Three images that show wartime photographs can have greater impact than the written word

This article contains images that some may finding distressing, including of torture.

“Images are worth a thousand words. These images may be worth a million.” US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s response to being shown graphic images of the victims of Hamas’s recent massacre raises an important question about whether photographs are more powerful than words in conveying the brutality of war.

Since the announcement of its invention in 1839, photography has been imagined as a form of “writing with light” (referring to the meanings of the Greek words phos and graphe from which it is derived).

Writing in the New York Times in 1862, Oliver Wendell Holmes reflected on photographs taken after the Battle of Antietam during the US civil war: “We see the list [of those killed in battle] in the morning paper at breakfast but dismiss its recollection with the coffee.” By contrast, it was as if the photographer had “brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets”.

In a globalised and fast-moving media landscape, photographs are more efficient than words. They can be absorbed in an instant and apparently transcend barriers of language. The notion of photography as a universal language has been around since photography’s origins and, despite criticism, remains powerful.

As the documentary photographer Sebastião Salgado put it: “I can write in photography — and you can read it in China, in Canada, in Brazil, anywhere.”

Photographs have worked alongside words to substantiate written reports on war on the basis that the mechanically produced images provide an objective and neutral record of reality.

Numerous scholars, however, have debunked this and shown how the camera can indeed lie. Wartime photographs can be used for propaganda purposes. Yet, even in the era of digital and AI-enhanced imagery, the idea that photography reveals the truth persists.

Lucy’s research has explored how this perception of photography as evidence was harnessed for propaganda purposes during Mexico’s Cristero War (1926-29), a struggle which saw Catholics rise up against a series of government policies curbing religious freedoms.

Catholic propagandists disseminated real photographs of slain priests and militants, both in Mexico and abroad, as proof of federal violence. This created narratives of martyrdom that would galvanise support for the rebellion.

The most enduring photograph of this kind is the striking image of the Jesuit priest Miguel Pro who was executed without trial in 1927 on suspicion of attempting to assassinate former president Álvaro Obregón, despite limited evidence.

In his final moments before the firing squad Pro assumed the pose of Christ on the cross, converting his body into a symbol of non-violent Catholic resistance. The publication of the photograph in the mainstream media sparked Catholic outrage around the world in 1927 and continues to circulate today.

Some of the most powerful photographs from wartime have catalysed fierce debate on the justification of conflict. Here are three examples.

1. Liberation of concentration camps (1945)

Journalists have turned to the camera when words seem incapable of describing the most extreme wartime atrocities. This was the experience of US and British reporters covering the Allied liberation of the concentration camps at the end of the second world war.

A New York Times journalist said at the time: “Writers have tried to describe these things, but words cannot describe them.” Photographs offered proof that was “more difficult to deny than with words”, according to professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania Barbie Zelizer.

Buchenwald Concentration Camp on April 16, 1945.
Alpha Historica / Alamy Stock Photo

An Israeli government spokesperson said that photographs of the recent October 7 massacre had been released to combat a “Holocaust denial-like phenomenon” over the Hamas atrocities.

2. “Napalm Girl” (1972)

Nick Ut’s photograph of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing after a napalm attack on the village of Trang Bang has been considered “a symbol of the horror of war in general, and of the war in Vietnam in particular”. The image created the myth that the US was responsible when in reality the napalm had been accidentally dropped by South Vietnamese forces.

Four people next to a photograph known as 'Napalm Girl' taken during the Vietnam War
Photographer Nick Ut poses with his 1972 picture The Terror of War, also known as the Napalm Girl, next to Phan Thi Kim Phuc (left) who featured in the picture as a child, during an audience held by Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Although Ut’s photograph did not radically transform US public opinion to the extent often assumed, it became an icon for anti-war sentiment and Ut claimed that it influenced soldiers’ decisions to abandon the war.

3. Abu Ghraib (2004)

Photographs have played a powerful role in exposing war crimes, as in the case of the now infamous images documenting torture against detainees at the US military prison in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.

Although written reports of abuses had been circulating for over a year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed only the images provided a “vivid realisation” of what happened. “Words don’t do it,” , he added.

A man standing on a box wearing a hood and with his hands held out, apparently attached to power cables.
A prisoner being tortured at the Abu Ghraib prison in November 2003.
Pictorial Press/Alamy

The most striking photograph, showing the hooded figure of Ali Shallal al-Qaysi with electrical cables attached to his outstretched arms, arguably became the defining image of the “war on terror”. The image significantly damaged public perception of US foreign policy and was appropriated as a symbol of protest around the world.

Read more:
50 years after ‘Napalm Girl,’ myths distort the reality behind a horrific photo of the Vietnam War and exaggerate its impact

These images demonstrate the power of photography not only to provide “evidence” of the realities of war, but also to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. Author Susan Sontag famously warned that over-exposure to images of suffering could cause apathy and “compassion fatigue” but, as the photography curator and academic David Campany has shown, it’s not that clear-cut.

Research from 2011 concluded that photographs published in European news publications relating to human experiences of the 2009 Gaza conflict provoked stronger emotional reactions than articles.

In her work on the ongoing Israel-Palestine crisis, Israeli author and art curator Ariella Azoulay argues that contemplating images of suffering binds us in a “civil contract” with those depicted: it is up to us to respond through meaningful action.

As we navigate the harrowing news coverage of the Middle East conflict, perhaps what is most important is photography’s potential to remind us of our shared humanity.

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