Atypical images of war [Commentary]

In three weeks, representatives from the Assad regime and the opposition are scheduled to convene in Geneva to begin the process of negotiating peace in Syria's civil war — five months after the government's chemical weapons attacks killed more than 1,400 people.

The atrocities were depicted in a series of casualty photographs and videos that circulated globally on news and social media, and they provoked the threat of military action against the Assad government by the United States. Subsequently, the regime promised to dismantle its chemical weapons program by mid-2014, though their full compliance remains uncertain.

Still, the images themselves are significant, both for what they show and what they don't.  

President Barack Obama, in his September 10 address on Syria, asserted that the "world saw in gruesome detail" what the Assad regime had done, but this was not exactly the case. The amateur photos and videos of the victims of the attacks do not follow the familiar model of the war casualty image. They were recognizable as such primarily in their quantitative aspects: the number of images and the astonishing volume of casualties (many of them grouped together) that they depicted. The scale of death bespoke militarized violence, but the qualitative dimension of those images was a bit more equivocal.

Even those who were visually captured while suffering, in the process of dying, or having already died, do not quite conform to the common model for representing war dead. While many of them convulsed, grimaced, foamed at the mouth, or cried out, their bodies remained intact, without visible wounds, injuries, or dismemberments. Consequently, the images could not be self-evidently meaningful or entirely transparent, and paradoxically, the best evidence of what they documented — elusive chemical weapons — was what they did not show.

To matter, they required expert explanation and interpretation. The descriptive effort to invest images with meaning is nothing new; indeed, it is a crucial part of the visual culture of war. But these images seemed to undermine the status of photographic evidence of atrocity because they didn't seem to show it, even as many people avowed that they did. Mr. Obama himself seemed to have faith in the power of the images, and he exhorted those who had not yet seen them to do so, and then to ask themselves, "What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas, and we choose to look the other way?"

But even when we looked directly at them, it was not entirely clear what we were seeing. And, moreover, it was not entirely clear what seeing them was meant to do.

There was something fractured in Obama's exhortation to watch the videos, as he had already decided at the time he made the address to do nothing, or at least not what he had originally intended to do. In this speech, Mr. Obama simultaneously conceded that he would wait for a diplomatic solution while also arguing for the possible eventual necessity of military strikes. This ambivalent posture echoes, in many ways, the ambiguous status of the images themselves and the confused position to which spectators were called; after all, the decision not to act on the truth that the images seemingly told had already been made before the president's urging for all citizens to bear witness to it.

Myriad uncertainties hover around these pictures. We cannot know how they will function or signify in the future, especially because changing dynamics in the region might compel the United States to negotiate with the Assad regime to prevent a jihadist takeover of the country. But ultimately, insofar as their content reflects and channels such unknowability, these photos provide an unintentionally perfect record of what transpired.

Rebecca A. Adelman is an assistant professor in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her email is

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