You know that kid’s not out there. Uh, you know, filming a letter from home with a Betamax. Huh? You know there’s a director five feet away going: “Don’t feed him yet! Get that sandwich out of here It doesn’t work unless he looks hungry!”
— Sam Kinison, Outlaws of Comedy, 1990
A few weeks ago, a video still of Omran Daqneesh, a five-year-old Syrian child, inserted itself into the public consciousness. On 17 August, Omran was pulled from the rubble of a building in Aleppo, Syria. A paramedic placed him in an orange chair. In the image, Omar, covered in ash and blood, blindly looks forward. The image was pulled from a video by Mostfa Saroot that was uploaded to YouTube. Just a quick search on the AMC YouTube page shows thousands of additional equally disturbing images. Yet it was this image that put a human face on the war in Syria.
This image continues a long tradition of representing war and its effects as an important subject of photography. Just a few years after Nicéphore Niépce invented the medium, artists were using the technology to give a face to the horrors of war. Mathew Brady, perhaps the most famous American photographer, became known for his compositions documenting corpses littering the battlefields of the American Civil War. This happened over 150 years ago. An almost unbroken bridge of images taken during war connects Brady’s work to Omran Daqneesh. Since that time, every western war has included press photographers. There have been times when a single image can move an entire nation. Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 for example, became a symbol of American victory in World War II. The opposite has happened in this case, in which a single image can become emblematic of the suffering brought on by war. Perhaps the most famous image to come out of the Vietnam War was Nick Ut’s 1972 image of Kim Phuc, a then nine-year old girl running naked down a road away from a napalm attack.
Curiously, Rosenthal and Ut’s images also function as a snapshot of how the public views each war. World War II is viewed as perhaps America’s crowning achievement in defeating imperialism in the east and fascism in the west. The public generally views the Vietnam War as the nadir of American power, when a great nation was humiliated and disgraced. Each image was created near the end of each war. It is impossible to know if the power of these images helped define the public’s perception of the war or if the images became iconic because of the extent to which they reflected a pre-existing attitude. Either way, both images reflect the power of an image to affect how the public will come to define a conflict.
This is the central theme of English Artist Phil Collins’s video piece how to make a refugee (1999) currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During the late 1990s, Collins embedded himself in the Kosovo War, and understanding the power of images to define perception, Collins wanted to capture how objective or subjective the process is. While his identity is not disclosed in the video, the young man depicted in it is from a displaced Kosovan-Albanian family. The video was taken in Macedonia, an adjacent nation that was split off from Yugoslavia. The Metropolitan Museum describes the intent of how to make a refugee to be to bring “a critical, self-conscious eye to the conventions governing the representations of suffering in the media”.
Collins’s work provokes difficult questions. First, it asks where voyeurism ends and journalism begins. Second, it asks whether war photographs document reality or serve as propaganda. Finally, Collins questions not only the ethics of journalists through the film, but also the ethics of the audience of such journalism. Collins also provides a sense that the image was constructed. A lot of choreography takes place in the 12 minute video. People discuss how the young man should sit, look, and be. While the film may document something real, it is a “real” that is heavily edited and framed. By capturing this element of photo journalism, Collins questions the nature of the medium. He speaks to this in his artist’s statement, saying:
A camera brings interested parties together. It attracts and repels according to circumstance or whim… You could say that [this work] is driven by an emotional relationship with the subjects, rather than the rational or sensational standards of journalism.
As a result, how to make a refugee is a kind of meta-video. The subject of the video is the preparation of making up a young man, who looks to be a teenager, for a journalistic portrait. There is a lot of shuffling around and a bit of background noise. A lot of the dialogue is not in English. Collins purposely keeps the video cryptic. The viewer is never quite aware of what is going on. Family members pop in and out of the video. Without its informative text, it would be hard to tell that this was a photo of a war refugee.
All of this framing of the young man acts as a microcosm of how wars occupy the public imagination. The images were taken during the Kosovo War, 1998-1999. The similarities between the two conflicts are severe and several. First, they are separated by only about 12 years. Second, they involve quagmires with multiple factions and a dizzying array of allegiances. Third, geographically Kosovo is only about 1,300 miles northwest of Aleppo, Syria. (a little more than the distance between Chicago, Illinois and San Antonio, Texas). Most importantly, both conflicts involve several different players who belong to multiple alliances. This creates a political network nearly impossible to untangle. The Kosovo conflict came about within the context of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and there have been six conflicts in the area since the breakup.
There are some rather immediate differences between how to make a refugee and the source video of Omran Daqneesh’s image — most obviously is that of intent. The Omran video has much more of a cinéma vérité quality because it is not staged. Collins’s work has the same formal qualities, a darting, shaking camera and jump cuts, but these are formal choices. As a result, a strange paradox informs Collins’s work. He is critical of how photo journalists stage the photograph, but his taking of the video is almost equally as staged. It is not as much self conscious as subject conscious. By excluding a great deal of its background information, Collins clearly controls how the viewer will interact with his image. It seems as if the videographer came onto the scene. Collins’s questions of intent, then, is directed outward.
Wondering about the artist’s intent may be a distraction from the real issue. Both Collins’s work and the reaction to the Omran video suggest not only that their audience is voyeuristic but selectively so. Young and old, beautiful and ugly, fat and thin, people of every imaginable hue of skin have suffered horribly because of wars. However, the audience reacts to the suffering of a certain kind of people. Thousands of people have experienced the same fate as Omran. Only a small percentage have someone there to capture an image of their suffering. In this case, it is only this image that affected the conscience of the world.
Why is this? Any reason seems at best absurd and at worst existentially cruel. Is it the haircut of a disheveled scamp? If so, perhaps only children with adorable hair deserve our attention? Is it the images of a yellow cartoon character that appear among the ash on his shirt that draws its audience to the boy’s plight? Is it the fact that he is too small or that the chair that he is placed in is too big (since we witness his feet dangling in the air beneath it) that makes him seem so clearly innocent? Is it the surreal way that the ash and blood seem to form a mask for him? Is his stilled expression one of shock? That would assume that stoic displays of suffering are somehow more likely to induce empathy. It is also possible that none of the formal elements of the work caused it to go viral. It could just be an accident of time. For whatever reason, people are more ready to accept Syrians as victims now than they were a year ago.
Ultimately, Collins’s video infers that there is a type — a certain human who is more consumable as a refugee — than others. This is an infuriating proposition. Unfortunately, judging from both his video and the response to Omran’s, it may very well be true.