subject matter?
3.Does the subject freely consent?
4.Is the photograph expressive of humanity?

Not all need to be answered with a resounding ‘yes,’ but at least one should. If we go back to the initial discussion with regards to the Madrid bombing, I think you can definitely tick 1 and 4, making the papers’ actions in printing an intact image justifiable.

Ignatieff discusses how he looked at several images to weigh up if they fulfilled his four criteria, he concluded that some did and some didn’t, and he would not have published images of Lee Harvey Oswald on a pathologist’s table, but wouldn’t it have been much better if the racist violence and lynchings occurring in the Deep South had been exposed and not hidden?

Anonymity and the need for privacy and non-intrusion into private grief is a very valid point. Close friends and family would not wish to see loved ones splashed all over the front page. The small image in the handout does not reveal the horror of the image taken by Kenneth Jarecke. It illustrates the full aftermath of war, one man’s struggle against the might of the US bombardments on ‘the road to hell,’ and the moment he died in a burning vehicle. Completely incinerated. Should we publish this image or archive it? Does ‘omitting an image means shielding the public from the messy, imprecise consequences of a war—making the coverage incomplete, and even deceptive,’ what is the price of patriotism? Does the sanitized language and images of warfare salve the conscience and make it easier for the public to create a dehumanised common enemy?

After the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Jarecke was not happy with the photojournalism responding to Desert Shield. ‘It was one picture after another of a sunset with camels and a tank,’ either that or taken from such an altitude that the human presence on the ground was all but erased. He felt the need for an alternative stance and he certainly achieved that. In the UK The Observer and Libération in France, both published the photograph after the American media refused.

Like Jarecke and Ignatieff, I found the image to be highly disturbing, this was a human being with friends,family, a life, following orders, but as Jarecke stated : ‘A photographer without empathy is just taking up space that could be better used.’

This photograph was taken to reveal exactly what the results are of political and public ambition to demonize another country and go to war.

It is right that we should contemplate the results of our convictions … The concept that war is horrible is altogether different from the stunning, practical realisation of horror we have willed.

Ignatieff cites Siegfried Sassoon, but this image makes me think more of The Man He Killed by Thomas Hardy, which deals with the futility, or pointlessness of war. It is told from the point of view of an ordinary working-class soldier, who is reflecting on the idea that the man he killed in battle probably had a lot in common with him.

As with images from Vietnam there is a strong anti-war message in the poem. Neither the speaker nor the man who has been killed is named gives it a universal feel, as with the unidentified Iraqi soldier, it gives a sense that it could be anyone in this position.

The reasons given for killing man are weak, we are informed that the ‘other’ are the enemy but we can’t always work out why. There is a stupidity in war in that men kill each other because they are ordered to.

The Man He Killed

“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.

“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”

by Thomas Hardy 1902

In my opinion some photographs should be published. Hopefully the images we see and the literature we read will eventually make people wake up to the humanity of others, and that a war of words is always better than a war with weapons.

A photograph can’t coerce; it won’t do the moral work for us but it can start us on the way.” (Susan Sontag)