The attacks in Belgium this week have brought with them a fresh set of images showing the immediate effects of the bombs, commemoration on the streets of major cities, of those responsible and of those killed and injured. At the same time, cartoonists and illustrators have responded to the challenge of summarising the day in a single graphic response.
One image singled out in a Guardian article was that of an Indian air stewardess, Nidhi Chaphekar, sitting stunned and bleeding in the departure hall of Zaventem airport in the immediate aftermath of the explosions. Taken by Ketevan Kardava, a Georgian journalist, the image made the front pages of several newspapers the following morning and the hashtag #PrayforNidhi started trending on Twitter. So far, so understandable: I hope she’s alright and wish her a speedy and full recovery.
What has struck me is the tone of some of the stories about the image and its subject. A Guardian article by Nadia Khomami described the image as ‘The photograph that has come to define the horrors of the Brussels attacks’. A piece by Olivier Laurent for TIME said that ‘In just a few hours, her portrait has come to define the March 22 terrorist attacks’: the title of the article described the image as ‘iconic’. Similar sentiments and phrasing ran through the tweets and many of the articles: a Times of India article drew a comparison with other ‘seminal photographs that define historic episodes’, comparing it with ‘the picture of a naked Vietnamese girl running away from a napalm explosion in 1968’ or the picture of Aylan Kurdi drowned on a Turkish beach in 2015 which (reportedly) ‘seared the conscience of the world and moved the West to finally act on Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the World War’.
Images are powerful. Photographs in particular have an immediacy and truth-value which derives from a core belief, unshaken by the ironies and post-ironies of postmodernism that they constitute something ‘stencilled off the real’, as Susan Sontag put it. At the same time, as arrested moments, they solidify into symbols terrifyingly quickly, as the overblown claims of the Times of India demonstrate. Working with Holocaust imagery, I am often struck by the way in which photographic images move between evidence and symbol, often in the same moment. The photograph below of the unloading of a transport of Jews from (what is now) Hungary is a case in point. Here is the original:
Just a short walk from where I sit writing this, the Holocaust gallery of the Jewish Museum London is organised principally around the life of Leon Greenman, born in the East End but raised in Rotterdam, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1943. His wife and son were murdered on arrival but he survived, living in London until his death in 2008, aged 97. The photograph is used here: this time, though, it is captioned as depicting ‘Guards separating new arrivals at Birkenau’. With a different caption the image moves a step away from its particular context into the general. In the moving video testimony by Greenman which is the central feature of the gallery, the image becomes a backdrop to his testimony of arrival and separation from his family. From evidence to symbol, in the blink of an eye: there are no photographs of the Judenrampe between Auschwitz and Birkenau where the Greenmans arrived. The siding the photograph depicts would not be built for another year. Else and Barney Greenman made their way to the gas chamber in a truck along with other women and children: as Leon’s memoir states, ‘Most of them were tired from the journey and a ride was very welcome.’ But this was not pictured, so the transport from 1944 must take its place, allowing us to picture an old man’s pain, narrated in front of us.
The process by which Holocaust imagery has developed and changed is one which has taken seventy years – so far. The possible number of images is huge – browse the collections of the Imperial War Museum in London, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem – but very often we see the same images used again and again. Sometimes because they are powerful images; sometimes because they are the only images we have. Sometimes because, having been shown so often, they signify the event to such an extent that the event might be said to describe them. The gate of Birkenau – one site in the Holocaust, albeit a crucial one – overtakes its context.
But this is a process which happens over time. The coverage of the coverage of the Brussels attacks twenty-four hours later allows no space for reflection, absorption, sifting of the facts, knowledge of the story. Mistakes get made in the rush for an icon: Nick Ut’s photo of Kim Phuc screaming in the distress of her injuries was taken in 1972, not 1968. Did the photograph of Aylan Kurdi really move the West to finally act to end the refugee crisis? Or did it provoke a wave of public sympathy that was bought off by a few quick headlines? Time will tell, but a report by Philippe Fargues for the Migration Policy Centre is laconically titled ‘2015: the year we mistook refugees for invaders’ and suggests the continued ‘wars and conflicts that produce forced migration’ leave ‘little doubt that the refugee movements will continue in Europe’s neighbourhood.’ What is needed, says Fargues, is the political courage to address long-term problems rather than a continued search for a short term fix. There is, he says, little to be found.
At the beginning of researching this piece, I entered ‘Brussels attacks’ into a Google image search to test whether the image of Nidhi Chaphekar was a particularly prominent image. In fact it is one of many, some way down the page.
Other images included the grainy footage from airport security cameras of the three bombers, wheeling trolleys. Or of Pauline Graystone scrambling on the floor of the airport, ‘keeping small’ as advised by a Guardian article the previous day on how to survive a terror attack, as she told The World at One.
Reading the articles about Nidhi, I was reminded of the coverage of the July 2005 attacks in London. In particular, the image of John Tulloch, a Professor of Media Studies, bleeding and dazed after the bombs, anchored to a headline on the front page of the Sun: ‘TERROR LAWS: TELL TONY HE’S RIGHT’. As with Nidhi, his image ‘somehow seemed to capture the particular horror of a very banal everyday life interrupted in the most shocking way imaginable.’
But Tulloch’s opinion on the ‘terror laws’ the Sun made him the poster-boy for was the opposite. His brave and fascinating memoir, One Day in July: Surviving 7/7, makes clear his opposition to the process of othering and his commitment to understanding the attackers.
Perhaps Nidhi, once the shock and pain has passed, will embark on a similar journey and believe similar things. Perhaps she won’t: the question is, will we keep asking, once the initial shock is over and absorbed into memes that mix sentiment with a quick moral fix? For now, we have appropriated her image but not heard her voice.
And what questions will we ask of those who did this? Will we ask why they did this, what agenda they thought they pursued in this carnage? Or will we just add their images to the roll call of similar pictures from London, Paris, and New York?
‘Keeping small’, said Pauline Graystone, was the advice from the Guardian on how to get through an attack. Perhaps: but if we are to survive, we need to look for the biggest possible meaning, the most appropriate symbol as related to the fullest and most complex account of the facts we can find, not the instameaning – the portable and disposable short-term framing based on insufficient time and excess adrenaline. The depiction of events such as the Holocaust or World War 1 illustrates that symbolism does become fixed – I argue that it is an element of recovery to ritualise the trauma, locate it within unfolding meaning, turn it, in fact from endless process to limited event – but it must be allowed to do so at its own pace, not turned from breaking news to icon within a news cycle.