How can we understand images of terrorist violence against hostages?


Be careful, the descriptions of violent events reported in this article may offend a sensitive audience.

Visually, Shani Louk appeared before everyone's eyes on October 7. This young Israeli-German, tattoo artist by profession, was kidnapped while participating in the Tribe of Nova festival. She was seen naked and on her stomach in the back of a pickup truck in a short propaganda video taken by Hamas.

In this video, her head is bloody and she appears unconscious. Several Hamas militiamen presented her as a trophy, while another, placed next to the vehicle, spit on her. The film then shows the vehicle driving off and disappearing into the distance. Shani Louk was quickly identified by her mother thanks to her tattoos and dreadlocks. Three weeks after his kidnapping, she was pronounced dead.

The tragic and revolting fate of Shani Louk should encourage us to think about the visibility of terrorist violence, the use that is made of it and the impact that these images have on us. Obviously taking all possible precautions.

The deadly Hamas raid on Israel on October 7, 2023 brought its share of atrocious images, even if, apparently, the most unbearable have not always been broadcast, and Israel has a 43 minute video montage very difficult to watch images, which were shown to researchers, journalists and parliamentarians.

The embarrassment of the media and their self-censorship are important as soon as it comes to showing violence, as soon as the dignity of the victims is at stake, as soon as the images are propaganda, as soon as they are too disturbing, but also as soon as they provoke too strong emotions.

Journalistic ethics (see for example the page 19 of this AFP charter) as image specialists set rules on this subject, starting from the postulate that violence can be the enemy of information, and that we understand a phenomenon better when its representation is "peaceful".

The philosopher Yves Michaud therefore thinks that the images of the injured in the RER Saint-Michel attack in 1995 denounce neither violence nor terrorism, but on the contrary we could state that, as time passes, they now acquire the value of historical archives, announcing the era of jihadist terrorism in France.

Many images fall into oblivion and remain invisible. But the visibility of violence is a question that only repeats itself and grows in the era of the profusion of images and their distribution channels.

We can therefore ask ourselves, as the American essayist, novelist and activist suggested Susan Sontag in his essay "Before the pain of others", on accepting to let oneself be haunted by images of violence and learning to look at them.

Nudity and violence

The fear caused by the images of Shani Louk's capture is due in particular to the vulnerability of the young girl exposed. She finds herself in the middle of the faces drunk with hatred of the members of Hamas who inspire terror and occupy the entire space of an image which proclaims their glory.

The empathy that an image can provoke can thus be achieved through the disturbing presence of nudity as a recurring prerequisite to violence or death.

We think of the women stripped naked during the pogroms in Lviv in Ukraine in 1941, where thousands of Jews were killed. We have several photos of these women, which have strangely not become iconic, perhaps because, as the English historian notes Griselda Pollock about the massacres of Jews in the Baltic countries at the same time, for a male gaze, nudity distracts from the perspective of death.

However, as shown Georges Didi-Huberman, these are indeed three photos of naked bodies, alive then dead, of women undressed before entering the gas chambers of Auschwitz, taken by members of a Sonderkommando – work units in the Nazi extermination centers , composed of prisoners, the vast majority Jewish, forced to participate in the process of the “final solution” – which gives an “imaginable” to the thought of “outside” and to what no one foresees the possibility.

Closer to us, in 1972, the "napalm girl" by Nick Ut, a little girl with a burned back and screaming in pain, fleeing her bombed village, almost never appeared in newspapers around the world, because the Associated Press was embarrassed by her nudity. Even today, algorithms social networks track down and eliminate this image, even though it is famous and its iconographic power comes from the contrast between the fragility of Kim Phuc – that's her name – and the battlefield where she is trapped, her status as a innocent child and the violence of the adults of which she is a victim.

