The impact of war photography and desensitisation on how we perceive events.
Part one — Nuclear War and Vietnam
The first thing you notice when you look at these images is how alien they are. They’re otherworldly as if someone had drawn them or painted them instead of something real and tangible that you can witness with your own eyes.
This could be for many reasons. The first one is that they’re simply surreal. Most people have never seen a nuclear explosion and can’t even envision one even though people talk about it a lot and we play video games with nuclear fallout and nuclear weapons. It’s an extremely surreal experience. As someone else said, the terrible swift power of nuclear weapons have to be seen to be believed. And others have stated that the difference between the photographs and the film is amazing, the sky lighting up like it’s noon with it taking 15 minutes for all the colours to disappear out of the sky. Majestic. Fearsome. That photos can’t even come close to what you see in real life. And I believe that as I can’t begin to imagine a nuclear blast and neither can most people reading this.
But something else we witness is desensitisation of the American populace to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After Hiroshima, it was decided not to publish photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims and that this was borne out of the unwillingness to ‘disturb’ the American public. But this just resulted in distancing Americans from the specifics of the human suffering and instead focused on the scientific and military accomplishments as they only included photographs of demolished cities and mushroom clouds. These alien and unreal mushroom clouds placed before a nation which wasn’t actually invaded by anyone during WW2 in the same way that other nations did and therefore didn’t also have to deal with the suffering of that. Video and photography was really the only way for them to understand and conceptualise many wars.
And something similar also happened with the American populace and the Vietnam war. Similar in the sense that it was completely flipped on it’s head. During this time, there was no desensitisation but instead a flood of brutal photography flooding the populace. Photography which depicted American war crimes and the very human element of it, instead of it simply being an abstract concept. So things like the massacres, executions, and the murder of innocent civilians. A perfect example of this is probably one of the most iconic Vietnam war photographs called the Terror of War which depicts five children running down the street fleeing a napalm attack village on their village. They are in visible pain, especially the girl who is naked as the fire from the bombs had burnt her clothes. She’s screaming and holding her arms away from her side as if it’s painful for her to touch her body. Her name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc but she was dubbed the Napalm Girl and became a symbol of how horrible this war was.
This was very different from art in the past. Most of it was commissioned by the elite and kept in private collections or galleries for the wealthy to observe. There are definitely things which were painted so the public could see them and so a message could be spread to the general populace, for example, the Punishment of the Sons of Korah by Botticelli. Art was a reflection of history instead of forming it. But with the rise of the internet, photography, and film, art was spread to the general populace and started to impact the general populace. And you see this in the first television war (Vietnam war) and in the first photographed war (Crimean war). The Vietnam war birthed many photographs which both shaped how the war was viewed then but also now.
Though even though war photography can be very useful, oftentimes it can be censored and we can become desensitised to it. The photography of many wars like WW1 and WW2 were largely censored in order to protect troop locations but also so that they could show the civilians at home what they wished to show them. The Crimean war wasn’t censored in a sense but more sanitised as it included photographs of living troops, the aftermath of battles but never dead bodies. Only allusions to the violence. This drastically changed under the American civil war which was the most documented war of the 19th century. Photographers showed dead bodies and went as far as to stage the corpses in order to create a reaction from the viewer. And at the end of the day, that’s all what art is really about. Causing a reaction. Triggering an emotion.
Part two — Desensitisation
Though there are so many other reasons why people can be desensitised to the media. Anything ranging from our constant connection to the media, our own political agendas and other factors.
Constant exposure to horrific imagery, just like exposure therapy, can make us less responsive to these horrific images. This is actually used in forms of therapy which are used to address phobias and studies have shown that even a few sessions of exposure therapy can have a lasting impact on the patient in reducing their fears. From a young age, we’re often shown very grim photos of WW1 and WW2 including concentration camps and often end up desensitised to it. It also doesn’t help that a primary form of internet humour is ‘edgy’ jokes. And it often results in us joking about very grim periods of human history or tragic events like 9/11.
But another element of desensitisation comes from being overwhelmed and in the 21rst century, you see this often due to the insane amount of human connection the internet can facilitate. Due to the constant bombardment of very grim world news, people often just end up switching off as we don’t have the energy to deal with and constantly feel these emotions. So instead they just switch off from the international world and try to focus on the microcosm that is their own life. I don’t blame them for it.
Something that might also play into desensitisation that there is often cultural trauma linked with the event occurring so if you’re not part of the culture, it loses a lot of its impact. A person viewing photographs of WW1 in a newspaper in 1918 is very different to someone viewing it in 2021 as we simply do not have to deal with the pervasive cultural agony, fear, literal starvation, and suffering that created the original photograph. But a more modern example would be the cultural trauma of South Africans both with apartheid but also due to the extremely high rates of violence in the country. So even though we know it’s awful, sometimes we just don’t ‘get’ it.
It does somewhat remind of me of something that occurred during the Capitol Riots (I’m not going to call it a coup since it wasn’t one). Many Americans were terrified and what I witnessed was very interesting. Americans were getting very mad at non-Americans and non-anglophones who kept posting about their interests and so on. And it reeked of the typical American entitlement. Why were Americans forcing everyone to care about their little ‘coup’ while they were completely ignoring things like the earthquakes in Croatia or other world events where people were being bombed? It was outrage from some Americans who were usually the ones desensitised to world events realising that its a two-way street. Though that makes me sound particularly cruel and I understand being terrified at the riots and the fear is valid.
Often times, our own political stances override empathy. A very good example of this is political extremists not extending empathy to certain groups of people. Most often this comes from fascists who view the deaths and the suffering of minorities as a good thing even though at the end of the day, we’re all human. One somewhat harrowing example I’ve come across is a video on discord depicting the murder of queer people under what was most likely a fascistic regime and the deaths were being treated as some funny entertainment by these fascists since they didn’t extend their empathy to queer people. The minority group from their perspective, ‘deserved it’. Admittedly, I didn’t look into that further but I also didn’t feel like ruining my afternoon and having a good cry. But something else that comes to mind is Bengal famine which was caused by British policy failure (from Winston Churchill) and resulted in 2.1–3 million deaths. But Winston Churchill really didn’t care, describing Indians as a beastly people with a beastly religion. He also blamed them, saying it was their fault for breeding like rabbits. He was probably very aware of everything going on but due to viewing them as inferior and subhuman, he simply did not extend empathy to them. But of course, this isn’t the first time that Churchill displayed complete apathy to the suffering of people.
There’s nothing really anything more to say that while war photography is very good evolving the human and psychological experience of war, we can become desensitised to it. But we can also desensitise ourselves to the world in many other ways and some of these ways will also be relevant on the individual level and on grand scale for many.