Issue #133 Exactly That Body: Images Against Oppression

Exactly That Body: Images Against Oppression

Kateryna Iakovlenko

Sensitive content on Instagram

Issue #133
February 2023

“I tried to wash the smell of the dead people in Izium from my body with the help of Metallica songs and a liter of strong home-made liqueur. None of it works,” tweeted my colleague, a Ukrainian journalist, on September 16, 2022 after reporting from the newly liberated city. His message appeared with many more like it last September. That month, Ukrainians recaptured the city of Izium after a five-month occupation by Russian forces, who left mass graves in their wake. That same day—September 16—several colleagues posted a photograph taken by Yurii Larin of a severely decomposed hand found in the largest of these burial sites. A yellow and blue rubber bracelet hung around the dead man’s emaciated wrist. Almost half the people I know have the same bracelet. My sister, for example, bought one for herself and one for her daughter. For many Ukrainians, this soldier’s hand became a unifying symbol for all communities experiencing the violence of war. Editors, translators, IT specialists, and many others tweeted a message that quickly spread around the globe. Each post had two photographs: one of the tweeter’s own hand in a yellow and blue bracelet, next to the photograph of the persecuted soldier’s hand. “This could be any of us,” the most common caption said.1

The following day, my friend, a reporter from a leading Ukrainian media outlet, wrote: “Today I woke up at 3:48 and could not fall asleep again because the smell of dead bodies was everywhere. The smell was not the same as in Kyiv. People were found earlier in the Kyiv region, but bodies lay in the ground for six months in the Kharkiv region.” Several months before, at the beginning of the full-scale war, she had written a text on the exhumation of mass graves in the Kyiv region—at a site very close to my home.

“I don’t know how you’re going to write about images from the war,” a Ukrainian historian focused on public history wrote me in a private message. He had returned to Ukraine in summer 2022 after teaching in Washington, DC. He decided that his body needed to be at home. He wanted to share in the experience and feelings of war not from a distance, but rather by being present in time and space with his comrades. He wanted to be involved; he wanted to act. He was born in the Donetsk region. The war there destroyed his parents’ home almost nine years ago. But in February 2022, he felt rage and strength at a scale he had never experienced before. He still dreams of launching a new educational institution after the war ends—when, given time and distance, it will become another period of history that he can finally research.

For many Ukrainians, images of the Russian war have become more than just photographs: each one is an embodiment of the particular knowledge we all carry within us now. At least I can speak for myself. These images of conflict remain horrific; they evoke various strong feelings that manifest as ants crawling on my skin, a panic attack, anger, or a desire to leave the apartment and lock up my own body until it survives the grief that the photographs produce.2 I want to mark my body “sensitive,” as the photographs themselves are sometimes labeled online. I want to close my whole self off from others’ sympathetic or apathetic views. But I instead perform the almost mechanical action of archiving the continuing struggle against oppression via the photographs of it that I encounter. I’m not carrying out heroic actions; instead, I’m keeping my eyes open to images of war. I want to see what oppression looks like and what images can do against it. I write about the war during the war,3 as, for example, my Bosnian and Croatian colleagues did back in the 1990s.4 History is being created now, and if I must be an active part of this history, I want to remember it and reflect.

Note 1: Images and Action

Digital media is created by a power structure that collects data and subordinates information according to the interests and behavior of individuals and communities. Through such mechanisms of regulation, the reigning algorithms throw up more and more images of death and tragedy, each post closely resembling the last post the user just saw, or even replicating the same photographs of cruelty over and over. This cycle retraumatizes those directly affected by these stories and silences those who have chosen to hide disturbing news in their web browser and social media. The “mark content as sensitive” feature on search engines and social media becomes an essential tool to hide traumatic images and avoid painful memories. But social and political problems are also masked by online consumerism: war becomes part of digital trade relations, as money is collected online for weapons and as social media platforms become weaponized. Therefore, it becomes crucial to ask not only who speaks and supports the conversation, but also what is offered in terms of the content each one of us allegedly voluntarily chooses. The topic of how online feeds and online activity shape discourse in real life is a dense thicket, and one text cannot highlight all the features of the contemporary dilemmas of the war. So I have decided to focus on “sensitive” images, my memory, my body, and the war.

A vivid example of sensitive content is the image I mentioned before: the hand of a murdered soldier found in a forest in Izium with traces of torture on his corpse. Some of my colleagues asked why others were reposting the photograph of his desiccated hand, saying that it was cruel to do so.Even before the present war, I saw many such images in the media. I still remember viewing reports from the Chechen War and the 2004 Beslan school siege, events that were relayed as vivid images of crimes, dispatched and broadcast to TV channels. Indeed, seeing those images felt like choking—yet in seeing them I couldn’t truly experience the pain of the people they depicted. But now this pain has become mine. In describing what she calls “cruel images,” artist Oraib Toukan emphasizes the ability of photographs to speak about tragic experiences, even and especially if it’s challenging for the people enduring those experience to find the proper words—or if it’s simply impossible for them to speak because they are silenced or dead.5 A scream becomes the necessary form of address; it expresses the desperation and the strength of the traumatized person grasping for justice. And even if it cannot share their pain, at least the scream can let it out of their body. A photograph, as Toukan writes, can speak, can scream. For me, my writing is my scream.

