There are images that just aren’t right. This one, for instance:
‘Unfaithful Kiss’ – photographer Paolo Puopolo’s contribution to this year’s Female Students’ Calendar – portrays an Israeli and a Palestinian woman making up and making out even as they bear the physical marks of the hatred between their peoples. The 2013 edition of the calendar is called ‘Onerace’ (just like that, all one word – so radical) and the sponsor, ad agency Arakne Communication, has explained that it is intended as a vehicle not only of aesthetic values but also of a social mission, although what its headline image is supposed to signify is not very clear. Perhaps that increased lesbian relations amongst attractive young women will finally bring peace to the region.
The models, Valentina Cammarota e Femy Cristofaro, are Italian, and even if I don't get into the ways in which this makes the image less honest, we can probably agree that it doesn’t make it more honest. But that is also complicated. After all, didn’t the clothes used in that famous 1994 ad by Benetton really belong to fallen Bosnian soldier Marinko Gagro? Yet this fact didn’t make the naked attempt to associate a brand of colourful sweaters to social awareness and political commitment any less abhorrent.
Art, advertising, war. If you broaden the definition of advertising to include public relations and propaganda, this is the same set of relationships that underlies today’s image. Which is this one.
The straight story is that a young IDF sniper by the name of Mor Ostrovski took the picture and uploaded it to his Instagram account some time in late January. I became aware of it last Saturday, when Palestinian blogger Ali Abunimah posted it and wrote about it at Electronic Intifada. What happened in the next few hours followed a well-worn routine: first the outraged reaction, spreading through successive time-zones in an easterly direction; then the removal of the image; then the taking down of the Instagram account, but not before the image had found its way onto thousands of computers. The internet never forgets. All the same, it’s worth asking what exactly it is not forgetting this time.
As far as I can tell, Mor Ostrovski really exists (and, as at the time of writing, still has a Facebook account). Whilst it publicly censured him, the IDF has raised doubts concerning whether he did actually take the picture rather than finding it somewhere on web. Or the photograph could be a fake. Yet the first point should be relatively easy to establish – if the photo already existed, it would likely have emerged by now – and the second is perplexing. Faked how? Or more precisely why, seeing as presumably Ostrovski can create and compose that scene at will. He has no need to fire up Photoshop or get a friend to pose as a Palestinian youth at the other end of his rifle. It’s all right there for him.
Since there was no reason to fake the picture, we should assume that it’s real. Just like the other pictures in Ostrovski’s instagram account – some of which Abunimah has posted, some of which I’ve saved on my computer ahead of the predictable vanishing of the account. Pictures like this one.
The last time I checked before it was taken down, the picture had garnered nearly 200 Instagram ‘likes’. This is the social dimension of contemporary photography, which on platforms like Instagram invests not just the reception but also the production of each image: so not just ‘I share this picture so that other may like it,’ but ‘I’ll shoot this particular picture in this particular way and share it so that others may like it,’ or possibly even ‘I take pictures so I may share them.’ By this I mean that the social layer is embedded in this like in any other picture shared by any other Instagram user, and that on these platforms expecting praise for the aesthetic values of a particular image becomes one and the same with seeking approval for one’s mission. Even when that mission is killing people. Even when it is killing children. Remember, it was the IDF that chose to have an official presence on Instagram to support its propaganda machine. They’re the ones at the forefront of understanding that social media is a weapon.
Did Mor Ostrovski aim at the Palestinian youth solely in order to take his picture? Did he take the picture instead of shooting his gun? It ultimately doesn’t matter since the absolute power over life and death that Ostrovski possessed and likely still possesses is entirely contained within the frame. There are no checks against this power. It alone gets to decide whether to engage in art or murder.
We like photographers to be the ones who bear witness, not the ones who shoot to kill. But things are never that simple, are they? The famous Robert Capa photograph above may or may not capture the death of a loyalist soldier in Cerro Muriano, Spain, on September 5, 1936. The conditional depends on whether or not it was in fact staged – so it’s either an uncanny miracle of mechanical timing and human intuition or one of the world’s great photographic tricks. We’ll never know for sure. Does it matter? Perhaps not. Not anymore. All that remains is the picture itself, and it has only one possible reading – that a man is dying, at this very moment. And so too Ostrovski’s picture may be a piece of bravado, or a fake, but it means only one thing: that a soldier is about to shoot, and a child is about to die.