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Camera, Gun, Eyes: Seeing Fear in the Photography of War

21/04/2015 17:11 BST | Updated 17/06/2015 10:59 BST

A photograph of a child with fear showing in their eyes is an emotive image. In many ways it seems self-evident why Osman Sağırlı's picture of a young girl raising her arms above her head in a gesture of surrender should have 'gone viral' on Twitter, after being tweeted on 24th March by Nadia Abu Shaban (a photojournalist based in Gaza City), while at the same time raising a number of questions about the experience of seeing the pain and suffering of others.

The general context of the image is now widely known. As reported by the national press, the young girl is called Hudea and she was photographed in December 2014 at the Atmeh refugee camp in Syria, near the Turkish border, where she had travelled with her mother and two siblings, roughly 150km from their home in Hama.

The photograph was taken by a Turkish photographer, Osman Sağırlı, and was first published in the Türkiye newspaper in January with an article about victims of the Syrian war, which stated that Hudea's father had been killed by bombing in Hama. The picture brings to mind Ernst Jünger's observations about the mediation of war and connection between shooting a camera and shooting a gun, because Hudea raised her arms in response to seeing Sağırlı's camera, fitted with a telephoto lens, believing it to be a weapon of some kind. Sağırlı has been quoted as saying:

'I was using a telephoto lens and she thought it was a weapon [...] I realised she was terrified after I took it, and looked at the picture, because she bit her lips and raised her hands. Normally kids run away, hide their faces or smile when they see a camera.'

Photographs - particularly war photographs - tend to echo or recall other photographs. The photograph of Hudea is, in some ways, reminiscent of the infamous photograph of a small boy taken in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 as he raised his hands in response to Nazi soldiers rounding up Jewish people for deportation to the concentration camps. It seems that certain images of war, distress, and degradation seem to resonate and provoke more than others - sometimes becoming highly significant within the collective identity and fragmented understanding that surrounds violent and unconscionable events.

Part of the emotion of such images comes from the weight of context. In the image of Hudea, the unintentional triggering of a submissive gesture due to the weapon-like appearance (to her) of the camera, emphasizes a gap in understanding and communication that exists as part of the inescapable relationship between the photographer, the subject, and the viewer. The young girl's response speaks of experiences only she can fully know but which are evocative of the unimaginable fears that haunt and surround her.

For many people, the look in her eyes punctuates the image and pricks the conscience of the viewer who is powerless to respond while also potentially being moved to a sense of guilt or perhaps responsibility. At the time of writing Shaban's initial tweet has been retweeted at least 26,000 times, with many accompanying responses of regret and sadness, and the photograph has been further disseminated and discussed through mainstream media.

As Susan Sontag observes in Regarding the Pain of Others, photography provides us with disturbing images of how war looks when observed from afar. Despite the immediacy of a photograph, which reveals something of the realities and struggles of conflict, the scene depicted or recorded has always taken place 'elsewhere' for most viewers other than the original photographer, who would have seen and experienced a more complete vision than the image can necessarily convey. The aim of such photography is, in part, an invitation to reflect, learn, and examine the rationalizations for mass suffering created by political and established powers.

One of Sontag's suggestions is that war photography can prompt a consideration of how suffering should be mapped onto the privileges and comfort experienced by viewers far away, pushing the realization that the relative situations of the viewer and the subject are potentially interlinked through geopolitical issues. While it is impossible to imagine and understand how terrifying war is, despite empathizing with some of the fearful emotions communicated through the lens of a camera, the question such photographs continue to raise is whether they can interrupt and inform political discourse or merely record the results of its limitations and apparent lack of effectiveness.