No one heard the scream of a Ukrainian woman named Oksana Sova last September. Instead, Oksana screamed in her house behind walls that suddenly felt like an enveloping abyss. For her, the viral photograph of a dead soldier’s hand was more than a disturbing image. It was evidence that her husband had been killed, and that his body had been thrown into a mass grave along with 447 others. Sova told the Kyiv Independent that the bracelet her husband was wearing when he died was given to him by their children “for happiness and good luck.”6 On April 19, 2022, Sova heard reports that a solider had gone missing in the Kharkiv region. When she saw the image online on September 16, she immediately cried and screamed, having no doubt about who it depicted.7

After exhuming and examining the people buried in the mass graves of Izium, local officials said that their bodies had been subjected to acts of irrational violence. The Ukrainian news outlet Obozrevatel noted that scattered among the dead Ukrainian soldiers were civilians, older people, and children. The barbarism inflicted on them followed no precise pattern; one victim, for example, had his penis severed.8 The purpose of such crimes is to establish power and authority, to instill fear. Feminist theory sees significant symbolism in the body at war: the aggressor attempts to establish control by inflicting corporal torture and rape. Forced sex, as a New York Times reporter wrote during the Bosnian War, serves to “demoralize and terrorize communities, driving them from their home regions and demonstrating the power of the invading forces.”9 Such acts deprive people of agency, turning them into disembodied objects.

In light of this, can we assert that protecting and sustaining the body is the highest form of resistance to oppression and tyranny? What can an image do in the face of such ongoing atrocities? “In contrast to a written account—which, depending on its complexity of thought, reference, and vocabulary, is pitched at a larger or smaller readership—a photograph has only one language and is destined potentially for all,” insists Susan Sontag.10 When images from the liberated city of Izium flooded social media feeds with the dead, violated bodies of soldiers and civilians, the cruelty on display evoked anger and strengthened Ukrainian resistance. Ukrainians who viewed and reposted cruel images and news were not exploiting the pain of others; they were experiencing their own pain. By eye-witnessing unjust violence, sharing and posting images by the oppressed becomes a form of speech and protest.

Cruel images and images of war are sometimes considered obscene. When they show up in search engines and news outlets, they are therefore often blurred or accompanied by warnings; they are marked as “sensitive.” But in reality—especially in the reality of war—“sensitive” does not mean offensive. In her text on cruel images, Toukan notes that written and spoken language operate differently than images. She explains that people sometimes use language to protect themselves, by and shouting or using swear words. I want to emphasize that war is never sensitive and empathetic. It is brutal by nature. When words do not help, body language, street language, protest language, and images can protect and defend.

“I shout at that someone who will not break their silence,” writes Toukan in her essay. By analyzing brutal images of war and their ability to speak with the voices of the dead and silenced, she also emphasizes the manipulative nature of images: they can be cropped or selectively distributed to show only part of the truth. Images—especially cruel images—evoke strong emotions, and emotions are the bread and butter of politics. Images of war are always political, especially images of genocide and crimes against humanity. What matters is what we do with the emotions they evoke, whether we see them as a destructive or a creative force. Questioning the source and authorship of these images still valuable, but it’s even more critical to ask how images shape the discourse around political events.

Which images are truly “sensitive,” and what does this word really mean when attached to an image? This question could generate a long discussion involving the history of photography, technology, and ethics, but in brief: the sensitivity of an image lies in how it is produced. Unlike film photography, which depends on light, digital images (especially “poor images,” as Hito Steyerl famously calls them) are produced without the sensitivities of light, the careful orchestration of chemical development, the physics of printing, and the logistics of material distribution. The notion of “sensitivity” is always political. Who determines our exposure to “sensitive” images? Who controls the mechanisms that distribute them? Is it tech companies, the state, or the individual who has survived the tragedy depicted in the images? How does sensitivity relate to trauma, and how does one work with traumatic experience?

When it comes to images of war, one can endlessly discuss the ethical complexities embedded within them: the conflict between documentation and aesthetics, copyright issues, the role of the image in creating discourse. The category of “sensitive,” imposed on us by tech giants, is considered a tool for our collective use—but can sensitivity be collective? And if so, what kind of collectivity and imaginary community are we talking about?

