How much can pictures lead to military action, or serve as catalysts for state action? That’s the question David Campbell posed this week in his short post regarding the Syrian scenes of toxic horror. Given the chemistry between the poisoning of citizens and the reaction the visuals can evoke in media consumers as well as key actors around the world, this photo has had my attention for days now.
It’s not that the caption gives us that much context. It does just enough though to fuel the imagination. It reads:
Handprints of civilian are pictured on a U.N. vehicle carrying a team of U.N. chemical weapons experts visiting one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 28, 2013. U.N. chemical weapons experts investigating an apparent gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus made a second trip across the front line to take samples.
Strangely evoking the post we did last week about the attack and Mrs. Assad’s fingerprints, it’s likely this photos is innocuous. Perhaps, for example, someone — even if it was in one of the afflicted neighborhoods — was simply reaching out to help tell the driver where to park. Because the context is so ambiguous however, it invites a more symbolic, more suggestive and more emotional relation to the horror. With so many citizens having died so suddenly and anonymously, these prints stand as much for those trapped in the shells of their homes, their own cars, their own bodies. The fact the digits didn’t transfer that completely is also disconcerting, the fingers appearing more like bones. And then, there is also a forensic quality to the impressions, like the vehicle of these inspectors, and the mission, is branded with x-rays.
However you read it, though — stop, don’t stop, keep going, I’m here — the power of the image is the undeniable pressing of the unseen in the official face of the outside world. Can enough photos like these make a tipping point?
(photo: Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters)