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Images as weapons of war: representation, mediation and interpretation


Belief that images have become the critical ‘weapon’ in contemporary warfare has enjoyed great currency in the past decade. This belief rests upon certain understandings about the impact visual footage of terrorist attacks or still images of the abuse of prisoners have had on public opinion in different parts of the world. These understandings, in turn, reflect simplistic models of representation and mediation in which citizens are assumed to know little of the ‘true’ situation of war but are easily and primarily shocked by unexpected graphic images. To explore these relationships, this article presents analysis of original research from a three-year study of military practitioners, media coverage of security events, and collaborative audience ethnography across towns and cities in the UK. While military practitioners feel frustration that communicating with publics is ‘like talking to a brick wall’, analysis of audience interpretations of Abu Ghraib and other events suggests varied and negotiated understandings in which audiences account for processes of mediation as well as reflect on the event being represented. Images cannot necessarily be considered primary to explaining how an individual interprets a news story, and, to the extent and manner in which images do matter, this often depends on what longer historical narratives such images are situated within – by media or audiences themselves. No image is intrinsically shocking. For policymakers concerned with public diplomacy, for journalists and for audiences themselves there is a need for further research into the role images – Weber's ‘visual language’ – play amid today’s conditions of diffused war.

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1 Awan, Akil N., ‘Virtual Jihadist media: Function, legitimacy, and radicalising efficacy’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10:3 (2007), pp. 389408; Indymedia, ‘Fatima's letter and the subsequent assault on Abu Ghraib’ (4 December 2004) , {}.

2 After it was originally posted on Free Arab Voice (First posted on: {} – now unavailable) it was allegedly translated from Arabic into English by Mohammad Abu Nasr. The credibility of Nasr was doubted by the US State Dept (USINFO, 2005).

3 Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, The ‘Taguba Report’ On Treatment Of Abu Ghraib Prisoners In Iraq, Article 15–6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade, (2004), {}.

4 BBC News, ‘Details of US ‘abuse’ memos’ (21 December 2004), {}; Danner, Mark, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York: New York Review of Books, 2004) ; George R. Fay and Anthony R. Jones, Investigation of the Abu Ghraib Prison/Detention Facility and 205th Military Brigade, Department of Defense (2004), {–6/AR15–6.pdf}.

5 Babbington, Charles, ‘Lawmakers Are Stunned By New Images of Abuse’, Washington Post (13 May 2004) , pA01, {–2004May12.html}.

6 Cottle, Simon, Mediatized Conflict: Developments in Media and Conflict Studies (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006), pp. 5152 .

7 Though the letter did inspire others to produce images representing ‘Fatima’, for example, ‘Fatima: The virgin of Abu Ghraib’, at: {}.

8 Gillespie, Marie, Shifting Securities: News Cultures Before and Beyond the Iraq Crisis 2003: Full Research Report, ESRC End of Award Report, RES-223-25-0063 (Swindon: ESRC, 2007) .

9 Tumber, Howard and Webster, Frank, Journalists Under Fire: Information War and Journalistic Practices (London: Sage, 2006), p. 21 .

10 Hoskins, Andrew and O'Loughlin, Ben, War and Media: The Emergence of Diffused War (Cambridge: Polity, 2010) .

11 ‘Juba’ is a presence posting videos on jihadist websites of assassination-style killings ‘he’ claims to have carried out, but who may be many people. See Cronin, Audrey K., ‘Cyber-Mobilization: The New Levéen Masse’, Parameters (Summer 2006), pp. 7787 ; Wright, David, ‘Baghdad Sniper: Myth or Menace?’, ABC News (10 February 2006) , {}.

12 Bauman, Zygmunt, Liquid Fear (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), p. 19 .

13 Michalski, Milena and Gow, James, War, Image, Legitimacy: Viewing Contemporary Conflict (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 5 .