I still question the significance of the community of Ukrainians that consolidated around particular images of the war in early 2022. Did this group include Ukrainians who remained in the country despite the relentless shelling? Did it include those who escaped abroad? Our imagined community used dreams and images to build coherence among us, to create our own language for our shared struggle.11 In September 2022, I myself was not in the country. Although my body was safe in London, every morning I woke up thinking that I was still under fire in Irpin city, on the outskirts of Kyiv, where my home once stood.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay speaks to this closeness at a distance with her “civil contract of photography,” in which ordinary people become part of the citizenry of photography.12

Chief among the ethical questions raised by images of war, though not often discussed, is the relationship between photography and freedom.13 With every new war, the ethics of war photography are debated again. For example, in 2008, when the New York Times publish a photo of the body of an American solider killed in Iraq, the army, and the family of the dead soldier, immediately criticized its publication. Others weighed in too; the Times cited Jim Looram, “a retired West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran,” who “feels strongly that images of dead soldiers should never be published during a war.”14 Opposition to photographing dead soldiers is related to questions of heroism, loyalty, and maintaining the strength to fight. Undoubtedly, encountering published images of dead comrades can affect soldiers’ morale—and, I might add, the morale of any human being. But like a living body, the body of a deceased person is also evidence of agency and subjectivity. A body at war is more than just a corpus, muscles, and skin. A dead body manifests violence and criminal offenses; it is a witness and a document. A dead body does not cease to be a political body. The tradition of commemorating and preserving the remains of political and ideological figures becomes more important in wartime. For example, in October 2022 the remains of the eighteenth-century Russian general Grigory Potemkin were reportedly stolen from Kherson.15 It is not clear if these were the real remains of Potemkin, or where the Russian occupiers took the bones, but the mythology around this event has become part of the Russian propaganda narrative. Furthermore, the desire of the Russian Federation to falsify the cost of the war and hide losses explains why Russian soldiers, according to The Guardian, burned the bodies of slain fellow soldiers at the local landfill during the nine-month occupation of Kherson.16 Through such horrific bodily erasures, Russian officials manipulate fatality statistics, allowing them to, among other things, avoid compensating the families of dead soldiers.

Paradoxically, the image of the body of a dead enemy, decomposed in the ground after a year of brutal full-scale invasion, does not evoke emotions in me. I cannot hate or feel empathy for this dead person; to me, it seems that death is the fairest thing that could happen to this soldier. However, I’m struck by the fact that this indifference is felt not only by me, but apparently also by the Russian soldiers who burn the bodies of their fallen comrades, knowing that the families of these comrades are waiting for them back home. By contrast, I feel pain every time my feed shows images of tortured Ukrainian civilians or soldiers. These emotions are solid and real.

I’m constantly questioning my relationship to the cruel images this war has produced. I look at them ceaselessly in search of a connection between my body and the tortured soldier’s hand from Izium. I find an answer, or a resonance, in the manifesto of an Iranian feminist written in September 2022. The anonymous author talks about her participation in Iran’s ongoing feminist-led protests as a bodily experience, one that began when, from her small home town, she saw photographs of demonstrations in Tehran and Kurdistan. Soon, she joined the protests and sought to turn her own body into one of these symbolic photographs of Iranian women leading the struggle for their own freedom. She writes:

The distance between myself and those images that I was desiring had decreased. I was that image; I was coming to my senses and realizing that I am in a ring of women burning headscarves as if I had always been doing that before. I was coming to my senses and realizing I was being beaten a few moments ago … The desire to become that image, the image of resistance that the people of my town had witnessed, was clear to me.17

Here the notion of “that image” explains the power of certain images to create a sense of corporeality and commonness within an imagined community that includes different people from different backgrounds. In taking, sharing, and seeing “that image,” this imagined community experiences a sense of being joined in a collective struggle for liberation. This imagined collectivity is similar to the religious ritual of the sacrament. In Christianity, sacraments are rites meant to represent the physical, visible, and literal embodiments of the presence of God. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, sacraments are often called the “secret mystery.” One key sacrament involves transubstantiation, where, in holy communion, wine and bread become the literal body and blood of Christ. In the photographic sacrament, the image—that image—becomes part of the experience of secret embodiment.

As Ukrainian poet Iryna Shuvalova writes,

the news doesn’t happen to us
happens to us.18

which could be rephrased to

an image of war doesn’t happen to us
happens to us.

Here, the sacrament occurs between the very form—the grammatical transubstantiation—of “happen” and “happens.”

Like a vulture that feeds on the body of a dead animal, war feeds on the pain of other people. With the help of an image, victims and eyewitnesses can instead become narrators and agents. For me, the lens of the camera has disappeared in my experience of seeing this war. And as a result, I can speak about my tragedies, loss, and pain without fear of being hurt. The only fear that exists is the fear of not being heard. This is my pain, this is my blood, this is my body—no one can take it from me now.

When Ukrainians posted the image of the soldier’s tortured hand next to pictures of their own hands, they demonstrated the lack of distance between the photograph of the soldier and themselves. Thanks to the powerful symbol present in both images—the yellow and blue bracelet—the people who posted the images could imagine themselves in the deceased person’s place. The image of a tortured hand became an image of them too.

I notice this lack of distance only in so-called poor images, especially images taken hastily on a phone without retouching. In her seminal essay “In Defense of the Poor Image,” Hito Steyerl writes that poor images can create “visual bonds” (Dziga Vertov’s term).19 This is perhaps the essence of the notion of “that image”: when somebody identifies so much with an image that they don’t just see it, but feel that they are the image.

