Alex Choy is an Army Military Intelligence Officer and a guest author at the Journal. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect any official policy or position of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.
On the fifth day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while scrolling past casual images of my friends and family on Instagram, I was confronted by photos of women doused in blood from a Russian missile strike, and Ukrainian soldiers holding a captured Russian rifle, its former owners lying mangled in pools of blood. That juxtaposition between leisure and carnage caused immense guilt to wash over me as I sat, safely in my home.
My guilt reminded me of Photographs of Agony, an essay I read in college. While it provides a poignant answer to the “why” behind my guilt, its author, renowned art critic John Berger, claimed that “It is not possible for anyone to look pensively at … a moment [of agony] and to emerge stronger.” To his mind, rather than urging viewers to question their support for the politics that make suffering possible, such photographs depoliticize themselves and fail to mobilize significant social concern.
Berger’s argument falls in line with many who regard war correspondents and their photographs as ‘vultures,’ preying on others’ misfortunes. However, the war in Ukraine highlights the need for displaying photographs of agony immediately, before Putin irreversibly alters his nation’s collective consciousness with false narratives.
Writing during the closing stages of the Vietnam War, Berger begins by describing “the black blood of black-and-white photographs” that drench a bleeding villager and his daughter. He does not deny the gut-wrenching effect of Don McCullin’s photograph, which he describes as arresting—seizing our emotions. Typically, the images captured by war correspondents like McCullin, Nick Ut, or Ron Haeberle focus on a specific, vivid moment of pain and agony. These iconic photographs, such as McCullin’s of two Marines dragging a fallen comrade to safety; Ut’s of a napalmed Kim Phuc; or Haeberle’s of the My Lai Massacre, render a different type of connection, and instill more nuanced lines of questioning.
Concerning the victim’s temporal flow, these moments of agony are abrupt and discontinuous. However, this discontinuity is compounded for the viewer, who is forced to suddenly partake in the victim’s agony. As a result, viewers experience double the violence and develop a pervasive “moral inadequacy” within their psyches. The camera’s “power to accuse” burdens viewers with guilt. Furthermore, in contrast to written accounts, the language of photographs is universal. One does not need to be literate to understand their subjects’ suffering.
Berger insists that performing a relatively costless act of charity remedies viewers’ guilt. Upon doing so, they are resolved of their remorse and fail to translate their feelings into political activism. Political undertones and the intended message of the photographer are obscured, brushed away by performative acts of personal penance. As a result, he concludes that “we have no legal opportunity of effectively influencing the conduct of wars waged in our name in current society.” To him, photographs of agony are “published with impunity” because they fail to mobilize public opinion to threaten the powers that be.
Suppose Berger’s claims are correct, and photographs of agony are ineffectual in arousing public ire. How does this explain the Kremlin’s efforts to control their distribution in the wake of its “special military operation” in Ukraine? As of March 1st, Putin has shut-down Ekho Moskvy and TV Dozhd, the vestiges of Russia’s flagship independent broadcasters, for alleged “inaccurate” reporting on the ongoing conflict.
According to the New York Times, these restrictions have begun to disconnect “ordinary Russians from the horrific violence” occurring just over the border.
In Russian doctrine, information warfare is termed informatsionnoe protivoborstvo, roughly translating to “information confrontation.” Unlike U.S. military “information operations,” Russian information confrontation targets domestic populations, given that the Kremlin is unimpeded by legal constraints. By portraying Russia as a victim, the Kremlin generates a justifiable pretext for invasions and strengthens domestic cognitive security by framing its expansionism as a valiant effort to rescue diasporas of a persecuted Russiky Mir (Russian World).
Accordingly, some Russians still believe that their soldiers are helping Ukrainians by liberating them from a neo-Nazi government and providing them with humanitarian assistance. At the same time, given the relatively late implementation of total censorship by Putin a whole week after starting offensive operations, many Russians also have reservations about the legitimacy of official narratives. Over the past few weeks, the number of Russian dissidents fleeing the country has increased. Russia’s official “truth” remains contested and presents a critical juncture to disrupt the Kremlin’s information confrontation efforts.
Haeberle’s photographs of the Mai Lai massacre did not confirm settled truths, nor did they drop entirely new concepts into American living rooms. Instead, they brought home existing uncomfortable truths that Americans did not want to accept until confronted with visceral, guilt-causing evidence. It is this harnessing of information environment through the use of photographs that can tip the scale.
Because the human brain is hardwired to maintain cognitive consistency, we are uncomfortable when confronted with information that contradicts existing schemas. To rectify the dissonance and return to a consistent mental state, we can either alter our existing beliefs or justify them. Which ending we receive depends on the validity we assign the new information, which changes depending on the mode of delivery.
In line with Yarhi-Milo’s Vividness Hypothesis, vivid information, which is information that is more emotionally-involving and causes a sensory reaction, is assigned greater validity within our minds over less-vivid information, such as written accounts. As a result of Haeberle’s photos, many Americans, including future Secretary of State John Kerry, took to the streets in 1969 to protest the war. The universal “truth” now altered, attempts to paint the situation in a better light only fanned the flames of antiwar fervor.
While the Kremlin has succeeded in discrediting less-vivid information passed through written accounts or by word of mouth from relatives in Ukraine, those Russians skeptical of Kremlin narratives can still access photographs of the war on western sites through virtual private networks (VPNs), which allow them to bypass government restrictions. While the Kremlin might attempt to also discredit such photographs by trying to “rationalize and excuse its conduct” in an uncertain information environment, it will never be able to deny the validity of true photographic representations of its acts once the scales of consensus have tipped.
Former top Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov once said that the Kremlin “interferes in your brains … [changes] your conscience, and there is nothing you can do about it.” If this is a challenge, America’s countermeasure to Kremlin fake news is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The broadcaster, which uses photos to supplement articles, has seen surges in visitorship from VPN-using Russians. The photographs captivate visitors, and their vividness assists in recalling the information presented in the article. The Kremlin is already starting to see its effects, as angry Russian mothers accuse the government of using their sons as “cannon fodder.”
However, as a result of confirmation bias, people are prone to believe information consistent with their preexisting beliefs: the longer Russians spend immersed in a Kremlin echo chamber, the greater the cognitive dissonance and the harder it will be to bring them back into the fold. Likewise, as time goes on, the availability of loopholes like VPNs that make photographs readily available to the masses will decrease as the Federal Security Service doubles down its information confrontation efforts, making countering Kremlin narratives all the more urgent before they become cemented.
Even though capturing and sharing images of pain and agony is challenging, both victim and viewer must ensure that those who would otherwise be invisible are made visible to the public. So yes, Mr. Berger and likeminded critics, it is possible to look pensively at a moment of agony and emerge stronger. And more Russians need this before they regress to Cold War-era levels of brainwashing.