If photographs help build collective outrage about violence, war, colonialism and genocide, they may also be helping to dismantle international norms. The one consistent fact about the horrifying images that have come out of Syria over the past 21 / 2 years is that in many cases, we don’t know who made them and what they depict. All we see are decontextualized cruelty and misery. Cynicism creeps in, and there is a natural tendency to push the images away as a kind of insoluble puzzle.
Our own government has exacerbated this photographic and moral crisis. The Iraq war was sold to the American people in part with carefully annotated satellite photos that purported to show evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Those images were misread or misrepresented, and when their verity dissolved, perhaps some of our fear of such weapons dissolved with it, too. When torture, as morally reprehensible as the use of chemical weapons, became official U.S. policy, cloaked in euphemisms about “enhanced interrogation” and “stress positions,” another red line was crossed in our understanding of international norms. Media organizations, including The Washington Post, kept many of the worst torture images from Abu Ghraib out of wide circulation, and the few that did make it through the rigors of self-censorship, we were assured, confirmed only some surreal, Gothic anomaly. Torture looked like late-night frat games, not a deadly policy of abuse.
So it is little wonder that Americans are uninterested in engaging with images of suffering children in Syria and unconcerned about the introduction of chemical weapons into the Syrian conflict. Long after she called for an ecology of images, Sontag despaired of the idea. “There isn’t going to be an ecology of images,” she wrote in “Regarding the Pain of Others.” There is no way “to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock. And the horrors themselves are not going to abate.”
That is where we are now, in an ecosystem of images and an ecosystem of international decency that have been irremediably polluted.”