In 2005, as the situation in Iraq worsened, alarming new evidence of the reality of the war emerged. American servicemen unable to use their credit cards to access porn websites, owing to verification problems, were sending digital pictures to a porn site in Florida in exchange for free access. To start with the pictures were just a way of proving that the men were in service and they showed routine scenes of military life. As word spread about the deal, soldiers began to send horrifically violent and gory images to the porn site owner, Christopher Wilson, who put them online in a new site called Nowthatsfuckedup.com. Wilson was arrested under obscenity laws, but avoided prosecution by working out a plea bargain and agreeing to shut down the site.
I didn’t see these images at the time, but later viewed some of them on one of the Indymedia network websites. They are extremely hard to look at. Shot close up, the color pictures show bodies torn apart and pulped like smashed fruit by the power of modern weapons. In one picture, most of a man’s head lies on the ground; a section of his hand, with the fingers still intact, rests nearby. In another, the camera points directly into a man’s face as his brains hang down from the side of his skull; and in another, tattered strands of ligament and muscle trail from the stump of a woman’s leg. She is still alive.
What do images of extreme violence do to us? I can say how I felt scrolling through these photos, waiting to see what would appear next at the bottom of the screen. I felt morbid curiosity, fear, revulsion, dejection and a great emptiness as though my energy and volition were draining away. I couldn’t decide whether I was numb with shock or just not reacting strongly enough. Nor could I shake off the guilty sensation that I already knew what war does to people — to the extent that someone who hasn’t been in a war can ever know — and didn’t need to see it again. Not for the first time I suspected that images like this are so corrosive to the psyche that I would pay some kind of price for exposing myself to these sights. I wondered what other people experience during these moments of self-imposed revelation: do they find the images harder to take? Or easier? I felt dismay at how obscenely straightforward it was to gain access to the pictures, just a few clicks at the keyboard, with no real effort required. What gives us the right, sitting safely at our screens in our living rooms, offices or studios, to dip our fingers into other people’s suffering and gaze at such horrors?
The usual reason given for disseminating violent images of war is to strip away our illusions and make us see the truth. This was the campaigning educational spirit in which Indymedia posted the photos in 2005, and one of the hundreds of comments left on the site since then by visitors proposes their use as instruments of anti-war persuasion: “These pictures should be shown on TV to everyone. Let [them] see what their tax dollars are doing in their name.” Distasteful as it was to present the pictures anywhere in the vicinity of porn (though they were evidently consumed by some as a kind of porn), Christopher Wilson offered the same public-interest defence, quoting from an article in a 1938 issue of Life magazine that showed dead bodies during the Spanish Civil War: “Dead men have indeed died in vain if live men refuse to look at them.”
Nowthatsfuckedup.com offered some of the most disturbing war photos ever to surface in the public domain. Even if you have seen the pacifist Ernst Friedrich’s horrific anti-war book War Against War! (1924), or pictures of atrocities committed during the Rape of Nanking, the Holocaust and the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, they mark the breaking of a new threshold in the public representation of destructive aggression. In their callous, anti-human, bloodthirsty matter-of-factness, the pictures rob the victims of every shred of dignity, treating these ravaged “kills” as dead meat displayed to the camera like trophies from a hunt. News photographers have sometimes taken photos of this kind — such scenes are unavoidable in war zones — but editors and broadcasters usually judge them unshowable, choosing pictures that are easier for readers and viewers to stomach over breakfast or dinner. Iconic images of 20th-century wars, however upsetting, are rarely so disrespectfully intrusive or anatomically explicit and they are often in black and white, which can soften and even aestheticize the horror, a moral problem in itself.
While violent pictures are intended to inform us about the consequences of war, when viewing them we may still experience a sense of the indecency of looking — it was overwhelming as I scrolled down the Indymedia page — because by looking we violate deeply ingrained taboos about what it is seemly or appropriate to see. Staring at the injured and dying at the scene of an accident, for instance, is still widely regarded as unacceptable and we censure people who do this as rubberneckers and ghouls. Yet in the era of the Internet, where access to every kind of extreme image, many of them sexual, is never more than a few seconds away, older notions of decency, dignity and personhood are eroding. Many now believe that anything that is legal can and should be shown, that legality should be decided solely on the basis of whether harm is being done to anyone in the picture (war pictures are an obvious exception), and that we should be able to see anything we care to see without external constraints. The idea of visual taboos, of images that society deems unacceptable on our behalf, offends our consumerist conviction that our own freedom is the most important consideration.
