How can media practioners avoid reducing conflict to spectacle?

We live in a world dominated by visuals and media is the prime source in deciding which images are more representative than others. Media represents the basis for our collective memory of events and undeniably, images of conflict, of war stand at the core of how history is taught and remembered, hence the importance these images carry and the tendency to manipulate the media. This paper is going to investigate different periods of conflict and interrogate the choices made by media practitioners, in deciding which images to use in portraying the war but most importantly, to question the factors that helped in making those decisions.  It is widely understood that photographs that depict suffering, chaos and misery are of more interest to the public and the increasing dominance of visual media leads to spectacularisation. Can media practitioners avoid reducing conflict to spectacle? It is crucial to understand that not only conflict, but everything seems to be reduced to appearance, to representations of things and that these representations only have an impact when integrated in certain contexts or narratives.  Media are not separate from us or imposed to us, we are part of it. From a Foucauldian  perspective, this phenomenon requires a closer look at “how truth effects are produced within discourses that are neither true nor false”, Orgad (2014:12) meaning we should invest more time and resources, in comprehending that both media and the public play an active role in the decision-making` of which events become more truthful than others. What Foucault is saying is that we only have access to different versions of truth and these versions of truth are always determined by dominant discourses. A western society best characterised by globalisation and capitalism needs to be wary of the versions of the truth existent and at how these versions of truth are validated through dominant discourses that always entrenches an ideology, an agenda.

Many scholars suggest the ways in which truth is perceived is intertwined with how visual narratives make us feel.  We need to look beyond the image itself and focus on the genre of image that it represents. Cottle (2006:13) argues that media representations of conflict can only be entirely understood once the social, economic, cultural and political aspects and interferences within these are considered. He introduces ‘the paradigms of media consent’, with the argument that although media are used to legitimise capitalist consumerism, it is not independent or free from the influences of audiences with whom it is deeply connected, and more importantly from those of politics. Capitalist consumerism needs to adapt to the buyer’s needs. Declining audiences have led corporate media to look for various ways to secure the viewer’s interest. (Cottle, 2006:13,17). On the premise that media are an integral part of our everyday lives, all representation is important and if everything is reduced to spectacle, we need to question what happens to our sense of identity.  In a society driven by capitalist consumerism, one dictated by audiences and media themselves, can media practitioners at all, avoid reducing conflict to spectacle?  Scholars claim that it is more complicated than that and both media and audiences are in a continuous change and will always find ways to adapt and understand the new dynamics.

The Vietnam War is known to be extremely visual by giving access to numerous journalists and photojournalists to document the war freely and as a result, tens of thousands of photographs were taken and published but only certain images became iconic. Griffin justifies this by saying the meaning of an image is never contained by the image, but to consider that the image represents a culture. This type of access meant that along the story of Vietnam, the story of US was going to be told as well and this will lead to some sort of identity crisis. Americans were suddenly confronted with the fact, their soldiers were responsible for the mass killings of Vietnamese civilians and so, these images came to reflect those anxieties. According to Griffin, media representations of war shape the way in which history is portrayed, for three different reasons. The importance it has for the public, labelling it as journalism at its best, the imposed norms of cultural representation and the influence that politics and other forms of power have over the media. Griffin’s worry is that the emphasis in displaying images of war, it has lost its “verisimilitude and objectivity”. Griffin (2010:119) Multiple examples of staged photographs are justified as being “the only way to communicate the overwhelming experiential reality of war.” Griffin (2010:119). This trend has been reinforced and celebrated the emergence of awards like the Pulitzer prize or World Press, which tend to favour some images and not others, in particular images of destruction and suffering. Governments and media outlets have historically been known to have an involvement in which photographs were published and the ones that do are never representative. As an example, thinking about the Vietnam War, photos like ‘Accidental Napalm’ and ‘Rough Justice on a Saigon Street’ were used considerably more often and earlier than photos of the My Lai massacre, which have been considered to be much more informative and insightful. By the end of WWII every country involved had trained up photographers for propaganda purposes. It is precisely what Griffin was dreading most. The state, media corporations or even individual photographers’ interests to influence the norms in which cultural representation is depicted over the historical evidence, represents the biggest threat in delivering the truth. There seems to be a degree of consensus amongst media practitioners that images that depict dramatic scenes are of more relevance than others in the formation of public moral response, but history has repeatedly showed us this is not always true.