Such images are taken not by detached witnesses, but by those who experience violence directly. These images then become stories told by the participants themselves. Photography becomes action. Hannah Arendt saw action as the center of all other human capabilities. Action is “the most dangerous of all human abilities and possibilities,” but also the one that brings us closer to freedom:

Action insofar as it is free is neither under the guidance of the intellect nor under the dictate of the will although it needs both for the execution of any particular goal but springs from something altogether different which (following Montesquieu’s famous analysis of forms of government) I shall call a principle.20

Photography became an act, an essential part of the grassroots activism of those who try to take power into their own hands.

The so-called poor image does not offer objectivity; it is subjective, opinionated, and emotional. It does not distance itself from tyrannical reality. It is the direct result of oppression, but it also expresses the desire to replace autocracy with presence, justice, and subjectivity. This will to freedom is exercised with each repost, and is embedded in users’ bodies like a virus. Each repost, with its own array of independent comments, is an act of refusal—a refusal to depersonalize the photo’s author by emphasizing collective experience and knowledge. Such images occupy digital space in the same way just that people occupy the streets and squares of their cities, manifesting their presence and corporeality. In this way, the human body acquires freedom within digital space. And when there is a risk of losing this freedom, this corporeality mutates, increases, spreads, and reproduces. Photography by the oppressed is an action that manifests freedom.

When I began drafting this section in the fall of 2022, after the image of the soldier’s hand popped up in my social media feed, I found myself thinking that the representation of my own body on social media had been reduced to a minimum. I have no answer as to why, but it raises an interesting question: how, especially in wartime, do we make our personal bodies feel like they’re part of the collective body? I also found myself thinking about how experiencing trauma makes people feel abandoned and desolate, even in the presence of loved ones who express empathy and care. How do tragic images affect and transform these feelings of loneliness and alienation?

Since then I’ve seen how the representation of war changes, how some images change others, how one tragedy replaces another, how people live in a constant state of fear, anxiety, and danger, trying to preserve their sanity and still demand justice. The feelings and attitudes that were prominent at the beginning of the war are transforming. I consider it necessary to record these changes in order to look at them after the war. Sifting through these notes at a later date will afford the opportunity to analyze images, ethics, and actions.

Note 2: Images and Ghosts

Usually, September comes with milky morning fog and the first cold wind. In September 2022, the faces of the exhumers who worked in the Izium city forest became colder than any morning. Most images that flooded my news feed did not show bare dead bodies; most of the bodies were in blue or white plastic bags. Medics in these images wore similar white and blue hazmat suits. Both ghosts and angels wore clothes made of polyethylene. Significantly, in a photographic diorama called Izium Forest by Ukrainian artist Yana Kononova, there are no dead bodies. However, the gloom and eeriness becomes even more acute when you look at the faces of the medics—those who saw death. Kononova depicts these medics almost as an extension of the forest growth around them. In her black-and-white images, people look like ghosts in a foggy wood. They look into and out of the camera as if it did not exist.

“This is the last thing the occupier saw” by Unknown Russian soldier. / Max Stlel Facebook

Kononova’s images make me think of another image of trees from over a century ago. The image is called Fern Tree Gully, Hobart Town, Tasmania and was taken by an unknown photographer 1887. It is in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I stumbled upon this image around the same time I saw Kononova’s work for the first time. At first glance, the image shows a dense tropical forest with scattered trees. But if you look closer, you can discern the small, nearly invisible bodies of colonizers hidden among the massive trees and branches, like soldiers camouflaged in the forest.21 A similar image was posted to Instagram a few months ago by a friend of mine, a female Ukrainian Jewish intellectual who joined the Ukrainian Army.22 Despite their superficial similarity, however, these photos have very different meanings. The first shows colonizers who view the forest as nothing more than a resource for capitalist extraction. The second speaks of protection, showing people defending the forest and land. Some of these people were eco-activists before they became soldiers. Although the woods, in both images, keep their stories silent, the images themselves speak.

Another example of forest imagery is a photograph in which the body of a soldier disappears. After the liberation of Kherson, this image appeared online; it shows the body of a dead Russian soldier left to gather dust on the side of the road. He lay there for so long that he almost became part of the land. The horror of this image is not connected to a person’s death, but to people’s attitudes toward each other—to what these soldiers give their life for, their desires, their work, their bodies. I already mentioned that I do not sympathize with images of fallen enemies—even less so after the Security Service of Ukraine published online conversations between Russian soldiers and their mothers and wives. I was struck not only by the lack of empathy for civilians in their conversations, but by the high-minded tone and their understanding that murder, theft, and the personal enrichment of the occupier are an integral part of the war. Their military actions—stealing, raping, and murdering—are deliberate and exhibit colonial thinking. Perhaps there are so-called good soldiers “just doing their job.” But here I’m reminded of the story of my friend who returned home to Irpin city and found her apartment door broken and her personal belongings scattered. On the kitchen table was a note: “I am sorry.” Not much was stolen from her—only a sleeping bag. Most of her things, including intimate garments, were scattered around the apartment. Knowing that someone has touched your personal belongings is very personal and can feel like a violent insult to your body, or even a form of sexual harassment.

