Johann van Tonder

War footage without finesse

2004-05-25 11:26

Video footage of the beheading of Nick Berg in Iraq recently brought home to many the harsh realities of a hollow concept - "war".

South Africans involved in the Angolan war in the seventies and eighties know only too well the meaninglessness with which the word was thrown around at home. On the news at 8, Michael de Morgan would read out the names of the latest fallen soldiers against the backdrop of a statue of an anonymous rifleman.

This standard generic image would soften the impact of the report in the minds of those not directly affected by it.

Footage of young boys desperately trying to resuscitate their comrades wasn't shown, nor the occasional hysterical outbursts of those hard men exposed to the sharp end of history.

How different the word "war" may have fallen on our collective ear, had we been given this context, is debatable. Only visual journalism could've made it real. In the USA, public support for the invasion in Vietnam was diluted by images from the front line.


Consider that photojournalism was born out of writers' frustrations at the inability of words as a medium to convey their ideas more clearly.

But the visual language is one that touches on different senses, and the photojournalistic process is designed to respect that. For one, photographers often aim to make pictures that are completed in the mind's eye.

Photojournalists are taught to use the visual language to move beyond mere reportage - to capture and evoke emotion.

Good photojournalists, and by default that is most of those passionate enough to live in war zones around the world, approach their subject with considerable compassion.

"Narratives make us understand," says philosopher and photography critic Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others. "Photographs," she explains, "do something else. They haunt us."

As technology improves and the immediate distribution of photographs becomes more accessible, war images shown in the media are increasingly taken by soldiers and perpetrators of crimes.

Using equipment as basic as cellphones, the creators do not subscribe to any codes of ethics, and have very different frames of reference informing their approach. While traditional media outlets are debating how to handle the gruesome results, it's running up record hits on the internet.

Rough around the edges

These images are rough around the edges, bare, stripped of the cushions that professionals have found in composition, technique and compassionate approach.

Almost worse, professional photojournalism is now largely produced by a press core "embedded" in the American army.

"War" suddenly takes on a meaning far uglier than the sanitised version we've been programmed with.

A new photojournalism has been born, without finesse. Images that haunt. But do they make us understand?

  • Johann van Tonder is a former photo editor at Die Burger newspaper and lectures photojournalism part-time at the University of Stellenbosch.

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