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Should We Look at and Share Photos of Dead Civilians in Gaza?

I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed in the grimy bathroom of a bar when the image of an eight-year-old Palestinian boy came into focus.
July 24, 2014, 12:00pm

A Palestinian family wades through the rubble of a destroyed home in Gaza. Photo via Flickr user Oxfam International

Two weeks ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed in the grimy bathroom of an LA bar. It was near dusk. Everything was normal, until I saw an image a friend had posted.

It was a grainy still of a Palestinian boy, about eight years old, lying down on a hospital bed. His legs were completely blown away below the knee. Surgical scissors cut at dangling flesh while he stared at his wounds in half-conscious horror.

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After a few seconds I put my phone away, dazed, and went back outside to my friends. Since then, the fighting in Gaza has intensified, potential ceasefires have collapsed, a little under three dozen Israeli adults have been killed, and many hundreds of Palestinians have been slaughtered—nearly a fourth of them under age eight.

Social media campaigns are generating protests for human rights in Gaza and against the sinuous relationship between Israel’s military and the United States. While a small number of demonstrators, mostly in Europe, have displayed open anti-Semitism, the majority don’t reek of prejudice. Even Jewish groups for peace have organized militantly in the United States against Israel’s rain of death.

Central to these campaigns has been the sharing of images and footage of war victims to elicit outrage and action. But where do you draw the line when it comes to waving around pictures of dead kids for political causes?

As the war drags on, my social media feeds are increasingly filled with cell phone images of severed limbs and deflated skulls (maybe I have too many political friends?). I wonder if solidarity with Palestine means I have to be prepared at all times to see whatever atrocities are happening at any given moment, or whether I have more freedom to manage my feelings. I also wonder if political support garnered from sharing photos like the one I saw in the bar is worth the massive invasion of privacy endured by the subject. I can’t even look at someone when he's zipping up his fly. Why should a victim of gruesome violence bear my gaze?

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Uploading images of maimed life is only valuable if it can reveal to viewers their complicity in the violence depicted, and perhaps even impact them enough to act. That seems to be happening right now as it did 45 years ago, when news broadcasts of the Vietnam War helped induced mass protests. Today, however, it’s new media that’s catalyzing action.

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“When I pressed the button, I knew,” Nick Ut, the Vietnam War photographer who snapped the infamous Napalm Girl photo in 1972, recently told LA Weekly. "This picture will stop the war.” Six months later, American troops began returning home after successful peace talks in Paris.

Ut’s photo was the final gush in a geyser of bad publicity for the US in Vietnam. While the extent of the media’s affect on the war is still debated, successive presidential administrations became more restrictive of coverage in future conflicts, limiting the number of embedded journalists in the military and erecting other roadblocks to a free press. By the second Iraq War, the American media was also doing a superb job of censoring itself. Its signature deception was the toppling of a bronze Saddam Hussein statue by a Marine vehicle and a few dozen Iraqis, made to look like a mass action by camera footage cropped tightly around the scene.

Throughout Israel’s shelling and invading of Gaza, newsfeeds and timelines fill the gap in coverage left by sycophantic old media. Their contents are a reaction to decades of censorship. Accordingly, the images are often horrifically brutal. Those sharing them usually include messages like, “I’m sorry for posting this. I’m just trying to show people the reality of what’s going on in Gaza/Syria/Egypt/Yemen/etc.”

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But unlike traditional media outlets, people can’t simply skip a channel to avoid seeing fatalities. When someone posts an image of a mangled body, a large number of the people in his or her network are going to see it.

On one hand, that’s a victory for truth over the lies of aggressive regimes, which can’t marshal blind public support for bogus, imperial wars like they used to.

On the other, we consume news differently today. When people watched footage of Vietnam, they usually had only one TV in the house, and they’d gather around it for the particular purpose of consuming new information. In theory they could brace themselves for gruesome broadcasts. But that’s not possible when you’re thumbing through your feed on a bus.

In the Wild West of social media etiquette, is that OK, or not? We’ll know in time, but it’s worth thinking about the effects on the subjects portrayed before we decide.

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After the picture of four Palestinian boys bombed on a beach by an Israeli missile went viral, Tanya Steele asked in Indie Wire whether there was “another way to communicate the horror without invading the privacy of the deceased.”

Even surviving photo subjects say there’s no easy answer. Jeff Bauman’s legs were blown away during the Boston Marathon bombing, and in the aftermath, an Associated Press photographer snapped a picture of his rescue amid the chaos. Bauman acknowledged his ambivalence about it in the Guardian, writing that part of him “wishes the picture had never been taken at all” so that he and his family could heal privately. However, he came away appreciative that the photo exists as a symbol of “good people triumph[ing] over the cowards and idiots every time.”

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Bauman thinks we can derive humanist messages from images like his. If that’s true, then maybe we should share more of them. But there’s also a darker side: the potential for them to transform from casualties with faces into the gristle of gore porn.

The sterilized world of many Westerners and the open access of the internet mean one person’s mutilation can be another’s diversion. On blogs like BorderlandBeat.com, which covers the violence of the Mexican cartel wars, posts featuring mafia-style torture videos are often the most trafficked. Even on the less extreme end, for Americans, how sensitive can you be to abstract violence when you grew up in the country that invented dead baby jokes?

Still, Bauman suggests that we can choose the kind of meaning we derive from the painful images. In the last week, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, mostly youth, have decided the photos require they do something—protest, host teach-ins, or use more official channels—to end the massacre. Ultimately, then, each viewer chooses his or her own meaning for every photo of war they see.

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It will always be worthwhile to expose violence and those who perpetuate it, whether Hamas or the Israeli-American military complex. But it’s only the latter that dresses down brutality and systemic oppression with suits and crafty messaging and billions of dollars. And however bad Hamas is, it doesn’t have any reputable news sources backing it.

The mainstream media has consistently obscured the losses of one side and highlighted them on the other in order to give an impression of equally formidable societies going at it. That’s bullshit. Establishment outlets have also sought to portray protests supporting Gaza as overtly anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli. That’s only sometimes true, but for old media, it’s true often enough to undermine the movement for a free Palestine.

Fortunately we have the tools to reveal the media’s complicity—and our own—in the carnage happening right now. It would be better if we didn’t have to use them.

Aaron Cantú is a Brooklyn-based independent writer whose work has appeared in Al Jazeera America, Truthout, the Nation, AlterNet, and others. Follow him on Twitter.