Jarrod Hore, an environmental historian focused on images of settler-colonial landscapes, shows the link between colonialism and photographs of the natural environment: “Visions of nature allowed for a different kind of investment in the colonial earth. They paid off in feelings of belonging even for those who never turned a sod.”23 The image of the dead Russian soldier who became the soil of Kherson was not published by any media outlet. The body disappeared from the news, and from life.

The colonial photographs Hore discusses, which were usually taken at a long distance, were supposed to illustrate the accessibility of nature and of its so-called empty places. The photographs thus hint that these voids should be filled in the future. Hore writes: “Romanticism, through photography, influenced how environments were envisioned and histories of dispossession were remembered. The high wilderness imagery of settler photography came to support a fantasy of spatial control, delivering reproducible, enduring symbols of the natural world.” These photographs were not about depicting a romantic landscape, but about power, authority, and control. Photography has become a weapon of imperialism, with a special place occupied by landscape photography. Images of forests are an essential part of the long history of colonization. In her essay “Tree Thinking,” anthropologist Shannon Mattern reveals the tyrannical relationship between colonizers and the environment. She quotes Zack Parisa, cofounder and CEO of the Natural Capital Exchange, who says, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” asserting his desire to grasp as much space as possible with his eyes.24

For Mattern, “trees are thus associated with wood tools and colonial intrusion. So many momentous decisions have been made under the shelter of trees; trees have witnessed and even seeded the germination, hybridization, invasion, and, on occasion, destruction of peoples and nations.”25 Today, the large-scale measurement of tress and forests is done with the help of drone and satellite images—the same technologies used to target troops.26 The territory that falls under the lens of a drone camera can span a colossal amount of space. The production of imagery and knowledge from the air thus becomes strategically important. Nathan K. Hensley writes that “drones are at once a symptom and a realization of the empire’s end. But they are also a regime of figuration, a way of seeing, and, therefore, a modality of thought.”27 Teju Cole observes that drone photography “conceals what it reveals. We see people, but they remain hidden.”28

Two other remarkable images from the forest outside Izium circulated on social media. They were taken by a Russian soldier moments before his death. The two shots were published by a deputy of the local city council with the words, “This is the last thing the occupier saw.” But what did the occupier see? The photos document an explosion. The horizon is covered in the photos, and the focus is shifted from trees to pieces of wood, dust, and particles flying away from the explosive. The photographs illustrate settler-colonial thinking. The forest where torture was carried out remains in the background; the first thing we can see in these images is the desire for conquest and domination. Did this occupier want to kill, or did he feel ashamed of his crimes? It is already becoming unimportant. We see his gaze set on destruction.

“This is the last thing the occupier saw” by Unknown Russian soldier. / Max Stlel Facebook

Even though the area covered by the photographer’s lens in these two pictures is much smaller than if the photos were taken by a drone, the images still convey a desire to possess and control. In this case, the desire lies in the presence of an oppressor and the corporeality of photography. Even if the body of the soldier completely disappears into the ground, like the other Russian soldier’s body, the images from his phone remain evidence of his active role in the war. Drone photography does not provide such critical evidence. Drones shows a map that can be zoomed in and out of. Furthermore, when a drone transmits thermal images, it does not mark soldiers and civilians with different colors; it sees all bodies as target. But even in a highly technological war, violence is not only depersonalized terror from the air. The horror lies precisely in the fact that crimes against humanity are perpetrated not by machines, but by people.

Even though these two photographs do not depict a person, they capture his presence through the discomfort of the cluttered horizon and the particles flying into the camera. You can imagine this debris striking the soldier’s body, getting into his face and eyes. Looking at and thinking about this photograph becomes a bodily experience. One can imagine that the person who took this picture was falling. These two images, made in the moment of a soldier’s fall, convey the imperialistic and colonial nature of the photographer and his desire to document and control the forest. This action does not manifest freedom or the desire for it, but rather the desire to control. These are images of a crime taken by the perpetrator himself in the moment of offense.

Note 3: Ennobling Images

The peculiarity of the Russian war in Ukraine is not that the number of photographs is constantly increasing, or even that they are reproduced next to entertainment content. Rather, the peculiarity of modern war lies in who tells the story. While some journalists have declared that they report on the war from a “nonnational and nonideological position,” the reality is that there is no neutral, “outside view” on the war, since one’s view is always determined by the context of imperialism and colonial thinking. In his speech at the conference “Decolonising Western Coverage of Ukraine” in London, African-American journalist Terrell Jermaine Starr discussed the Western gaze of many journalists reporting on the war.29 He noted that the reporting of Western journalists is rooted in their experience in Western metropolises, making them largely ignorant of the Ukrainian context of the war. In addition, the home countries of these journalists might be implicated in the war, even if they aren’t formal participants; they might provide a haven for political criminals or their money, for example. So what matters is who tells the story and whose story gets told, even in photographs.

