People Facing Death: ISIL, Vietnam, and the Impact of Images

(AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

Barbie Zelizer is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches and conducts research about the cultural functions of journalism. Her latest book, About to Die: How News Images Move the Public, surveys the history of a particularly powerful kind of image, that of people in the moments before their death. We spoke last week about the way certain images are affecting the debate about recent news events. According to an NBC/WSJ poll, 94 percent of Americans say they heard about the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, a higher percentage than claimed to have knowledge of any other news story in the past five years.

Paul Waldman: You wrote a book, About to Die, about news images of people in the moments before their deaths. How do the images of James Foley and Steven Sotloff before their beheadings fit into that history?

Barbie Zelizer: They absolutely follow that history. They're resonant with the kinds of tensions that have long played into images of people facing their deaths rather than images of people already dead. Images of people facing their death call us to respond, to become passionate, to get emotional, to imagine what we might not see. And so the capacity to show somebody about to die at that very powerful moment that we all dread is a longstanding way of drawing audiences in to whatever is being depicted.

A lot is being said about the fact that these particular images are savvy, they're stylized—and that's correct, they are savvy and they are stylized—but they are drawing on a spectacle of suffering that goes back all the way to the Middle Ages. So what they're doing is not new. It's just a more current form using a more current technological platform.

PW: There's already a developing narrative saying that the public was war-weary and didn't want to get involved in this conflict, until they saw those images of Foley and Sotloff, and then they became so enraged that they changed their opinion and now they're supportive of war. Do you buy that?

BZ: Aren't we grateful that we can take longstanding political trends, and hang them on one particular image or video? No, I don't buy that. Of course I don't buy that. There's no question that something has been happening this summer, I will say that. And by that I mean it's not just the ISIS beheadings. It goes back to Gaza, it goes back to the Malaysian airline incident, it goes back to Ferguson, it continues all the way through Ray Rice. By which I mean there's an increasing recognition that images are doing something different than words. And that has not typically been the case in this particular political or public landscape. I think that we're beginning to become a little bit more sophisticated about the fact that images do have their own kind of singular power. But to go so far as to say they're what made us ready for war? 

There are examples of this all the way through the history of images in news. In Vietnam, the argument was that a particular image pushed the consensus for the war, and then against the war. It's just not borne out. There's no evidence to suggest that's the case. And what it does is it suggests that somehow one particular image stands out from the whole landscape of visual depictions with which we live our lives. 

It matters that we see a video versus read a narrative. That's what we're beginning to hear. And I applaud that development. But that stops way short of saying that it's responsible for changes in consensus about war.

PW: Let me ask you about how social media has altered this. Today, ordinary people can disseminate images whether journalists think it's a good idea or not. Journalists are serving less as gatekeepers in a lot of different ways than they used to be, and that includes being visual gatekeepers. One of the consequences is that we have this entire new genre of debate, which is: "Should you look at this picture?" Should you look at the Jennifer Lawrence selfies, should you see this decapitating video? Before, it was journalists who made that decision on your behalf. Does that change how we think about these images?

BZ: I'm going to give you a minority view on this, because I don't think a lot of people agree with me. I think it's just a difference in degree; I don't think it's a difference in kind. We always could find the gruesome videos, it was just a question of how far you wanted look, how hard you wanted to try. You could find them beyond mainstream news organizations. You could go outside the United States and you could find them. This isn't so far back, but certainly in the early days of the Iraq War—think about Al Jazeera publishing pictures of captured POWs. Remember the whole debate about that? You can go to ISIS's web site, or to Al Qaeda's Inspire magazine. You could always get there; it's easier to find now.

The idea that these pictures have not been part of our public sphere, I disagree quite vehemently. But I will say that there are more of them. There are more options to get at them. But they haven't changed substantially what we actually see.

PW: Do you think that the way we respond to these kinds of photos has to do with our particular cultural notions about death? In many places in the world, mourning, for instance, is a very public activity—it's done outside, voices are raised, amidst the whole community. In the U.S., we do mourning very quietly and privately. Do you think that has any impact on how profoundly we're affected when we are confronted with images like these?

BZ: Absolutely. First of all, every culture has its own conventions about how to deal with death. Generally, it tends to be the death of others that are easier to show than the deaths of our own. It's the death of the less vulnerable that tend to get shown more easily, unless there's a very particular strategic point to be made. There are cultures that tend to be less squeamish. We do have this shared global platform where we're getting pictures from all over the place. But again, I would emphasize that it's a difference in degree, not in kind. It's not that these pictures have never been in the American public sphere, it's just that there are more of them and more availability.

It's something that I wrote all the way back in Remembering to Forget [Zelizer's 2000 book about photographic images of the Holocaust]: there has to be that technological platform to show images, there has to be that political mandate that it's worthwhile, that it's strategically useful to show images, and there has to be a moral imperative to see. For a very long time we had the first, but we haven't had the other two. We haven't been politically interested in seeing [these kinds of] images, and we haven't been morally aware that seeing them might have an important effect. We're moving to that kind of point again. We've been very shy in this country, certainly over the last sixty years. And I think that's beginning to change. 

PW: The State Department has made a video including images of some of ISIS's brutality—including severed heads and crucifixions. The idea is that it's supposed to show their true nature and dissuade people from joining with them. Do you think there's any point to that? Is it likely to achieve the goals they're after? Because it's not like if you're some nineteen-year-old potential ISIS recruit somewhere that you're going to say: "Oh, I didn't understand that they were cutting people's heads off, but now I do."

BZ: It shows how clueless they are. They just don't know how to fight this. So now they're declaring a propaganda war against ISIS—fight propaganda with propaganda. But these guys are sophisticated. I'm not sure we're as sophisticated, quite honestly. We're good at the more covert stuff (although that, too, is questionable). We're not so good at the stuff that's in your face, and this stuff is in your face. What I saw [of the State Department’s effort] was ridiculous. I thought it was amateurish and not reflective of any kind of clear vantage point on our part. Why would we be showing these severed heads? They may yet get to a place where they're able to do it [make effective propaganda], but they're not there yet. 

PW: These days, everybody has a camera in their pocket, people are photographing nearly every moment in their lives, and making a lot of them public on places like Instagram. Maybe I'm not aware of it, but I haven't seen ordinary people documenting the end of their loved ones' lives. I've seen people do it for their pets.

BZ: That's not true, actually. There's a whole movement documenting ends of lives. It's actually a genre of photography that I elected to pull out of my corpus when I did About to Die, because it's drawn from a different set of impulses. 

PW: Do you think it's going to become more common? Thinking back on the idea you mentioned of "the other," and the fact that our media don't show Americans' dead bodies or almost-dead bodies as much as they do foreigners’, it's sort of like our people's bodies are sacred, and the others' bodies are already profane, and so it's O.K. to show them. Obviously, there's nothing more sacred than your loved ones or yourself as you're moving toward the end. I guess what I'm curious about is if that's a line that's going to stay there—that even if there are some people who are doing it, for most people that's going to seem like a violation of the sacred and they're not going to want to go there.

BZ: It's hard to say collectively what people will do. Some people really like to write about the deaths of their loved ones, and some people profoundly can't. Some people like to eulogize their loved ones at funerals, and some people can't. People do it for such different reasons than the kind of stuff that is geared toward the public sphere. 

Those things are not so much geared toward the general population; it might be geared toward family members, or other sufferers of the same disease. So there's a kind of use value to that in grieving. But I can't quite make the conceptual leap from that to this becoming the general way of dealing with death, because I don't think there's one way of dealing with death in any medium—not just photography.

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