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Terror trades in images—it needs spectators to feed itself. It is commonplace to say that atrocities like the terrorist attacks in Manchester, London, Brussels, or Boston are “unspeakable”—whether to indicate that words are inadequate to describe such an act or that using words in this way is somehow, in itself, a form of violence. While these attacks may be unspeakable, they were most certainly not un-picturable: On the contrary, they generated a great number of images. These images mobilize shock, disbelief and repulsion, as well as gratuitous voyeurism. Becoming prime mediators in interrelationships between the targeted local communities and global audiences, they deploy a visual force that releases the impact of terror to the world at large.
Although piercing, images of terror are becoming more and more disconnected from the context in which they take place—all too often, photographs of mayhem, wounded bystanders, and destroyed buildings could have been taken almost anywhere in the world. No longer novel, photographs of terror now seem to create a sense of déjà vu or anxious anticipation. Many of us—myself included—have projected the photographed scenes against the background of own cities. Still, a few images stand out: Davina Douglass pressing a gauze mask to her face after being rescued in the aftermath of the 2005 London tube bombing; Tarana Akbari in a green tunic screaming in horror just minutes after a 2011 suicide bombing in Kabul; or dazed and bloodied Omran Daqneesh in the back of an Aleppo ambulance after a 2016 airstrike. Is any one of these as indelible as, for example, nine-year-old Kim Phúc running naked and napalmed down a Vietnam highway in 1972? That remains to be seen, but all of these demonstrate the essential qualities of terrorism photographs: their emphatic, graphic reality and unavoidably exploitative nature.
The Intersection of Photography and Terror
Any consideration of the impact of terrorism’s imagery must also examine the entanglement of photography and terror. Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero defines terrorism as an act of violence that destroys any notion of safety, integrity, or distinctiveness for individuals or society as a whole. In fact, she argues in her 2011 book Horrorism that words such as “terrorism” and “war” have become obsolete. Terrorist acts, says Cavarero, whether bombing or stabbing, are as ubiquitous as they are random: Every person, innocent or guilty, armed or defenceless, civilian or soldier, believer or atheist, is a potential target for obliteration. Terror disperses violence from its designated territories (battlefields, camps) into civilian settings (a pop concert, a restaurant, a Christmas fair), making the quotidian into a war zone. As for photographs of terror, Cavarero follows Susan Sontag’s lead in considering such images as the eroticization of horror.
But terror is also the emotional response that the act of violence engenders among bystanders, a mixture of fear, angst, disgust, and disbelief. To respond to terrorism (or horrorism as Cavarero would have it) is to experience a visceral and brutal check to our usually unexamined feelings of personal and public safety, our comfortable integration in the world, our very concept of existence. It is precisely the generation of this affective state among large populations, rather than the death and dismemberment of individuals, that is the ultimate goal of terrorists. From ISIS to white supremacy, terror’s power is in its emotional undoing.
Photographs of terrorist attacks operate to document the results of terror as an act of violence on helpless civilians and to instill a feeling of terror in viewers—viewers often caught unawares by these images and thus unwittingly coerced into a state of anxiety and fear. Further, photographs of terror create a sense of loss of time and place, a de-temporalization as lived experience comes to a halt. We become temporarily paralyzed—a reaction, it should be noted, that is fundamental to the experience of photography itself. Photographs stop a moment in time and arrest our sense of the ongoing movement that characterizes the body and the world around it. What’s more, photography interrupts our sense of interiority, disrupting with its insistence on motionlessness our feeling of being anchored in a temporal world. When the camera captures a moment of violence, it freezes the act of terror, making it unending, even eternal, forever perpetuating our emotional reaction to it.
In the Moment and After
Images of terrorism come in three forms. First, there are images of the immediate aftermath of the attack, civilians—often the most vulnerable, women and children—staggering out of the danger zone, faces bewildered or distorted by anguish, clothing torn and bloody. These victims have seen and experienced the carnage. “In the moment” imagery also includes first responders and aerial shots taken by police helicopters or drones. The latter can be particularly disquieting as they often reveal bodies of the wounded or the dead who may be the attackers themselves. Formalistically, these images tend to be visually arresting: vivid colors, dynamic compositions, chaotic scenes filled with authentic, unstudied human expressions. The element of immediacy and a lack of finish also contribute to a sense of dread. What we can see within the frame is bad enough—what horrors are taking place just out of sight?
