The Photograph That Makes You Turn Away

No photograph leads this article as no one photograph could.

I am sure that we all have a memory of an image that has challenged us to turn away. Perhaps that image remains with us, burnt into our consciousness, unremovable, unforgettable. It may be a photograph only briefly seen or studied at length. In a sense the time spent absorbing the horror of an image does not matter.

‘Falling Man’ during 9/11, the burnt head protruding from the front of a tank in Iraq, a naked girl running towards the camera arms outstretched, fleeing devastation in Vietnam, a burning buddhist monk, protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.

These images will never leave me.

The graphic reality of the inhumanity of man against man and women was first shown to me through photography documenting the Second World War. Images that were published within historical magazines and books that I saw as a child.

The images that are coming out of Ukraine are not historical. They are evidence of the present, of yesterday, of today. This is photography as evidence in its most brutal and impactful sense. Evidence of unimaginable suffering and of war crimes.

Photography has long documented inflection points within wars, but this is different. The quantity of images provides an undeniable archive of atrocity that we are forced to see, absorb and understand minutes or hours after they were created via our smartphones phones, computers and televisions. Places which we turn to for entertainment and use to store images of our own families and friends.

The photographs from Ukraine are not easy to look at, we all know that , but somehow we must. Photography is providing us with a reality that we need to accept, as without that acceptance we cannot form opinions that are based upon insight. These images do not raise academic issues concerning truth and the intent of the maker, in this case, there are too many created by those who have no intention of making a photographic statement. Instead, those that make these images wish to record what their eyes have seen as clearly, and as accurately as possible. An action made even more important by the Russian need to deny all truth, whether photographic or not.

The images we see today are the historical equivalence of the images I saw as a child of the Second World War or coming out of Vietnam. They make us uncomfortable, angry, depressed, sad, frustrated, and present us with a myriad of conflicting emotions all of which are difficult to deal with. That is exactly why it is so important that these photographs are made and that we look at them, for as long as we can.

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022

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