14 Ibid., pp. 205–18. Such an approach is deemed impossible by Brian McNair, who celebrates the unpredictability of meanings a story can generate. For McNair this ‘chaos’ is a democratic force, disrupting authorities’ capacity to control communication. See McNair, Brian, Cultural Chaos: Journalism, News and Power in a Globalised World (London: Routledge, 2006) .

15 Tumber and Webster, Journalists Under Fire.

16 Kalb, Marvin and Saivetz, Carol, ‘The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006: The Media as a Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict’, Press/Politics, 12:3 (2007), pp. 4366 ; Taverner, Angus, ‘Dimensions of Perception: Shaping the British Approach to Information Strategy During Military Operations’, in Maltby, Sarah and Keeble, Richard (eds), Communicating War: Memory, Media and Military (Bury St. Edmonds: Arima, 2007) .

17 Finn, Helena K., ‘The Case for Cultural Diplomacy’, Foreign Affairs, 82:6 (2003), pp. 1520 ; Hoffman, David, ‘Beyond Public Diplomacy’, Foreign Affairs, 81:2 (2002), pp. 8395 ; Hughes, Karen P., ‘‘‘Waging Peace’’: A New Paradigm for Public Diplomacy’, Mediterranean Quarterly, 18:2 (2007), pp. 1836 ; Kennedy, Liam, ‘Remembering September 11: photography as cultural diplomacy’, International Affairs, 79:2 (2003), pp. 315326 ; Vickers, Rhiannon, ‘The New Public Diplomacy in Britain and Canada’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 6:2 (2004), pp. 182194 .

18 BBC News, ‘Nine killed as Afghans rage at US’ (13 May 2005), {}; Seib, Philip, The Al Jazeera Affect: How the New Global Media are Reshaping World Politics (Washington, DC.: Potomac Books, 2009), p. 52 .

19 Eichenberg, Richard C., ‘Victory has Many Friends: US Public Opinion and the Use of Military Force, 19812005’, International Security, 30:1 (2005), pp. 745 .

20 Weber, Cynthia, ‘Popular visual language as global communication: the remediation of United Airlines Flight 93’, Review of International Studies, 34: S1 (2008), pp. 137153.

21 Mitchell, W. J. T., ‘There Are No Visual Media’, Journal of Visual Culture, 4:2 (2005), pp. 257266 .

22 Couldry, Cf. Nick, Sonia Livingstone and Tim Markham, Media consumption and public engagement: beyond the presumption of attention (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 5 .

23 See for example Shaw, Martin, The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), p. 139 .

24 Boltanski, Luc, (Translated by Graham Burchell), Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) .

25 Chouliaraki, Lilie, The Spectatorship of Suffering (London: Sage, 2006) .

26 Research by the Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) in the 1980s and 1990s also sought to analyse audiences, texts and producers, including in the study of war and conflict; see for example GUMG, , War and Peace News (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985) . However, where the GUMG analysed single issues in short time periods, Shifting Securities was an iterative, flexible three-year study in which emerging hypotheses and findings from one methodological strand fed into the others, and hypotheses were tested across a number of events and issues.

27 Gillespie, Marie, (Guest editor) ‘After September 11 2001: Television News and Transnational Audiences’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 32:6 (2006), pp. 923946 ; Gillespie, Marie, (Guest editor) ‘Media, Security and Multicultural Citizenship’ Special Issue, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10:3 (2007), pp. 275293 ; Gillespie, Marie, Gow, James, Hoskins, Andrew, O'Loughlin, Ben, and Žveržhanovski, Ivan, ‘Shifting Securities: News Cultures, Multicultural Society and Legitimacy’, Ethnopolitics, 9:2 (2010), pp. 239253 ; Gillespie, Marie and Gow, James and Hoskins, Andrew and O'Loughlin, Ben, and Žveržhanovski, Ivan, ‘Shifting Securities: Theory, Practice and Methodology: A Response to Powers, Croft and Noble’, Ethnopolitics, 9:2 (2010), pp. 269274 .

