Some twenty countries are currently under genocide watch but few receive consistent attention. In a world where views replace news, most of us are too impatient to bother with the context and complexity of a divisive situation. We scroll away to a simpler story that we can get our head around.
For important but complicated stories, powerful images are essential to bring insight. Who does not remember the girl in the red coat in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, Schindler’s List ? As a guest (MK) at the Los Angeles release of its re-mastered version, I was profoundly moved to meet the 90-year old survivor from the featured Polish ghetto who remembered such a girl. For many of us, the girl-in-red epitomises the whole Holocaust.
I also spoke in at the Cambridge premiere of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Featuring the disconcertingly kind-faced Anwar who butchered thousands in Indonesia’s massacres of 1965-6, his face has, for me, become the face of all massive politicides.
Films and publications use images to adjust our level of empathy with the human plight of troubled nations. The “Burning Monk” of 1963, the “Napalm Girl” of 1972, and the 1989 capture of “Tank Man” encapsulated brutality and persecution across Vietnam and China.
The National Geographic’s beautiful green-eyed girl (1985) became the icon for the ugly Afghan conflict. The paradox was reinforced by Time Magazine’s 2019 portrayal of the equally beautiful but disfigured Bibi Aisha. Such individuals represent nations and epochs more powerfully than acres of accompanying commentary.
What little most people understand about the theories of Marxism or Relativity comes from reading the distinctive physiognomy of Karl Marx and Albert Einstein. And, of course, any self-respecting revolutionary of the previous generation wanted to look like Che Guevara.
The countenance of today’s activists play an equally important role. Malala Yousafzai (Pakistan) and Nadia Murad (Iraq) signify the struggle for female education and against sexual violence. Greta Thunberg (Sweden) is the face that launched the war on climate change. Their instant recognition sustains global attention on difficult topics.
Images of politicians are crucial to define public perceptions of competing ideologies. Images of Hitler and Mussolini strutting and saluting inspired their followers but attracted ridicule from their opponents who countered with the pugnacious visage of Churchill. More modern times are hallmarked by the ascetic looks of Osama Bin Laden, the sinister moustache of Saddam Hussein, the hair-raising style of Donald Trump, and Idi Amin who terrified Ugandans through his physical demeanor as much as by his actions.
But those whose brand is defined by their frontage may need help from accessories. Would there be an enduring cult around Mahatma Gandhi without his trademark spectacles (made fashionable later by Harry Potter)? Churchill would be less pugnacious without a cigar and Margaret Thatcher less iron-ladyish without weaponizing her handbag.
Hamid Karzai tried the unifying-statesman look with his made-up costume from different parts of Afghanistan. But First Lady Imelda Marcos is best known not for her face but her feet (apparently large by Filipino standards). Her 3,000-pair shoe collection is a tourist-attracting monument to her husband’s corrupt regime.
In the image wars, the pictured accessory may become more influential over time. Indeed, it may take on a life of its own after the owner is released from incarceration or torture (or is killed). Mandela’s toilet bucket from his 27-year solitary imprisonment in Robben Island is a perpetual evocation of the futility of apartheid. The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement’s yellow umbrellas symbolize resistance against authoritarianism anywhere.
Meanwhile, the most confused image is that of “The Lady” of Myanmar, Aung San Su Kyi. The idolised figurehead of democracy is instantly synonymous with the country itself. Her long house arrest, family background and iconic style put Myanmar’s struggles at the forefront of news even while the country was isolated. Her portraits have been headlined from “Will She Rule?” in 1990 to “The Lady Returns” in 2010, to “The Fighter” in 2011, and “The Flowering and Fading of Aung San Suu Kyi” in 2021. Her once-shining veneer is tarnished by allegations of corruption and political hypocrisy (connivance with the Rohingya genocide) but the Nobel Laureate remains popular among many, nationally. On her birthday in June 2021, anti-coup protesters adorned their hair with flowers Su Kyi-style.
It is easy to be seduced by the carefully-curated image of a leader which does not tell the full story or hides the real personality. Such two-facedness is exemplified by another Nobel laureate, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. Originally packaged as a reformer opening a fresh chapter of his nation’s troubled history, he is presiding over the world’s latest genocide in Tigray. Images of his raped, starved and displaced victims have overtaken that of his own sleek exterior. When his picture is juxta-positioned alongside that of a severely emaciated infant connected to tubes and machines, the counter- narrative runs rings around his own propaganda.
As the world has globalised and fragmented at the same time, photography has widened reach but segmented impact. What evokes public outcry in one place is completely missed elsewhere. Photos can also create new history or re-set the old one. Pictures of what appear to be the summary execution of the Sri Lankan rebel leader’s 12-year-old son Balachandran Prabhakaran have become etched in the traumatized psyche of the whole nation that is still shaping the long-term legacy of one of the most bitter civil conflicts in the world.
Nowadays, many causes jostle for our attention and numerous humanitarian crises compete for our compassion. Then there are egregious bad behaviours such as genocides and mass atrocities that demand redress but don’t have easy solutions. In such effervescent times, advocacy is getting less effective, and needs all the help it can get from powerful imagery.
However, the photo of a flood of refugees, a field of makeshift camps or miserable, hungry children no longer stir us. Nowadays, whether provocative and unusual images stick depend on the algorithms and network metrics that determine our media consumption. The cover of Time Magazine is no longer on our immediate radar unless we are in an airport.
Besides, any impact is short-lived as we found with the worldwide shock created by the picture of the Syrian toddler washed ashore in Turkey. In the battle for eyeballs, most problematic is the quick expiry date of news. That is not helped by creeping censorship and ever-increasing obstacles put in the path of journalists by tyrannical regimes with many things to hide.
Meanwhile, news gathering is now a matter of life and death. And the most courageous are the photo-journalists trying to get just the right shot to capture the defining emotion of a critical moment. Instead, they get shot themselves. Unlike their print comrades who can observe nonchantly and retire somewhere safer to compose their stirring dispatches, the photographer must be in the thick of the action with his cumbersome equipment (though this is slimmer nowadays). However, in many places, just to be seen filming is to get a target painted on yourself.
Overall journalist deaths have increased sharply, with camera operators, photographers, and film documentary makers constituting a quarter of all killed. Recently, Reuter’s Pulitzer-winning chief photographer joined the list in Afghanistan. This was at around the same time as a viral video of desperate young men clinging and falling off a US plane sent to rescue people from the Taliban. This just about summed up two decades of post 9/11 effort.
We know that a story with a face advances more action than a story left invisible. That concept was captured by ancient Greece’s Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships” towards the epic atrocity-laden Trojan war in approx 1200 BCE. Nowadays, we still need faces – not to launch wars – but to show their inhumanity.
So, it is an enormous tragedy that faces from Tigray, Xinjiang, South Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Haiti, Arakan and many other regions remain largely hidden. Likewise, military juntas or armed religious fanatics are coy to show their face.
Thus it is that faceless victims get forgotten, and faceless offenders go unpunished. Justice is truly blinded.