Izium Forest by Yana Kononova, 2022

Last fall, I asked e-flux readers to participate in an experiment by sending me screenshots of their search results. I was curious to compare my experience of the war with others who were looking at through the eyes of media corporations. What does the ​​Russian war in Ukraine look like from the outside? What stories are told, and by whom? But I made a mistake. I asked readers to search “war in Ukraine” in English when I really should have asked them to do this in their own language, and to use not just Google Chrome but Safari, Firefox, and even Yandex. As it turned out, the English-language search results were almost identical. It did not matter if the screenshot came from the US or Spain, the results were from the same large media corporations like the New York Times, ABC, The Guardian, and Bloomberg.

I stand by Sontag’s point that photography can give people a language that cannot be found in any dictionary. However, traditional media corporations still try to control the discourse around images and political events; they pretend to create an objective picture of reality by consuming the war and duplicating images from the frontline. By contrast, my personal feed, which includes various media sources, chats, and platforms, presents a very different view of the war than the English-language search results, showing pictures of what a Ukrainian soldier in Russian captivity called “the rattle of shackles, the creaking of the gallows in the gloom of the morning; and cries of those tortured in cellars, in prisons and in exile.”30

The Russian war in Ukraine has already been called the most documented war in history, but what images will remain with us when the war is over? What images will we, as eyewitnesses and readers, remember after all is said, done, destroyed, and created? This raises questions about visuality and what mechanisms of power are used to subdue the imagination.

Google image search results about the war show mostly professional images taken by photojournalists for their agencies. There are no poor images. There are no drone visuals, thermal imaging, or phone images of horrors. This presents a very different picture of the war than the one I will remember. Media corporations represent the war diplomatically. The photographs are made professionally and with a symbolic distance from the subject. Interestingly, these photographers include not only Western journalists but also local Ukrainian photographers who retrained themselves when their home suddenly became a warzone. One, for example, is a former wedding photographer.31

Among these professional images are:

–An image of Irpin residents escaping the city across a destroyed bridge during heavy shelling. The picture was taken on March 5, 2022 by Aris Messinis for AFP and Getty images. Published in Foreign Policy.32

–An image of two Ukrainian soldiers from the back; one helps another walk. The image was taken in Kharkiv Oblast on September 12 by Kostiantyn Liberov for AP. Published by ABC News.33

–An image of Russian-backed soldiers and military vehicles in Mariupol. Taken by Alexander Ermochenko for Reuters. Published in the New York Times.34

–An image from the liberated city of Hostomil depicting a Ukrainian soldier standing atop an armored personnel carrier waving the national flag. Taken by Alexey Furman for Getty Images.35

–An image of a Ukrainian soldier in Kyiv looking for unexploded shells after fighting with Russian troops. Taken on February 26 by Sergei Supinsky for AFP and Getty Images. Published by Vox.36

–An image of the funeral of Ukrainian soldiers Viktor Dudar, forty-four, and Ivan Koverznev, twenty-four, in Lviv. Taken in March by Claire Harbage for NPR. Published by NPR on August 24, five months later.37

–An image of a mechanic in Zaporizhzhia taking his tools from an auto-body shop after it was destroyed by a missile strike. Taken by Nicole Tung for the New York Times.38

–An image of a Ukrainian solider, Dasha, twenty-two, checking the news on her iPhone after a military sweep on the outskirts of Kyiv. Taken by Rodrigo Abd for the Associated Press. Published by CBC News on April 6.39

The searches that yielded these image were mostly done in mid-October 2022. There were no images from the tragedies of Bucha and Mariupol, or from other similar catastrophes—all critical events for Ukrainian society that flooded my feed and provoked lots of discussion on the ethics of images of tragedy.

Among the professional images is a photograph capturing the evacuation of residents in Irpin city. I will focus on it in detail. The photograph was taken by a photographer and editor of Greek origin, Aris Messinis, on March 5, 2022. The day before, I escaped Irpin on the same bridge shown in the image.

Interestingly, when I was having the same experience, I didn’t take any pictures. In the moment I thought to myself that I should commit to remembering the experience, and I still do, but to remember it I did not take any pictures of the bridge. For Aris Messinis, it is a different experience. He was an observer. I was an eyewitness and participant, part of the crowd he photographed.

In Messinis’s picture, Ukrainian soldiers help a little girl in a pink jacket cross a damaged bridge. In the background are dozens of people about to cross the bridge; hundreds more do not fit into the frame. So what is this image about? War primarily affects vulnerable groups, destroying homes and lives and inflicting trauma. But this photograph is also about the relationship between the army and the public—about power structures that, during the war, took on more authority and responsibility.

Interestingly, all the faces of the people captured in this image are turned away from the viewer. Soldiers stand half-turned or with their backs to the camera; the child looks down, focused on crossing the damaged bridge. For me, this photo is also about attention and caution. Looking at it, I want to silently offer my hand in help. This is not about sympathy but about readiness to take action.

Sontag uses the word “spectator” in her essay, emphasizing the “ennobling duty” of those who tell the people’s war stories through their camera lens. Sontag notes that we often remember exact photographs from wars. For myself, however, I’ve come to realize that I no longer consume such images; I no longer look at them with a detached gaze. Alienation and neutrality are the privileges of those who have the security of a safe distance.

