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I Keep Returning to This Haunting Photo From Gaza

Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters

What makes this picture stand out from the thousands of others showing the effects of Israel’s assault on Gaza? It was taken in a hospital after the shelling of a U.N.-run school where 16 people were killed. Other images were more heartrending, showed more appalling scenes of injury and death or provided more comprehensive views of the scale and intensity of destruction. But I kept coming back to this one—partly because I couldn’t work out why I kept coming back to it.

Location: Gaza Strip Date: July 24, 2014 Photographer: Finbarr O’Reilly

The answer came as soon as I stopped searching for it: Don McCullin! Specifically his picture of a Vietnamese man crouching with his back to a wall, holding a blood-soaked girl injured in the wake of a U.S. attack in Hue in 1968. The resemblance between the pictures is extraordinary—and, on reflection, completely unextraordinary: When a civilian population is bombed, pictures like this are inevitable.

John Berger refers to the McCullin picture in his well-known essay “Photographs of Agony.” Berger claimed that publication of images like McCullin’s could be taken either as a sign that people “want to be shown the truth” or that growing familiarity with images of suffering was leading newspapers to “compete in terms of ever more violent sensationalism.”

Rejecting both of these options, Berger concluded that such pictures place events—which are the product of politics—outside the realm of the political, where they become, instead, “evidence of the human condition.” They accuse “nobody and everybody.”

It’s a thesis that still merits consideration more than 40 years after the essay was first published. At the time of writing, Israel has admitted that one of its mortars landed in the school yard but denies that anyone was killed. This is to be expected. No government will readily admit to killing civilians sheltering at a school if it is in any way deniable—or even postponable. By the time this piece is published, more responsibility may have been conceded but, in the interim, the degree of responsibility—and the attendant political consequences—will have tacitly diminished.

So, although images can now be disseminated ahead of state censorship, this is countered by increased governmental skill in deploying photography as an instrument of war or, when necessary, in neutralizing the power of that instrument when used by others. This contributes to a pervasive feeling of enraged resignation deeper than that described by Berger. I became conscious of the result or paradox of impotent solidarity while watching 5 Broken Cameras, about a Palestinian man who filmed his village’s resistance to occupation and to ever-encroaching settlements. It is a record of endless defeat and setbacks. How, I kept wondering, do Palestinians avoid sinking into despair?

There is one crucial difference between the Gaza picture and McCullin’s: Whereas the eyes of the Vietnamese child are turned imploringly toward us, neither the Palestinian man nor the girl pay us any mind. Could it be that, in spite of everything— in a situation that seems hopeless, when Palestinians are dependent on the political intervention of others—we are left looking to them, to the powerless, for hope?