Commentary

The politics of visuals and propaganda of photographs

Bashir Ahmed, a civil contractor, resident of HMT, Srinagar, was shot dead in Sopore yesterday. The police has said that he was killed as militants opened fire to attack a patrol party. But according to the family’s testimonies, Bashir was dragged out of his car and shot dead by the armed forces.

He was accompanied by his three-year-old grandson.

Soon after, situational photos of the 3-year-old, unusually sitting on top of the dead body of his grandfather, not facing him, but the other side, went viral.

The Jammu and Kashmir Police itself, and its officers, tweeted those photos, saying, “rescued from getting hit by bullets during a terrorist attack”.

Later, more visuals came in, and kept coming in, as photographers kept going to the minor’s home and shooting him afresh.

“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality.” – Susan Sontag

We tend to forget reality over the years, but photographs remain to haunt us, to remind us of the grave injustices and oppression of the past.

Photographs scream the pain of a victim and the collective hardships of a community.

However, in the realm of violence and political oppression, the effects of photograph(y) are manifold. The situation becomes more dilemmatic because power is used to attach meaning to these photos, ripping the photographed off their human-ness and ripping the incident off its emotions, and context.

What then happens with that photograph is highly important as it bears consequences to the photographed and to the overall narrative.

An image is not just an image, it is a social (political construction). The construction of the meaning of images and further political (mis)use of these images is disrespectful to the participants of the photograph.

A photograph gets interpreted in multiple ways depending upon the discourse they get embedded into and the people behind forming these discourses.

In other words, a whole lot of power is used in deciding what way a photograph becomes visible and the extent of its visibility.

The situation becomes even more complicated in a politically volatile and grey setting like Kashmir.

We saw photos of the 3-year-old boy being used by the J&K Police to prove their political point of being a “saviour”. These photos echoing the same narrative were published by leading news channels in India and Kashmir.

Indian public too started sharing these photos and congratulating the heroes in uniform. This did nothing but turning the 3-year-old boy into a political tool, furthering the political interests of people in power, whitewashing the realities of Kashmir.

“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” – Susan Sontag

Photographing violence and oppression means the photographer has entered the photographed individual’s personal space and has become a part of their vulnerability. The photographs then becomes a direct representation of what the photographed (and people related to them) has gone through and will go through in the future.

Practicing professional photography or citizen photojournalism is an act of responsibility, an act where the line between taking reality to the world and exploiting the subject is often very thin.

Photographs are important, photographers more so. Images play an important part in all kinds of political situations, but their significance in a conflict zone like Kashmir, where violence is part of everyday life, is far more.

The impact of the images coming out of war/conflict is even more strong. These images make it difficult for outsiders to ignore or shun the reality, it speaks for the oppressed in a way nothing else can speak. These images go beyond language barriers and speak of injustice towards a people, across the globe.

In the Sopore case, not even a single photojournalist was present during the incident, as reported by Outlook. The mystery of who clicked the photos (including the one where the minor is seen sitting on the dead body of his grandfather) and then circulated it across, remains.

Regardless, all leading media channels carried the photo without confirming the source of it and the possibility of the photo being used as a propaganda tool.

Kashmir Police shared one of the photographs (a police personnel carrying the minor) on 9:34 am on 1st July, while ANI shared the same photo at 9:38 am.

Propaganda of the Deed a term conceptualized in 19th century France, refers to using a political action, mostly violent, as an example to spur up revolutionary sentiments in people.

It was initially used to describe such acts of insurgent groups, however, in today’s world, we can apply it either way.

With the Sopore case in particular, and the photos of pain and misery in Kashmir, in general, this propaganda is used and can go both ways.

In the videos shot (and circulated widely) later, after his grandfather’s funeral, the minor is seen recalling the incident where he says the policemen shot his grandfather.

Although it is important to “expose” a “reality”, such acts dehumanize the victim and turn them into “evidence”, “eye witness” or “object”.

Making that 3-year-old boy “confess”, even before the completion of 24 hours of the horrific incident, will do nothing but more damage to him, adding on to the trauma he has to live throughout his life.

What people tend to forget is that the 3-year-old minor is a living human; he will grow up, he will remember how the powerful used him as a tool, how the media peddled by that power used him as the poster boy, how he was used to furthering the “saviour” agenda, and how he was caught in the middle of a narrative battle.

Rather than ‘empowering’ the victims of a conflict, such intricacies involved, disempower the photographed in particular, and the whole people, in general.

In the middle of this battle of narratives and truth vs propaganda, a child and his childhood is lost.

The legality of sharing these photos is another point in this case. According to Article 74 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015,

“ (1) No report in any newspaper, magazine, news-sheet or audio-visual media or other forms of communication regarding any inquiry or investigation or judicial procedure, shall disclose the name, address or school or any other particular, which may lead to the identification of a child in conflict with law or a child in need of care and protection or a child victim or witness of a crime, involved in such matter, under any other law for the time being in force, nor shall the picture of any such child be published. Clause 3 of the Article states that, “Any person contravening the provisions of sub-section (1) shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months or fine which may extend to two lakh rupees or both.”

In this case, police itself shared the minor’s photograph, on their twitter handle, the police who, in theory, are responsible to implement/enforce these laws.

Amnesty called out the J&K Police as violators of the act and tweeted, “it is also a breach of the “best interests of the child” principle as required to be the basis of any action by the authorities under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which India is a state party.”

Moreover, while Kashmir Zone Police shared the photo where a policeman is carrying the minor in his arms, they conveniently ignored the photo where a policeman is seen standing over the body of the “rescued” child’s grandfather.

The police here excluded an aspect from the visual narrative, manipulating the incident to their benefit.

Another risk with such photographs is that they limit people’s understanding and mind. Media houses using Bashir Ahmad and the minor’s photo as a poster, using the minor boy as a poster boy, sensationalises that particular incident which is then seen in isolation without going into the history of oppression in Kashmir.

That incident is seen as a consequence of one particular “attack”, and not as part of systemic violence. This poster child is used as a part of Propaganda of the Deed to instil a moment of shock in the people and consequent anger against the militants and a sense of empathy for the forces.

“To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” – Susan Sontag.

Narrative building is an important tactic in a conflict, as Neville Bolt in his book, ‘The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries’, suggests. “The narrative domain becomes the new, contested battlespace”.

Visual narratives tend to evoke the audience’s emotions and further an agenda more effectively. But here it is pertinent to distinguish between the agenda of the powerful or the oppressor and the mission of the oppressed.

Hence, a photographer is not just disseminating individual incidents to the world, they are contributing to the narrative building and constructing a discourse around Kashmir. A photograph is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end.

And hence, it becomes important to keep in consideration the ethics and code of conduct to not fall in the risk of dehumanizing and disrespecting the photographed and rendering them powerless.

Consent, in a place like Kashmir, becomes important because of the political and emotional risks of a photo. However, there is also a need to deconstruct consent, whether it is tacit or direct, if it is former, it is no good.

If a photographer is entering the personal space of the photographed, they need to be mindful of the emotions and experiences of the photographed and proceed accordingly.

 

References:

Sontag, Susan, 1933-2004. (1977). On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

Gabi Schlag & Anna Geis (2017) Visualizing violence: aesthetics and ethics in international politics, Global Discourse.

Bolt, N. (2012) The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries. 

 

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