My reaction to the image of the fleeing girl is shaped by sharing the same experience. I recognize that another person might see the image very differently. They might see the girl’s pink jacket as representing childhood innocence or feminine fragility. But there are other ways to interpret it. Pink is also about the history of feminist activism and the struggle for rights.

I looks at other screenshots sent by e-flux readers and notice a pattern: in one image, a female soldier reads the news on her pink iPhone; in another, an elderly woman leaves her house wearing a dirty pink jacket. The color pink (or any other bright color) in these kinds of images is supposed to convey the individuality of the person depicted, so that those consuming these images can identify with the victims. The pink is a bright spot in dark circumstances.

I’m not looking at these bright spots; I’m curious about something else. None of these people look straight into the camera. Their faces are turned away. Crossing the river over the destroyed bridge, people are not looking into each others’ eyes; fleeing from shelling, they try to concentrate on simple and mechanical things. Why does the photographer, for his part, avoid the people’s eyes? Perhaps because doing so would mean being involved, losing the distance and possibility to stand aside.

Images produce bodily effects and wield the power of persuasion. They reveal invisible and hidden violence; they show the suffering associated with loss and trauma as something very physical. While photography can convey such feelings, it can also build distance between those suffering and those viewing images of suffering, who may not want that closeness. After all, being close hurts. But all of these bodies, suffering or not, are a part of one collective body at war, with all its legs, breasts, and broken hands wearing a yellow and blue bracelet.

In November 2022, the day after I finished drafting this text, my feed exploded with a reposted and shared image. This time it showed a young boy from Kherson looking straight into the camera. His mature and rather aggressive look, which seems to resist everything, was documented by the Hungarian photographer Hajdú D. Andras and posted on his Instagram.40 Some saw similarities between this image and a famous shot from Come and See, Elem Klimov’s Soviet-era film about the German occupation of Belarus during WWII. I do not want to speculate on the common horrors these two boys witnessed. Let’s leave that discussion to the historians. Despite everything, we have to face this horror, even when reflected in the eyes of a child.

Note 4: Epilogue

Even if it seems impossible, remember not the photographs—remember me.


Anastasia Izvoschikova, “Ruka z zhovto-blakytnym brasletom: tilo biytsya peredaly ridnym dlya pokhovannya” (A hand with a yellow-blue bracelet: the soldier’s body was handed over to his relatives for burial), Suspinle Media, September 23, 2022 ; Olga Muzyka, “Eto mog byt’ lyuboy iz nas: ukraintsy rasprostranyayut foto ruki s sine-zheltym brasletom iz Izyuma” (It could be any of us: Ukrainians spread a photo of a hand with a blue-and-yellow Izyum bracelet), 24TV, September 17, 2022 .


See also Kateryna Iakovlenko, “Eat Me, Drink Me—This Is a Aar,” Blok, February, 24, 2022 . The experiences and health conditions of many displaced Ukrainians were examined in Iryna Fingerova, “Modus Ukrainus,” Infopost, January 3, 2023 .


See, among others, these text by my colleagues: Oleksiy Radynskyi, “The Case Against the Russian Federation,” e-flux journal, no. 25 (March 2022) ; Asia Bazdyrieva, “No Milk, No Love,” e-flux journal, no. 127 (May 2022) ; Lia Dostlieva and Andrii Dostliev, “Not All Criticism Is Russophobic: On Decolonial Approach to Russian Culture,” Blok, March 29, 2022 ; Vasyl Cherepanyn, “The Freedom Lecture: If My Pen Were Worth Your Gun,” deBALIE, Amsterdam, July 11, 2022 ; Svitlana Matviyenko, “Dispatches from the Place of Imminence” (parts 1–11), Institute of Network Cultures, February 25–July 11, 2022 ; Sociologica 16, no. 2 (October 2022) .


See, for example, Maja Povrzanović Frykman, “The War and After: On War-Related Anthropological Research in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Etnol 33, no. 26 (2003) .


Oraib Toukan, “Cruel Images,” e-flux journal, no. 96 (January 2019) .


Asami Terajima, “Wife of Izium Mass Grave Victim Learns of Husband’s Death from Viral Photo,” Kyiv Independent, September 28, 2022 →.


In 2017 a similar thing happened to London-based Ukrainian historian Olesya Khromeychuk, who discovered on Facebook that her brother had been killed during the war in Donbas. She found further information about her brother’s death on other social media and the news. While mourning, she decided to collect screenshots of all the places online where her brother’s name appeared. She wrote a book and a play based on this loss. See Olesya Khromeychuk, A Loss: The Story of a Dead Soldier Told by His Sister (Monoray, 2022).


