The Contested Visibility of War: Actors on the Ground Taking and Distributing Images from the War in Syria

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paper studies how local actors-on-the-ground taking and sharing images from war zones maneuver the possibilities and constraints of the globalized and convergent, but also unsafe, unpredictable and unstable communicative circuit. In the context of totalitarian regimes waging war, media visibility is invariably contested by censorship, propaganda, access (or lack thereof) to communicative resources and severe security risks. Actors on the ground in the Syrian War documenting the suffering of the civilian population have to navigate in these circumstances of local strictures to media freedom. At the same time, in their attempts to gain visibility with international publics, they are also restricted by Western media logics and norms for representing humanitarian catastrophe in terms of ‘tolerable’ levels of violence as well as simple and symbolically condensed images. In this paper, we investigate the work and working conditions of local photographers, who, while documenting severe violations to human rights, risk their personal safety and often receive little or no financial compensation. Theoretically, the paper draws on and contributes to research literature on visual humanitarian communication (e.g. Boltanski 1999, Chouliaraki 2006, 2013, Mortensen & Trenz 2016, Dencik and Allan 2017). This research tradition often takes its point of departure in the perspective of the Western media users to investigate the different modes for distant spectatorship. We would like to develop this theoretical framework by theorizing how local media practitioners in areas of humanitarian despair and catastrophe negotiate or internalize Western norms for representing distant suffering as part of their documentation of conflict. The paper takes its empirical point of departure in actors involved in producing and disseminating the ‘iconic’ image from 2016 of Omran Daqneesh. In order to study the interplay between the at once conflictual and productive media-related practices surrounding this image, the paper interrogates the tensions of global connections through the notion of ‘friction’, which Tsing (2005) has described as ‘zones of awkward engagement, where words mean something different across a divide even as people agree to speak’ (p. xi). The analysis builds on interviews with central actors involved in the production and initial dissemination of this image, i.e., local photographers, Aleppo Media Center, NGOs, Press Agencies, and mainstream news media.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date23 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2018
EventGlobal Media and Human Rights: ICA Pre-Conference - Autoclub CR, Prague, Czech Republic
Duration: 23 May 201824 May 2018


ConferenceGlobal Media and Human Rights
LocationAutoclub CR
CountryCzech Republic

ID: 197962237