“History becomes irrelevant and the photograph’s institutional use fixes it to particular national, cultural and professional myths. Moreover, certain types of photographs, especially those that emphasise dramatic aesthetic form but lack specific historical detail, most readily lend themselves to this abstraction process”. Griffin (2010:18)

Staging a photograph raises various questions in relation to the authenticity of the event pictured and the message transmitted across. As mentioned above, if understanding an image is immediately linked with the understanding of the ideology behind it, we need to ask ourselves to what extent are we willing to trust a corporate media driven by consumerism. While this type of conspiracy might be true to some extent, it is also recognised that audiences are suffering of what Susan Moeller calls ‘compassion fatigue’, pain and sufferance being sold like any other media content meaning that due to the explosion of images invading our everyday lives we become unsensitized, and we will only react to specific representations and the reason for that is the familiarity with which these images help us make sense of a certain moment in time. Don McCullin, one of the world’s greatest living war photojournalists, in an interview he gave on CNN to Christiane Amanpour, who like the late Marie Colvin advocates for the journalism of attachment, speaks about war, humanity and journalism today.  His most celebrated photograph, entitled Shellshocked US Marine, Hue, depicting the portrait of a bewildered American soldier is exactly the type of image that came to be associated with the Vietnam War. McCullin speaks about the impact this one image had on his career, by criticising precisely the notoriety it brought with it, somehow cancelling all his earlier and later work on war and Vietnam and all the sufferance that came with it. He accuses today media of being narcissistic, of hiding things which, he says, will lead to the sufferance of people. What McCullin points out is that, it is not so much about staging a photograph or not, but about the emotional effort invested into that particular photograph and being emotionally invested is one way of reducing conflict to spectacle.

            Barbie Zelizer, one of the biggest figures in visual communication studies, claims that all types of war images fall into genres, categories and what needs to be analysed most of the time when trying to understand such images is the message transmitted about a particular conflict through this kind of image. She is well known for her ability to present a photograph, pull it apart and analyse it thoroughly. On the premise that all images follow an ideology, based on the relationship between visual representation and globalization, she asserts that people are uncapable of looking at an image without considering the cultural background or dominant discourse represented and end up with less than it was expected. The reason for that is that all images look alike. The photograph is never analysed based on what it depicts, but rather on the meaning, the visual discourse. The way we respond to these images is always collective even if it feels very individual. Zelizer, like many other theorists including Griffin thinks that images of war “do not emerge from a vacuum” Zelizer (2004:115) advices that in order to make sense of a contemporary conflict one needs to consider the historical precedents. In her work ‘When War is reduced to a photograph’, she insists we should focus on the entire process that occurs in delivering that image. To find that one photograph that will provoke an emotional reaction from the general public . To create the right moral response there needs to be a structured system and that is the media. People remember an image when that image stirred fear, sadness, joy, anger, envy, excitement and so on. The main point Zelizer is making is that the right moral response of an audience depends entirely of the emotional state created, for which it is crucial for that photography to be represented through the appropriate means. She describes war images as usually being bigger or more memorable and that they have more of an impact than it is let to believe. She continues by saying that what they do instead is undermine news judgement and the impact on public perception. Zelizer (2004:116) By aestheticizing the picture, emotions are created, she mentions the dust in Afghanistan created by the colours of the sand that produces lovely effects in images of the Iraq war, but it also creates  a generic form of representation and all wars, protests, loss of life look like the one before them. Her biggest concern is that putting too much importance on aesthetics threatens news judgement, and images free from any journalistic criteria, become the foundation in forming public opinion:

“…the availability of cues – whether they have to do with frequency, aesthetic appeal, or familiarity – help reporters, photographers, photo editors and news editors make judgements about which photographs should depict a given circumstance of war. All this matters because it is not the photograph’s referentiality – its ability to present the world as it is – that endures in journalism’s turn to the visual” (2004: 130)

Zelizer talks extensively about images of death and what they represent and more recently, in her book titled About to Die: How news images move the public, Zelizer analyses over sixty images of people who are photographed when they are about to die and discusses the moral implications in taking and publishing those images. She demands the audiences that in the same way they want to read about death, they should be able to see it too as this is the only way to understand the whole truth. To understand the entire truth, one must feel something, and news cannot be a vessel of truth otherwise.