So the violent image confronts us with a dilemma. We need to see it (because it is right to be informed), we want to see it (because we demand to see everything), and seeing it is easier than ever before (because technology makes it so). But none of this tells us anything about what effects these images have on us. Andrzej Werbart, a Swedish psychoanalyst, argues that taboos against images of violence, suffering and perversion play a vital role in sustaining what he calls the “skin ego,” which he defines as “the outer shield of our body image and our inner world.” Electronic technology extends our sensory awareness out across the world (as McLuhan argued), inundating us with images of violence and sexuality, but there is no corresponding expansion of the ego, which lags behind. In Werbart’s view, exposure to so many images of bleeding, maimed and dead bodies can lead to narcissistic regression and cause the disintegration of the skin ego, with traumatic consequences for the psyche as our boundaries collapse.
“When pictures of naked violence, the free outlet for murderous and perverse desires, are perceived as invasive and perforate the skin ego, the entire arsenal of our ancient defence mechanisms is activated,” he writes. “The sense of our vulnerability and our own murderous desires are both so threatening to us that, faced with pictures of this kind, we may react by ‘de-identifying ourselves’, keeping a distance, regarding reality as fiction, de-humanizing others.” I felt something like this myself when looking at the Indymedia images. The pictures, each one torn from its context, puncture your sense of yourself and your own boundaries, where you end and a hostile, violent world begins, and one way to deal with these monstrous revelations is to try to detach yourself, to push them away and deny they relate to your own life far from these terrible events, even though you know the images are real and will fester inside you.
If a picture of violence is to promote the life instinct rather than the death instinct, then according to Werbart, two conditions are necessary. First, it needs to be part of the narrative of a life story, with an emotional and historical context, rather than an isolated fragment — and what could be more isolated, more desolate, than a photo of a body part? Second, it needs to be a form of witnessing rather than merely showing and viewing. Modern media often dispenses with the figure of the narrator to bring the viewer closer to the action, but it is the narrator’s subjectivity, mediating between audience and image, that conveys the experience behind the image — the pain, suffering and meaning — and transforms it into testimony. Werbart concludes that pictures of violence presented in a description of the human condition, which we must all face, rather than as a series of disconnected, disabling psychic shocks, could “contribute to the re-establishment of the ego as a psychic agent of our self-government.”
An essay by the art critic John Berger, written in 1972, when the war in Vietnam was still raging, suggests that even this subtle analysis doesn’t capture the whole problem. In “Photographs of Agony,” Berger, too, proposes that the discontinuous nature of the photograph, a moment snatched from time instead of other moments, disturbs the viewer. People who are present in the situation shown in the picture perceive and understand the event quite differently; each one could be a narrator in the sense that Werbart proposes. “But the reader who has been arrested by the photograph may tend to feel this discontinuity as his own personal moral inadequacy,” writes Berger. “And as soon as this happens even his sense of shock is dispersed.” When viewers encounter many violent photographs, as we all do now, this will be a constant feeling. The picture exists to prick our consciences and provoke action, but if no action related to its origin in a specific political situation occurs, then the picture is depoliticized. It becomes “evidence of the general human condition,” says Berger, accusing everybody — including the demoralized viewer — and nobody. In Regarding the Pain of Others, the critic Susan Sontag makes a similar point. “Compassion is an unstable emotion,” she writes. “It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. [. . .] People don’t become inured to what they are shown — if that’s the right way to describe what happens — because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling.” But surely ever more images must result in an even more profound condition of passivity?
We do know that violent images can sometimes change public opinion. The unusually explicit pictures that emerged from Vietnam, often dubbed the first media war, helped to bring about the end of that conflict. The Q. And Babies? A. And Babies poster produced by Art Workers Coalition, based on a photograph by Ron Haeberle of the My Lai Massacre, remains one of the most confrontational images in the history of the protest poster. More recently, the publication of photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, taken by military personnel, scandalized world opinion. There will always be a place for shock tactics, especially when the facts about a particular conflict are not widely known.
It is doubtful, though, that anything positive can come from consuming a continuous flow of obscenely violent war pictures. From both a psychoanalytical and a political perspective, the conclusion is the same: we need to regulate our exposure to violent images. If they are truly to shock us, these pictures must be used sparingly. If they are not going to be used sparingly because technology and ease of access makes this impossible, then we need to impose our own personal restrictions on what we choose to see. Longstanding taboos on what is fit for viewing exist for sound psychological reasons. As Werbart writes, “Only a tolerance for ‘no’, ‘never’ and ‘nothingness’ can create a real place where it is possible for ‘someone’ to exist as a separate individual with his own identity.” And only an individual with a secure identity will have the strength to transform a legitimate sense of outrage into political action and protest.
This essay was first published in Colors Notebook: Violence edited by Fabrica (Birkhäuser, 2008).