Then come the images of mourning, grieving, and commemorating—photographs that invite viewers to become part of the visual script for grief. Streetscapes changed into shrines, a sea of snapshots, handwritten messages, flowers, and teddy bears. There are candlelight vigils and stern police officers patrolling the streets. These photographs offer no grand gestures, no sweeping emotions, no spectacle. Rather, they speak to the more mundane work that terror develops over time, of the personal, political, or cultural effort to make sense of the event and move beyond its senselessness. These images spark solidarity and identification, appealing to the feeling of shared mourning. They also run the risk of trivializing the act of terror and the depth of human response by replacing scenes of violence with those of sentimentality.
Accordingly, we have grown accustomed to visual performances of institutionalized grief: heads of state and high officials—Queen Elizabeth, London mayor Sadiq Khan, former prime minister Theresa May—making somber hospital visits and condemnatory speeches. Following the May 22, 2017, bombing in Manchester of an Ariana Grande concert, there followed a novel expression of performed grief: Grande’s June 4 benefit concert. Except for images of the singer sporting her One Love Manchester sweatshirt (merch available online), photographs of the event look exactly like any one of hundreds of other carefully choreographed and highly lucrative pop star concerts. The visual medium in this instance has brought us quite a distance from an act of terror to scenes of entertainment and capitalism seen through a screen of philanthropy.
The commemorative power of photographs reaches new potency in the world of social media. Twitter and Facebook were deluged with profile images of concertgoers as they looked before they became victims—who can forget the sweet-faced Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old victim, or Georgina Callander, a bespectacled eighteen-year-old who was shown in an older photograph with her arms around Grande’s waist? All of these private images became gateways to lives that would have otherwise remained unknown to us. Rather than being manifest and visible in these images, terror remains stored, contained, releasing an insidious emotional reaction for which we are unprepared. In the social media environment where self-celebratory rhetoric mixes with conflict reporting and funny cat videos, the snapshot portraits of victims became an affective portal for our voracious and indiscriminate quest for media consumption.
In Pursuit of Clickbait
Photographs of terrorist events also have other troubling aspects. More than other forms of photography, portraits seem to reflect the Western bias in the media coverage of terrorist attacks. Victims are presented as precarious and grief-worthy. After the concert bombing, the Greater Manchester Police Twitter account, for example, was transformed into a kind of digital shrine of personal images as a tribute to lost lives. At the same time, private images of the victims of attacks in Kabul and Baghdad, which happened around the same time as the UK attacks, are hardly to be found in the Western media. Occasionally, we do encounter memorable photographs of non-Western child victims (Omran Daqneesh, refugee Aylan Kurdi, or Kim Phúc), but countless others remain invisible and nameless.
In addition, especially since the Manchester bombing, Facebook and Twitter have been filled with images of fake victims, images stolen and posted alongside messages pretending to beg for help in finding “loved ones.” Generating thousands of shares and re-tweets by well-intentioned bystanders, these hoaxes extend the emotional impact of terror by amplifying and confusing the event for no other purpose than sowing chaos and eroding our ability to make meaning from meaninglessness. With the increasing prevalence of trolling and accusations of fake news, the credibility of media imagery grows weaker and the possibility of sensationalism, exploitation and anonymous malice increases. Photographs of terror, loss, and death and the feelings they spark become so much clickbait. These manipulations expose our disenchantment with the medium of photography, once thought to be an unimpeachable source of objectivity and truth.
Photographs of terror remain a powerful tool. More than simply capturing evidence of violence done to people and places, they provide concrete evidence of the unravelling of human identity and communities. Intentionally or not, they also reinforce the concept of violence as a norm, accommodate and expand our appetite for manipulable visual media, and forge affective (or potentially abusive) connections between individuals separated in space and time. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, photographs deepen solidarity and care for one another, but they can also intensify fear and xenophobia, invite voyeurism, and expose vulnerability. They may coerce viewers toward specific narratives, generate unwelcome emotions, manipulate people to spend money, or indoctrinate certain outlooks or ideologies. In a media saturated world, one in which photography flourishes, it is critical to recognize its dynamics, endurance, and significance.
Dr. Marta Zarzycka teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, at the Center of Women and Gender Studies. She is the author of Gendered Tropes in War Photography: Mothers, Mourners, Soldiers (Routledge) and essays on photography in Los Angeles Review of Books, Lens Culture, and Huck Magazine.