            Lilie Chouliaraki, Media and Communication Professor at London School of Economics has also written extensively on images of war, disaster, poverty and similarly to Zelizer, she too was interested in the liveness in the aesthetics of war images and what in philosophy is called  mimetic performativity, which produces sentimental commodification in news, but also in the importance of having and recognizing media as a moralizing force. She recognizes the importance of an audience who is educated in identifying a media that operates under the rightful practices in delivering an authentic and morally equitable message. She insists on the audiences need of the visual and a structured narrative that allows to make sense of things and takes a special interest in the way people have been responding to news images in particular. This leads to a special interest in humanitarianism and we will discuss later in this paragraph, the modalities she uses to connect the relationship between what she calls, “iconography” and the emotional investment necessary on behalf of the audiences to differentiate between feelings and objectivity. She also mentions Foucault multiple times in her research with his concept of “regimes of witnessing” to “bio-power” and “the body as a site of power”, the latter one representing much of her basis in her own research on the subject in matter. Her work is extremely vast and covers a wide terrain into the sphere of images of terror and the emotional implications of the audiences, and it will hopefully provide a set of ideas that will help us understand how to avoid reducing not only war, but everything to spectacle.

            In her book The Spectatorship of Suffering (2006) she speaks broadly about the ways war is represented in media and the public’s response to it. She says witnessing is never innocent and raises the issue of citizen journalism and the fact we always rely on recognisable images and narratives to tell us how we feel about things and that is where citizen journalism would create an incapacity to recognize the intended message. While she recognizes some of the benefits citizen journalism has, her main argument is that we rely entirely on the emotional payoff that will come after seeing a particular image and the part of media who is blind to the codes and practices of war journalism, might create a bigger gap between people and reacting to sufferance that it already exists. Journalists enact testimonial witnessing and audiences respond to it because they are familiar with it. In the same way it must be believed that audiences will mainly react and be empathetic towards what they find familiar. It is a therapeutic culture. She speaks about the “epistemology of authenticity” and argues that western societies are living in an age of hypermediacy – the need to be engaged with different images and voices and even more to be involved in it, by commenting on social media about how an image made them feel. Chouliaraki observes a transition from participatory to ‘monitorial’ citizens. There is however a difference in the ways audiences respond at images of suffering and she classes these into three categories: adventure – no emotional engagement, emergency – stirs pity and no more, and ecstatic – calls for engagement and this is the one we should be looking at. This made Chouliaraki raise the issue of how charity organisations can design their campaigns to ensure a certain kind of reaction. In her latter book The irony of spectacle, she gives a historical context on the mediation of suffering, using the human body as the common denominator we all share, and the loss of which we can all imagine. She talks about Foucault’s bio-power, in which discipline is exercised through interventions on the body without anyone noticing. She says that in order to understand that every communication is reduced to spectacle, we need to be emotionally invested, which will lead to public engagement which will then lead to humanitarianism and solidarity. From a humanitarian point of view, Chouliaraki is asking us to think about human vulnerability as a problem of communication. As a panellist member at the Humanitarian Congress in Berlin in 2015, she talks about distant suffering and visual access to the war zone and categorizes vulnerability into four representational patterns, where vulnerability becomes a form of spectacle that legitimises what she calls solidarity, which she defines as “the moral imperative to act on vulnerable others, an imperative that stamps from the urgency of the suffering body as it is being depicted in multiple forms in different modes of public communication.” YouTube (8:15). To understand suffering as a problem of communication we need to question the methodology through which certain representations seem to provide aid in human suffering. She addresses the question, of how do various iconographies of sufferance resolve the problem of representing human suffering of vulnerability, seen as representing suffering others is always absorbed in the ethics and politics of global power relations, particularly in the hierarchical division between West and the Global South. She advices the audiences to imagine the world beyond themselves but also their relationships to distant others. Historically, the aid charities campaigns in their representations of images of terror, have all been following a pattern of their time. While in the sixties, the aid campaigns were using images of photorealism about suffering as ‘bare life’, the first representational pattern of suffering, usually depicting multiple static, weak bodies, in distress and lacking individuality completely, the mid-eighties shifted to representing suffering as ‘tender-heartedness’. This time we have a photorealism of hope, of an active body, it is playful, there is eye contact, it is personalised; this produces a “gaze of reciprocity and gratitude” which leads to a solidarity of aid and development. YouTube (22:33) This type of iconography is what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defines as misrecognition. The third iconography of suffering is the suffering as indignation, which is the singular individual against a mass – the demand for action. The difference between the latter and the first two is that the latter is used both in representations in the sixties in filmography like The Battle of Algiers, by Gillo Pontecorvo as well as in representations from the Arab Spring. We now have collective compositions; we have types of representation that cover several decades. The usual focus is on collective or individual bodies that represent groups or social classes of people who are brought together by a common cause. This invites to a form of solidarity that is represented by revolution and advocates for structural inequalities, but history proved this form of solidarity has also disillusioned massive parts of population, developing its own project of power. However, there has been a considerable shift in the ways audiences become solidary. The contemporary representational dilemma of humanitarianism is always suspicious, it always makes audiences question the possible hidden agenda behind an image:

