The images are everywhere: unbearable, unstoppable.
When war comes today it brings along a whole outpouring of pictures, traveling more rapidly than any official narrative. Stomach-wrenching close-ups of executions; long-distance nightscapes of the skies streaked by rocket flare. Crisp images of children clambering across an exploded mosque in Gaza City; memes of Hamas paragliders set to martial music, probably by kids thousands of miles from the fighting. In the shock of the past few days, as Israel endured its worst attack on civilians in decades and its government pounded the Gaza Strip in retaliation, it is worth noting not just how many images poured out from the region, but how many different kinds of images. We have grown used to this fast.
In the 20th century, Americans saw war through the eyes of professional photojournalists and camera operators. They had it narrated by network anchors each evening and, later, on 24-hour cable news. Today, it is those doing the fighting or those caught up in it who produce its fastest-moving images, as soldiers and civilians alike film conflicts and distribute their acts of witness or advocacy. (Hamas militants uploaded their own videos of the carnage to Telegram and other social media websites this past weekend; the Israel Defense Forces produced TikToks of its own strikes on what it said were “Hamas targets.”)
In Syria, in Ukraine and now in Israel and Gaza, war in the 21st century has become a fire hose of digital imagery — a perpetual torrent of jerky and pixelated images, often from amateurs, frequently of uncertain source, that looks nothing like the high-resolution war-as-spectacle that media scholars foresaw during the Persian Gulf war of 1991. On our small screens we are now closer to war than ever before. We are farther than ever from making sense of it.
Cameras have been documenting war since 1855, when the British photographer Roger Fenton traveled to the battlefields of Sebastopol, having converted a wine-seller’s carriage into a horse-drawn darkroom. Since its very inception, the medium of photography has been caught up in a conversation with death. As a ghostly index of a moment that came and went — a record, in light, of a time that will never come again — the photograph was long thought to have an intrinsic relationship with mortality. And even as we learned to be skeptical of the truth of the camera image, war photography — Frank Hurley’s mud-caked marchers in the Western Front’s trenches, Robert Capa’s soldier falling in Spain — retained a moral force and civic influence that came from this death-haunted relationship between the lens and the world it observed.
“Photography,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1977, “converts the whole world into a cemetery. Photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also — wittingly or unwittingly — the recording-angels of death.” But this week has been a reminder, as gruesome as a reminder as you could have, that digital images can have a very different truth value. The bystander’s cameraphone footage, the GoPro on the soldier’s helmet, the terrorist’s YouTube clip, the propagandist’s social media post: these lower-resolution amateur images do not enjoy the stability of war photography of old.
Instead of supplementing and contextualizing information from the front, as traditional war photography once did, these digital pictures act as information themselves. They participate in a new marketplace of images, where professional news gatherers compete with governments, nonstate actors, terrified bystanders and just plain cranks, and where pictures get compressed, sutured, redeployed and redefined as they travel along wireless networks. (Naturally these images have also become vectors of misinformation, especially in the single-lettered cesspool formerly known as Twitter. This week, images supposedly depicting destroyed buildings in Israel proper were in fact of Gaza, and vice versa; a viral image that purported to show a downed Israeli helicopter came from a video game.)
During World War I, a soldier possessing a camera could end up court-martialed; today in Ukraine, troops are officially encouraged to post videos and photographs, in the belief that the benefits to morale outweigh the intelligence risks. During the gulf war, CNN and other new 24-hour news networks embedded with the U.S. military; more recently in Syria, ISIS could upload its own jihadist counterprogramming. And while photojournalists of true talent continue to risk their lives to document our new wars on the ground, the Vietnam-era expectation that violent imagery could change popular opinion has given way to solidification, Balkanization, resentment, reprisal.
In her 2021 book “Screen Shots,” the Duke University anthropologist Rebecca L. Stein details how various parties to the Israel-Palestine conflict have used digital photography to document the occupied territories: the Israeli government and military, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Jewish settlers and nationalists, as well as civil society organizations.
Each of these groups had what Dr. Stein calls “the dream of the perfect camera.” Each believed that cheap digital kits (or sophisticated surveillance apparatuses) would allow it to leapfrog the mass media or its political opponents, and to finally deliver the transparency that would confirm its own view of the conflict. That was a hope born from the early days of digital, when too many techno-optimists believed that amateur documentation could dissolve political deadlocks, reveal the truth of war, even topple governments.
But the digital camera would lose its innocence in the wars of this century. By the mid-2010s, when so many of us gave up on the chronology of news broadcast for the algorithmic distribution of the social feed, digital images of war fell into the same trapas every other variety of political information: The pictures you like could be amplified, and the others could be dismissed as fake news.
“All hoped,” Dr. Stein writes, “that these new cameras could bear truer witness and thus yield justice as they saw it. Most would be let down.” The very framework of picture-making had been absorbed into the conflict, and indeed the most graphic pictures of corpses we have seen this week — Israel said that its death toll had risen to 1,200, and Gaza health officials reported that more than 1,400 Palestinians had been killed so far — are not neutral records. They are weapons like other weapons, for a time when violence is no longer confined to battlefields.
The full-scale conflict that is already underway in Israel and Gaza is an asymmetric war, between one of the world’s best-equipped armed forces and an Iran-backed militant group. Well, we have learned over the past few years that digital photography is an asymmetric medium too — where a livestream can trigger a protest, a cameraphone witness can outmatch a professional broadcast, and not even the clearest picture is any match for ideology. The lesson we are condemned to relearn is that the photograph, and the digital photograph especially, does not just derive its meaning from what it depicts; it comes from how it travels, how it mutates, and who determines the trajectory. And there is a second and grimmer lesson: Even when it shows the most horrific violence, you cannot ask a camera to make sense of it.