“Oh rascal children of Gaza. You who constantly disturbed me with your screams under my window. You who filled every morning with rush and chaos. You who broke my vase and stole the lonely flower on my balcony. Come back, and scream as you want and break all the vases. Steal all the flowers. Come back…Just come back…” – Khaled Juma, Palestinian poet from Gaza
The Israeli aggression against the Gazans has subsided but the memory of the dead children still lingers: a disproportionate number of images of dead and disfigured children from Gaza, apart from the huge concrete debris, of course, in place, where there stood apartments, schools, hospitals, and mosques. According to the UN, since the Israeli offensive in Gaza broke out on 8 July, 296 Palestinian children and adolescents have been killed, out of which 187 were boys and 109 girls. At least, 203 of them under the age of 12.
What could be the possible reasons behind such burgeoning images of children? Why are there hardly images of the Hamas firing (and sometimes misfiring) rockets? The New York Times Pulitzer prize winning photojournalist, Tyler Hicks, has come under severe criticism for the increasing number of images of dead children. In some opinions, the working conditions were extremely difficult and the Hamas wouldn’t allow any of the images in which they were shown to be firing rockets.
Sometimes the images of dead children were sourced from Syria. In fact, some have cynically claimed that these images were winning the PR war for the Hamas. For example, Bil Leak’s cartoon in The Australian, where a Hamas member tells a boy: “There! Now you go out to play and win the PR war for daddy”.
There are two sets of images coming out of the conflict that we encounter.
The first set comprises of the images of dead children, who are being carried on the streets as a sign of public mourning; dead children being mourned by the mother or father in single-shot frames that provide a sense of private mourning, an impossibility during conflict; a mother touching the body of a dead child for one last time; and then, the grisly images of dead children packed in ice-cream freezers for lack of space in the mortuary.
In the second set, we witness images of children playing near a destroyed mini ferris wheel; children sitting forlorn on a sofa amid the rubbles; children retrieving the remains of books from the debris; a child playing on the beach during the first few hours of humanitarian ceasefire; a child holding a toy in the hospital on the morning of Eid al-Fitr; a child sitting forlorn and grabbing a bite in the rubbles of her destroyed home.
And, the most striking of all is the image of an eight-year-old Yara Abed Al Salam El-Farra, dressed in beautiful finery looking into the camera.
Each of these images invites us to witness the suffering of others and, seemingly, cajoles us to participate in mourning and stirs us into action. But how do we witness these unbearable images of dead children? What do we make of these images, finally?
A woman holds the body of her 1-year-old daughter at her funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014. (Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters/Source:The Wall Street Journal)
A Palestinian girl sits and eats in the rubble of her destroyed home, on August 2, 2014 following an overnight Israeli strike on Gaza City. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)
Yara Abed Al Salam El-Farra, 8 years old, was killed in an Israeli airstrike on Friday in Khan Younis. (Photo courtesy of the Middle East Children’s Alliance)
In Man and the Sacred, Roger Caillois writes that in primitive societies, festival with its excesses of energy and joy (also called the ‘carnivalesque’ by Bakhtin) cuts through the monotony of daily life. In our modern societies, war approximates, Caillois avers, the role of the festival, as war with its importance, explosiveness, and intensity disrupts ‘the calm routine of peacetime’. One similarity between festivals and war is sacrifice – either human or animal. One sinister way to read the killing of children in the recent Isareli-Palestine War (if one could call it a war at all) is to witness them as sacrifice, nothwithstanding the one-sided sacrifce of the Gazan children. War in modern times, like festivals in primitive societies, demands human sacrifice. The children could be seen as the ones who are easy to sacrifice or kill.
However, as people who are far away from the actual happenings, how do we witness the almost inevitable ‘sacrifice’ of the children? What does our wintessing entail?
In a piece in The Caravan magazine, Mirza Wahid writes about our complicity in silence against the Israeli killing of Gazan children: “And to prevaricate about who the aggressor is, as we continue to witness a brutal assault on an oppressed – imprisoned – people, speaks of a stark absence of moral rectitude.” Mark the words, ‘Absence of moral rectitude’. But are the images of dead children bound to guarantee a moral outrage?
As Susan Sontag reminds us: not necessarily.
When we witness the images of victims from a distance, we inhabit the uncomfortable positions of either ‘spectators’ or ‘cowards’, writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others. Further, in On Photography, Sontag claims that when we witness other people’s suffering in the form of constantly simulated images, there is a real possibility that the witnessing might lead to apathy or what we might call a ‘pornography of violence’ – the vicarious witnessing of others’ suffering – which might titillate our senses and, then, numb us: “Living with the photographed images of the suffering…does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate…Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more—and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.” The distance might make us more apathetic – anesthetize – to the real sufferings of real human beings elsewhere, because these images of dead children appear to us, John Berger writes in another context, as a “dead object” .
The unbearable pain of others might make us numb and fatigued, inducing moral resignation. As it happened in the case of a woman from Sarajevo during the Serbian War, who switched channels unable to consume an ‘oversaturation’ of images of the destruction of Vukovar. As it turned out, Sarajevo was also destroyed by the Serbian Army. As in this woman’s case, Sontag feels that the images, instead of making us feel apathetic and inactive, must induce in us a feeling of just rage that might propel us to action because human exhaustion cannot last forever.
In our media-saturated society (with television channels and internet), we are increasingly invited to witness others’ suffering. In Sontag’s words, witnessing is like “being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country…[a] cumulative offering by more than a century and half’s worth of those specialized tourists known as journalists.” These images of dead Palestinian children is a form of witnessing through mass mediation, displayed and circulated through news media, particularly television and internet.
In the case of the Holocaust, such witnessing has become a political project because of the institutional support in the form of installations, museum exhibitions, and circulation of pamphlets.
However, the power of the images emanating from Gaza resides in its non-institutionalization. There is no instiutionalized political project, despite the Hamas might wanting to institutionalize such suffering for building a political consensus against the Israeli aggression. Yet, the very scattered nature of such witnessing – which produces varied responses, unlike the ones we see in the case of the Holocaust images – is its strength as it can lead to a real humanitarian intervention across the globe.
We must remember that our second-hand witnessing of these images from a distance is a routinized mundane experience, unlike the extraordinary witnessing by those who are close to the field and documenting it, for example, in Gaza. These images, from being extraordinary documentation degenerates into ordinary images of violence because of the surfeit. Witnessing these images from far – Gaza, in this case – is also a form of political and ethical participation. It is at once distanced and engaging; at once, attractive and repulsive; at once, inducing inaction and action; at once, producing moral resignation and moral outrage.
What’s the moral source of of our indignation, when we see these images? John Peters writes that the power of witnessing emerges from its proximity to the boundary between life and death. I think, ultimately, the power of the images of dead children in Gaza emerges only by juxtaposing these two sets of photographs of children – those dead and disfigured and those captured in everyday, mundane acts. Participation to view these images entails bearing witness to the aborted lives of these dead children because of the possibilities that are nipped untimely.
If these images must go beyond becoming a ‘pornography of violence’ – merely titillating us – they must incite us into a new political consciousness. Here I end with Sontag’s comments in On Photography, “What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness. Without a politics, photographs of the slaughter-bench of history will most likely be experienced as, simply, unreal or as a demoralizing emotional blow.”
[First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday.]