28 Gillespie, Shifting Securities; Michalski and Gow, War, Image and Legitimacy.

29 Hoskins, Andrew and O'Loughlin, Ben, Television and Terror: Conflicting Times and the Crisis of News Discourse (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009) ; Hoskins and O'Loughlin, War and Media.

30 Gillespie, Marie and O'Loughlin, Ben, ‘News Media, Threats and Insecurities: an Ethnographic Approach’, Cambridge Review of International Studies, 22:4 (2009), pp. 667685 .

31 Moss, Giles and O'Loughlin, Ben, ‘Convincing Claims: Representation and Democracy in Post-9/11 Britain’, Political Studies, 56:3 (2008), pp. 705724 .

32 The Shifting Securities project was funded by the ESRC as part of the New Security Challenges research programme (Award Ref RES-223-25-0063). Between October 2004 and March 2007 fourteen ethnographers spoke to 239 individuals across the UK, interviewing the same groups and families on several occasions to trace shifting perceptions of security, legitimacy and identity over time. The researchers were: Ammar Al Ghabban, Habiba Noor, Awa Hassan Ahmed, Atif Imtiaz, Akil Awan, Noureddine Miladi, Karen Qureshi, Zahbia Yousuf, David Herbert, Sadaf Rivzi, Somnath Batabyal, Awa Al Hassan, Olivia Allison and Marie Gillespie. In the same period James Gow and Ivan Žveržhanovski conducted 19 focus groups and 21 semi-structured interviews with news editors, journalists, government and military policymakers, and security ‘experts'. Full project details can be found at: {}.

33 For confidentiality reasons it is not possible to identify their roles in any more detail.

34 Moss and O'Loughlin, ‘Convincing Claims'.

35 Gillespie, Shifting Securities.

36 Shifting Securities, Strand A, Focus Group Z2.1, lines 290–97.

37 Fisk, Robert, quoted in ‘Iraq: The Hidden Story’, Dispatches, Channel 4, 29 May 2006 .

38 Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) .

39 See Boltanski, Distant Suffering, pp. 10–11 on vengeance and the satisfaction some viewing of suffering can elicit.

40 Bell, Martin, In Harm's Way (New York: Penguin, 1996 , Revised Edition).

41 Boltanski, Distant Suffering; Tester, Keith, Compassion, Morality and the Media (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2001) ; Chouliaraki, Spectatorship.

42 Shifting Securities, Strand C, Focus Group 11, paragraph 14.

43 Ibid., paragraph 19.

44 Ibid., paragraph 18.

45 Shifting Securities, Strand A, Focus Groups Z2.1, Z2.2, Z2.3, Z2.4 and Z2.5.

46 Ibid., Strand A, Focus Group Z2.2, lines 33–45.

47 Sontag, Regarding, pp. 19, 21.

48 Mirzoeff, Nicholas, An Introduction to Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 1999) ; Mirzoeff, Nicholas, Watching Babylon: The Iraq War and Global Visual Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1999) . See also Moxley, Keith, ‘Visual Studies and the Iconic Turn’, Journal of Visual Culture, 7:2 (2008), pp. 131146 .

49 Shifting Securities, Strand A, Focus Group Z2.2, lines 91–8.

50 Chouliaraki, Spectatorship, pp. 79–81. Additionally, the role of captions is therefore overlooked here. Yet whatever the medium through which Dominique viewed the Abu Ghraib photographs, the photographs would have been accompanied by a caption or voiceover – all media have multimodal properties.

51 For an overview of the journalists, scholars and policymakers who advanced the CNN effect thesis from the early 1990s onwards, see Gilboa, Eytan, ‘Global Television News and Foreign Policy: Debating the CNN Effect’, International Studies Perspectives, 6 (2005), pp. 325334 . The few studies to demonstrate observable effects of specific types of media coverage on specific types of policy decision are Robinson, Piers, The CNN Effect: The Myth of News, Foreign Policy and Intervention (London & New York:Routledge, 2002 ); and Steven Livingston, ‘Clarifying the CNN Effect: An Examination of Media Effects According to Type of Military Intervention’, Joan Shorenstein Center, Harvard University, Research Paper R-18 (1997).