Albina Poncheko, “V odnoy iz mogil v Izyume obnaruzhili telo muzhchiny, kotoromu okkupanty otrezali polovyye organy” (In one of the graves in Izyum, they found the body of a man whose genitals were cut off by the invaders), Obozrevatel, August 18, 2022 ; Anastasia Bagalika, Ihor Kotelyanets, and Marta Havryshko, “Chomu ne mozhna movchaty pro seksualʹne nasylʹstvo rosiyan nad viysʹkovopolonenymy cholovikamy?” (Why can’t we be silent about the sexual violence of Russians against male prisoners of war?), Hromadske radio, November 19, 2022 .


“Rape Becomes ‘a Weapon of War,’” New York Times, January 10, 1993 .


Regarding the Pain of Others (Penguin Books, 2003).


On the topic of language in the war, see poet Ostap Slyvynskyi’s presentation for the online symposium “The Reconstruction of Ukraine,” September 2022 .


The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008).


My understanding of freedom is grounded in Hannah Arendt’s essay “What is Freedom?” from her collection Between Past and Future (Viking Press, 1961).


Clark Hoyt, “The Painful Images of War,” New York Times, August 3, 2008 .


“Potʹomkina vyynyaly z Kateryny” (Potemkin was removed from Kateryna), Istorychna pravda, October 26, 2022 ; “‘Ne khochu zvidsy yikhaty.’ Sotsmerezhi zhartuyutʹ nad Rosiyeyu, yaka vyvezla z Khersona pam’yatnyky” (“I don’t want to leave here”: Social networks are joking about Russia, which removed monuments from Kherson”), BBC Ukraine, October 24, 2022 .


Lorenzo Tondo and Artem Mazhulin, “Russians Accused of Burning Bodies at Kherson Landfill,” The Guardian, November 21, 2022 .


L., “Women Reflected in Their Own History,” e-flux notes, October 14, 2022 . Italics in original.


Iryna Shuvalova, “your own,” trans. Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk, Literary Hub, March 24, 2022 .


e-flux journal, no. 10 (November 2009) →.


Between Past and Future, 152.


See Jarrod Hore, “How Landscape Photographers Reinvented the Colonial Project in Australia,” Peta Pixel, November 20, 2021 .


See .


“How Landscape Photographers.”


Shannon Mattern, “Tree Thinking,” Places Journal, September 2021 .


“Tree Thinking.”


Last year, a Ukrainian volunteer fund that helps the military acquire equipment announced a nationwide fundraising drive to buy three special Turkish drones. However, when the Turkish company that manufactures them heard about the remarkable enthusiasm of ordinary Ukrainians to support their military, the company donated the drones. The money that had already been raised was used to purchase a satellite, the data from which will help the Ukrainian military see the location of Russian troops and deliver accurate strikes. Daryna Antoniuk, “Ukrainian Charity Buys Satellite for the Army. How Will It Help Fight Against Russia?” Kyiv Independent, August 27, 2022 .


Nathan K. Hensley, “Drone Form: Word and Image at the End of Empire,” e-flux journal no. 72 (April 2016) .


Teju Cole, “When the Camera Was a Weapon of Imperialism. (And When It Still Is.),” New York Times, February 6, 2019 .


University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, October 31, 2022.


These words written on the wall of a Russian prison by a captive Ukrainian solider are quoted in this YouTube video .


D. Kasianova, “Do vesilʹnoyi fotohrafiyi my ne povernemosya”: Yak podruzhzhya Liberovykh pochalo znimaty viynu (“We will not return to wedding photography”: How the Liberov couple began filming the war), Bird in Flight, January 19, 2023 .


David Miliband, “It’s Time to End the Age of Impunity,” Foreign Policy, June 3, 2022 .


Meredith Deliso, “Has the War in Ukraine Reached a Turning Point?” ABC News, September 19, 2022 .


“What Happened on Day 85 of the War in Ukraine,” New York Times, May 19, 2022 .


Hein Goemans, “When Will the War in Ukraine End? And How?” University of Rochester website, October 5, 2022 .


Zack Beauchamp, “Why the First Few Days of War in Ukraine Went Badly for Russia,” Vox, February 28, 2022 .


Juliana Hayda et al., “6 Key Numbers that Reveal the Staggering Impact of Russia’s War in Ukraine,” NPR, August 24, 2022 .


“Ukraine Will Push to Reclaim More Territory Through Winter, US Defense Chief Says,” New York Times, October 12, 2022 .


Kazi Stastna, “The Smartphone War: Soldiers, Civilians and Satellites Give the World a Window onto Russian Invasion,” CBC News, April 6, 2022 .


See . Bird in Flight, a Ukrainian magazine about photography and visual culture, called this the image of the year .

War & Conflict, Photography
Ukraine, Photojournalism
Return to Issue #133

Kateryna Iakovlenko is a Ukrainian visual culture researcher, writer, and curator focusing on art and culture during sociopolitical transformation and war. Among her publications is the book Why There Are Great Women Artists in Ukrainian Art (2019) and Euphoria and Fatigue: Ukrainian Art and Society after 2014 (special issue of Obieg magazine, coedited with Tatiana Kochubinska, 2019). Currently, she is Cultural Editor-in-Chief of (Kyiv) and a visiting scholar at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (2022–23).


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