“Why it is so difficult nowadays to become indignant and to make accusations or, in another sense to become emotional and feel sympathy –  or at least to believe for any length of time without falling into uncertainty, in the validity of one’s own indignation or one’s own sympathy?” Boltanski (1999:12)

As a response to this question, a new form of solidarity emerged, one that stems from the impossibility of representing vulnerability, suffering as self-reflexive spectacle. With the rise of new media, the need to question everything and the desire to feel involved, charity organizations changed their strategies. They no longer use photorealism, images of real humans representing a specific type of suffering, but move away to a playful interactivity, textual, like video games that allows the public to engage. However, these are not real people, the space represents the western safety and distant others are marginalised.  This return to the self is precisely what makes this kind of solidarity ironic, it diminishes the question of justification, it embodies a click and donate activism, a continuous quest to feeling good, but no moral discourse.  New media, politics and the marketization of the aid campaigns are the factors that seem to advantage a corporate entity rather than the ones in need.

            It can be observed that all theorists mentioned above are interested in very similar concepts when analysing images of terror. While they all agree, the main focus should always be on the moral response, a certain type of image produces, the contextualization through which it is delivered must be looked at from multiple angles. Both Zelizer and Chouliaraki insist on the power of aesthetics, for the capacity it has in delivering the right moral response. Zelizer thinks that the right moral response of the audiences depend entirely of the emotional state created and like Chouliaraki and Griffin, she insists on the importance of having narratives that help us make sense of things. Chouliaraki, also puts an emphasis on having an educated audience in identifying a media that uses journalistic criteria to deliver the right message, that ultimately leads to humanitarianism. Cottle and Griffin ask us to think what happens to our identity in a society where media is used to legitimise capitalist consumerism. However, while Cottle agrees that the media is not interdependent or free from politics and audiences, Griffin believes that certain images become more iconic than others and these images represent an entire culture. Can media practitioners avoid reducing conflict to spectacle? I believe that is more complicated than that and the answer would always depend on the politics and structural systems those type of institutions would follow.


Boltanski, L. (1999) Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 35-54

Chouliaraki, C. (2013) The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism. Cambridge: Polity, pp. 26-53.

Chouliaraki, L. (2006) The Spectatorship of Suffering. London: Sage, pp. 70-96.

Griffin, M. (2010) “Media Images of War”. Media, War & Conflict: 3(1): 7-41

Orgad, S. & Seu, I. (2014) “The Mediation of Humanitarianism: Toward a Research Framework”. Communication, Culture & Critique, 7:6-36

Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin. pp. 85-106

Zelizer, B. (2004) “When War is Reduced to a Photograph”. In Allan, S., & Zelizer, B. (eds) (2004) Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime. Oxford: Routledge, pp. 115-135.

YouTube (2015) Distant Suffering – Visual access to the war zone   Available at:  (Accessed: 08/01/2020)

YouTube (2016) Don McCullin on war, humanity and journalism today Available at:  (Accessed: 08/01/2020)

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