Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Something to Look At

Here's a picture. You've probably seen it, or one of the probably dozens of similar photos of the same scene.

What do we see?

A building with all its windows broken out. The damage appears more violent, more structural, as the windows get closer to the camera. We can see dangling wires, or re-bar, or both, that very much give the flavor of some sort of violence. On the ground below the most damaged windows, some sort of debris which visually resembles the cladding on the building we see further away, near the less damaged windows. The debris, credibly, is cladding that has been blown off of the building. The color and texture of the building changes in ways consistent with this hyopthesis.

Nearer to us, a littered ground that appears charred or possibly covered with ash or grey debris; a broken-off burned tree; a small fire; a nearly destroyed car. In the distance, another car apparently burned out.

This looks like an explosion occurred inside the building, but the damage extends beyond the scope of a single explosion. It feels broader.

The captions that this picture and its companions come with indicate that the building was a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, which building was bombed out by Russian military action. I think this precise picture is actually a handout from the Ukraine military, but that is neither here nor there. Consider it a placeholder for a type.

Let me be clear up front: I see no reason to suppose that this caption is not completely accurate. If it were false, I believe we would know about it, and it would be a scandal, and so forth.

That said, there is nothing whatsoever in the frame that appears to support the details. This is a completely generic photograph of a bombed out building. The only reason to suppose that it's the result of war is, really, the distant car. Everything else we see could, conceivably, have been caused by an accidental explosion inside what appears to be a completely generic building.

Possibly I am missing something, but I see literally nothing in this photograph that particularly dates it (the cars might give you a general idea if you examined them minutely?) or identifies the building or the building's function. This could be a school in Yemen, a printing company in Afghanistan, or a government building in Sarajevo. What is legible is that this damage is, at least consistent with if not certainly, the result of a military conflict.

I have argued in the past and no doubt will again that these things are generic, on purpose. This is not a photo which is designed to give us information. There are, functionally, no facts in this photograph.

The purpose of this photograph is to reify the conflict in Ukraine. It looks generic, because it's supposed to look generic. It's a symbol of war; it is a recognizable image which we can consume instantly. It means by signification, by instantly connecting to all the other essentially identical photographs from Yemen, from Sarajevo, from Dresden, from Ypres.

The text of the story says that a hospital was bombed in Mariupol with loss of life and other consequences. The photograph serves to reify the story. It does so not by offering supporting facts, it does so by existing. This is a photo. This is real.

The reasons to suppose the photograph is actually the hospital referred to are not present in the photograph, and neither are any other salient facts. The picture could be replaced by any other generic picture of a bombed out building, without changing anything.

The only reasons we believe the picture to be true are bound up in the reputation of the media outlets, and the social forces that to an extent keep them honest. The New York Times is not likely to show us a picture of some other building, because the New York Times has made a fetish out of showing us the right building for a very long time indeed. The New York Times has irrevocably lashed their reputation to a handful of ideas like "when we assert that a completely generic photo of a bombed out building is a specific building, it is that specific building almost all the time!"

The picture is a symbol. It signifies war, the text directs us to Mariupol. War in Mariupol. But also, it signifies that someone really truly went there. Probably someone wearing a flak jacket and a helmet, someone with a camera. Someone who took this photo of this building at some personal risk. Photojournalists are getting killed taking exactly these pictures on a practically daily basis right now.

The reputation of the media outlets demand that these risks be taken, that these people die to take these completely interchangeable photos. Only if people die can we be sure that this completely generic photo is of the building we say it is. It is that risk of death, proved by actual deaths, that proves the seriousness and authenticity of the photograph.

The fact that these things are often taken at great personal risk imbues them with a kind of power. "Oh my god, someone was actually there, in all that fire, scared and cold."

Having laid that out there, let us think more broadly.

The New York Times has lashed its reputation to minutiae like this, rather than really to any notion that it's going to give you actually good analysis, that it's going to do a good job at what we might think of as "reporting the news." Indeed, the NYT more or less famously repeats whatever horse-shit lies the US government, specifically the military establishment, is peddling at the time.

But they have not lashed their reputation to "we don't constantly fall for the DoD's transparent lies" they've lashed it to "we usually name the blown up building correctly."

This is not an accident. The Guardian has its own foibles, as does the Christian Science Monitor, as does Fox news as does NPR. The foibles are different. All of these outlets, though, unabashedly support their reputation by the promise of getting what are essentially unimportant details right, the promise that "our people" are there, taking risks, occasionally dying, and that proves our dedication to Truth, so you should Trust us.

I don't think it's too much of a stretch to suggest that journalists, photo- and otherwise, are sacrificed regularly specifically to support the illusion that our press is trustworthy. Which it manifestly isn't. Human sacrifice to bolster a lie. Maybe that's pressing my luck, but it sounds defensible.

I don't feel very good about this.


  1. Hard to see on the small image, but looks like there was an explosion outside the building and the shockwave blew the windows and reinforcing inwards.
    Apparently the job of the media is to remove context, always to explain events as if talking to an 8 year old, and remove our ability to think as an adult. Or maybe age is making me grumpy.

  2. "The war zone looked like a tornado had hit."

  3. "the NYT more or less famously repeats whatever horse-shit lies the US government, specifically the military establishment, is peddling at the time"

    Reading any news source, including the NYTs, requires a nuanced awareness of what is going on, and triangulation against other sources. Analysis and opinion pieces are particularly susceptible to being spun in various ways -- I think that is how they're meant to function? The most shrill attacks on 'MSM' invariably conflate clearly-labelled opinions as 'fake.' Which, whatever. There is quite a lot of valid on the ground reporting (including photography) such that you can draw your own conclusions that won't neccesarily fit the QAnon canon.