52 Gowing, Nik, Real-time television coverage of armed conflicts and diplomatic crises: Does it pressure or distort foreign policy decisions? (Cambridge, MA.: The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University, 1994) ; ‘Global Television News’; Hoskins, and O'Loughlin, , Television and Terror, pp. 5373 ; Michalski, and Gow, , War, Image and Legitimacy, pp. 128129 ; Bennett, W. Lance and Lawrence, Regina G. and Livingston, Steven, When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007), pp. 219220 , fn. 31); Miller, Derek B., Media Pressure on Foreign Policy: The Evolving Theoretical Framework (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008), pp. 1017 .

53 Cohen, Bernard C., ‘The view from the academy’, in Bennett, W. Lance and Paletz, David (eds), Taken by storm: The media, public opinion, and US foreign policy in the Gulf War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 174 .

54 Mandelbaum, Michael, ‘The reluctance to intervene’, Foreign Policy, vol. 95, p. 16 .

55 Lehr, Peter, Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 1213 .

56 Timothy M. Karcher, Understanding the ‘Victory Disease’, From the Little Bighorn, To Mogadishu, to the Future (2003, Fort Leavenworth, KS: Army Command and General Staff College, School of Advanced Military Studies).

57 Livingston, ‘Clarifying the CNN Effect’; Robinson, Piers, ‘Operation Restore Hope and the Illusion of a News Media Driven Intervention’, Political Studies, 49 (2001), pp. 941956 .

58 Gilboa, ‘Global Television News’.

59 Livingston, ‘Clarifying the CNN Effect’.

60 Halberstam, David, War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals (London: Bloomsbury, 2001), p. 265 .

61 On the ‘bodybag effect’ see also Freedman, Lawrence, ‘Victims and victors: reflections on the Kosovo War’, Review of International Studies, 26:3 (2000) pp. 335358 .

62 Sontag, Regarding, pp. 32–3. Emphasis added.

63 Larson, Eric V. and Savych, Bogdan, Misfortunes of War: Press and Public Reactions to Civilian Deaths in Wartime (Santa Monica, CA.: RAND Corporation, 2007) .

64 Silverstone, Roger, Media and Morality (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), pp. 5679 .

65 Durodie, Bill, ‘Fear and Terror in a Post-Political Age’, Government and Opposition, 42:3 (2007), pp. 427450 .

66 ‘US probes shooting at Fallujah mosque’ (16 November 2004), {}.

67 Shifting Securities, Strand C, Focus Group 11, para. 19.

68 Gillespie, Marie, Gow, James, Hoskins, Andrew and O'Loughlin, Ben, ‘Shifting Securities: News Cultures, Multicultural Society and Legitimacy’, Ethnopolitics (2009) .

69 On 20 May 2005 the New York Post in the US and The Sun in the UK published photos of Saddam Hussein in underwear.

70 Shifting Securities, Strand A, Focus Group K11, lines 206–17.

71 Ibid., lines 221–41.

72 Ibid., lines 493–7, 559–60.

73 Stephen Crocker, ‘Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben’, CTheory (28 March 2007), {}.

74 A series of the photographs of the incident are available at: {,6191,377275,00.html}.

75 Heck, Thomas F., Picturing performance: the iconography of the performing arts in concept and practice (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1999), p. 34 . Iconography is a term and approach originating in art history. See Panofsky, Erwin, Meaning in the Visual Arts (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970) and Panofsky, Erwin, Studies in Iconology (London: Icon, 1972) .

76 Hoskins, Andrew, Televising War: From Vietnam to Iraq (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), pp. 106125 .