The visual destiny of Shani Louk inevitably brings to mind the little-known but striking image of the young Russian patriot Zoya Kosmodemianskaïa, killed by the Nazis in 1941 in the village of Petrishchevo, hanged then stripped of her breasts, her breast cut off, but her face intact. Analyzing the photograph of his body, Frédéric Astruc shows that she is an improbable point of balance between beauty and horror, and that she restores all her humanity to Zoia in the face of her barbaric murderers.

Making the body of Shani Louk disappear, whose face is also hidden, also means taking the risk of forbidding any identification and continuing the erasure of his presence in the world desired by his executioners.

An image saturated with oppositions

Hamas' staging of this kidnapping is a precipitate of what characterizes contemporary terrorism. Indeed, terrorist actions are marked by a disconnection between the victims actually affected and the political targets ultimately aimed at.

In the "logic" of this indiscriminate violence, killing people at the Bataclan would advance the cause of establishing a caliphate in the Syrian-Iraqi zone, and machine-gunning dancers in the desert would make it possible to fight against Israel.

But the reception of these actions by the populations is pure terror, with no idea that a political transaction between the terrorists and the State is possible, because the attack on civilians who are not directly concerned is unbearable. For Hamas, Shani Louk is a prize of war, but her destitution says precisely the opposite: she is from the outset foreign to the conflict, neither her job nor the festive activity she carried out before being taken hostage brings it closer, and its capture is not a military objective.

As is often the case, propaganda images are reversible: where Hamas intends to stage a coup, Western audiences see an armed action which essentially targets unarmed civilians, and is more reminiscent of the brutality of Mexican gangs and cartels. Even a depoliticized criminal activity, where the murders of babies and children, the rapes of women, the kidnappings of old ladies, the systematic shooting of anyone encountered, even in the domestic space, cannot be linked to any logic. military.

On the contrary, it is the asymmetry between killers and victims that Shani Louk's video reveals, in pairs of oppositions that are difficult to grasp emotionally.

As at the Bataclan again, opposition between a carefree rave party and the eruption of violence which ends in blood. Opposition between the space of celebration and that of war, symbolized here by machine guns and jeeps. Opposition between the photographs of Shani Louk before her kidnapping, which circulated on the Internet, showing her in bohemian outfit, clubber, young girl "of her time" posing on Instagram for her 13 followers, and his last unbearable moments.

Opposition of posture and sounds between militiamen gesticulating and screaming, raising their weapons, and an unconscious young woman. Opposition of religions between fanaticized fighters and victims, Hamas hunting down "Jews", before hunting down "Israelis", which led to the use of the word "pogrom" to describe the attack of October 7. All these oppositions in fact renew the initial decoupling between universes which "should not" have met and which terrorism brings together, that of violence and that of civilians.

To accept being haunted by images of suffering and violence is to allow oneself to be invaded by so-called negative emotions, by astonishment and shock, even though journalists hesitate to show them, while French law criminally prohibits publish images that violate the dignity of victims, and that psychologists advise against watching them at the risk, if not of permanent astonishment, of anxiety, disgust, even insensitization.

We know that images of propaganda, of executions (by Daesh, for example), here of kidnappings, are used for the purposes of enlisting new recruits, of galvanizing, of constructing a whole imagery of violence and martyrdom, in order to reinforce the radicalization of terrorists.

But on the contrary, shocking images can also play a role of denunciation and unite those who fight this violence. To cite just one example, Nazi photos were used by the Polish resistance, by the Soviets, and by Allied newspapers, to denounce Nazism.

This contemporary iconoclasm is due to the confusion already pointed out Jacques Rancière between "the intolerable in the image", that of reality, and "the intolerable of the image". Confronting images also means accessing other emotions, compassion in particular, provoking behavior, revolt or even commitment, in the face of violence against civilians, accessing information, deconstructing propaganda, documenting a situation, or even identify assassins for possible legal action.

Emmanuel Taïeb, Professor of Political Science - Editor-in-chief of Quaderni, Sciences Po Lyon

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of InfoChrétienne.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Roman Yanushevsky (kibbutz Be'eri) 

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