77 Beckerman, Gal, ‘The Unpeaceful Rest of Mohammed Al-Dura’, Columbia Journalism Review (3 October 2007) , {}.

78 Shifting Securities, Strand A, Focus Group K14, lines 1645–65.

79 Gillespie, Marie, Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change (London: Routledge, 1995) .

80 Shifting Securities, Strand A, Focus Group Z2.4, lines 82–5.

81 It is perhaps notable that in 142 interviews in the Shifting Securities study, cinema or miniseries were mentioned 14 times in this way.

82 Readers may also explore the literature on moral panics, which contain explorations of the sources of apparent underlying social fears. See Cohen, Stan, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (St. Albans, UK: Paladin, 1973) ; Cohen, Stan, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (3rd edition) (London: Routledge, 2002) ; Hall, Stuart, Critcher, Chas, Jefferson, Tony, Clarke, John and Roberts, Bryan, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978) .

83 Boltanski, Distant Suffering.

84 Nacos, Brigitte, ‘Terrorism as Breaking News: Attack on America’, Political Science Quarterly, 181:1, (2003), pp. 2352 .

85 Boltanski, Distant Suffering, p. 53.

86 Chouliaraki, Spectatorship, pp. 137–55.

87 Shifting Securities, Strand A, Interview K15, lines 451–6.

88 This is supported by several studies: Ang, Ien, Desperately Seeking the Audience (London: Routledge, 1991) ; Ang, Ien, Living Room Wars (London: Routledge, 1996) ; Fiske, John, ‘Moments of Television: Neither the Text Nor the Audience’, in Seiter, Ellen, Borchers, H., Kreutzner, G. and Warth, E-M. (eds), Remote Control (London: Routledge, 1989) ; Gillespie, Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change; Morley, David, Television Audiences and Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1992) .

89 This is not an original claim but is often overlooked in policy and academic discussion of images as ‘weapons’. Media studies scholars have long established that the meaning of images is ‘anchored’ in surrounding text or commentary. See for example, Hamilton, Robert, ‘Image and Context’, in Walsh, Jeffrey and Aulich, James (eds), Vietnam Images (London: Macmillan, 1989) .

90 Shifting Securities, Strand A, Interview MG2, lines 639–93.

91 Powell, Colin L. ‘Remarks to the UN Security Council’; (5 February 2003), {} .

92 Potter, Deborah, ‘Viewer Beware: Stations Are Re-enacting Scenes, Adding Sounds and Adopting Other Misleading Practices’, American Journalism Review, 26 (February–March 2004) .

93 Examples of studies attempting to understand how war and media are altered by this new context include: McNair, Cultural Chaos; Hoskins and O'Loughlin, War and Media; and Corman, Steven R., Trethewey, Angela, and Goodall, H. L., Jr. (eds), Weapons of Mass Persuasion: Strategic Communication to Combat Violent Extremism (New York: Peter Lang, 2008) . Useful accounts of global uncertainty, within which we can discern relations between war and media as but a part, include Appadurai, Arjun, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006) ; Bauman, Zygmunt, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (Cambridge: Polity, 2007) ; and Bobbitt, PhilipTerror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (London: Penguin, 2008)

94 Abercrombie, Nicholas and Longhurst, Brian, Audiences – A Sociological Theory of Performance and Imagination (London: Sage, 1998) .

95 On manufacturing consent, see Herman, Edward S., and Chomsky, Noam, Manufacturing Consent: The political economy of the mass media (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988) . On recent models, see Bennett, Lawrence and Livingston, When the Press Fails; Robinson, The CNN Effect; Entman, Robert W., Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and US Foreign Policy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004) .

96 For example the AHRC programme Beyond Text: Sounds, Voices, Images, and Objects; the AHRC-funded projects Tuning In: Diasporic Contact Zones and the BBC World Service {}, and Mediating and Commemorating the 2005 London Bombings; the ESRC-funded project Legitimising the discourses of radicalisation: Political violence in the new media ecology.

* Thanks to the journal's anonymous referees for comments on this essay and to Andrew Hoskins and James Gow for discussion about its themes.

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