Violence and the Rhetoric of Images

Peer Reviewed

The image of Muhammad al-Dura became a rallying cry for many who challenged the injustices facing Palestinians. June 8, 2009 via Michelle Stewart. Source:

This mural was put up in Corso Repubblica in Orgosolo, Sardegna. June 8, 2009 via Michelle Stewart.

See NY Times Blog (2008) on questions about the "authenticity" of photos from 2000.

Editorial Overview

In this article Gregory Starrett brings together a rich textual analysis to illustrate the ways in which photographic images and media depictions act as rhetorical devices and can transform and produce personal and collective sensibilities, memories, and even acts of violence.

Starrett begins with two icon images -- the first of the Taliban destroying Buddhist statues (2001) and the second of Muhammad al-Dura being killed in his father's arms (2000) -- to illustrate how local images produced a global response and sentiment. He then turns his attention a series of events and depictions from Egypt in 1993 to show the ways in which media and rhetoric are able to cultivate our sentiments and sensibilites. In Cairo, this sensibility incited a violent group response to a perceived threat. He describes the ways in which bodies are visually treated, and suspects displayed - one individual survives a type of vigilante justice and is displayed proudly in the papers, ironically with the word “sport” written across his shirt. These are the ways images, like rhetoric, can pull at the reader, evoking a commonsense about events and our place in the world. Applying the work of Benjamin, Barthes, de Bord and others, Starrett illustrates the evolving relationship between photographs and texts within newspapers and the ways in which the text can be subordinated to the power of the image. The image can be powerful enough to cultivate a collective sensibility to mobilize violence – and acceptance of this violence in response to the perceived threat. Starrett further shows how images render visible fractures within the social order. For example, he recounts how the image of a young Egyptian boy and his body were used to mobilize local, national and international collective sensibilities and notions of social stability and virtue. The rhetorical effect, Starrett argues, requires action by both the listener (or viewer) and the producer. In this article, Starrett offers a poignant and compelling analysis of how the photograph is a lively socio-political object and the ways in which the viewer can become enveloped in the rhetorical power of images.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a wide-range of essays that consider the notion and production of security. See for example Andrew Lakoff's "The Generic Biothreat, or, How We Became Unprepared" (2008), and Joseph Masco's "'Survival is Your Business': Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America" (2008). For a full list of articles visit the Security theme list.

Cultural Anthropology has also published extensively on media, culture and politics. See, for example, Charles Brigg's recent essay "Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations between Narrative and Violence" (2007), Paul Manning's "Rose-Colored Glasses? Color Revolutions and Cartoon Chaos in Postsocialist Georgia" (2007). For an article that demonstrates how the senses can be utilized to conjure up national collective sensibilities see Danny Kaplan's "The Songs of the Siren: Engineering National Time on Israeli Radio" (2009). For full list of articles visit the Media theme list.

About the Author

Gregory Starrett is a professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His work focuses on the Anthropology of Religion, Anthropological Theory, History of Anthropology and the Middle East. His book Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt (1998) is available through University of California Press. Alongside his writings, Dr. Starrett has also had his photography appear in The American Anthropologist (1995) and Spectrum: A Journal of Photography (1981) as well as photos featured in "The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach" (2002).

Questions for Classroom Discussion

Starrett's article uses specific examples to launch his argument about the ways in which the photo has the ability to puncture the viewer’s sensibility and inform their understandings of the world around them. In this section consider the ways in which the photo is mobilized as a tool of information and rhetoric to mobilize individuals and groups.

1) What is meant by the term "mobilization press"? Does all press present this potential, please explain your answer.

2) Explain the role of gore in the photos - which bodies were displayed, why and how? How were individuals described in print.

3) Explain the evolving relationship between the photo and caption; the photo and text.

4) Explain the terms studium and punctum.

5) Explain the ways in which the unifying narrative was disrupted and how.

6) In what ways can one consider photography as a form of rhetoric? Consider Starrett's explanation then find and use a example from a recent news story - do you agree with Starrett's argument about photography as rhetoric?

7) Explain the ways in which Starrett describes how the media told a specific story about the events that took place in Cairo in 1993 -- what devices and strategies did the media use? How is this relevant to Starrett's overall argument?

8) Why do you think Starrett began with the images of the Taliban and the death of Muhammad al-Dura?

9) Explain the argument that Barthes puts forth (418) regarding the relationship between spontaneity and authencity for some viewers. Do you think you share this expectation in news photographs? 

Further Analysis of a Recent Example - The End of the Sri Lankan Civil War (2009)

"Map." June 8, 2009 via Michelle Stewart.

On 19 May 2009, the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse officially declared that Sri Lanka's long-standing civil war was finally over. Indeed, demonstrating its military might, Sri Lankan government forces had captured the last bit of territory that was previously under the control of the militant separatist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Perhaps one of the greatest feats of the government was capturing the powerful and ruthless leader of the LTTE, Vellupillai Prabhakaran. News of his death and the discovery of his body spread like wildfire around the island and the world, with images being promptly broadcast by government news channels.

The long battle leading up to this supposed end was fraught with conflict as well, with government media starkly in contrast to pro-LTTE media broadcasts. Independent journalists were banned from the areas of fighting, while international humanitarian agencies, including the International Federation of the Red Cross, halted aid efforts due to the inability to secure safety of personnel. Hence, reports were limited to speculation, reports from doctors working in the "no-fire" zone (some who have now been taken into Sri Lankan governmental custody), and the conflicting reports of the two warring sides. In the process, images were often used as "proof" of what was "really" happening in the north and the "no-fire" zones. For example, Sri Lankan government called their efforts "a humanitarian operation" to rescue civilians, while others clamored that a "genocide" was happening. [Source:]

Considering some of the main points made in Starrett's article, please examine the following reports about how images have been used to describe the warring situation in Northern Sri Lanka in its last phase of fighting: 

"UN Image Shows Sri Lanka Damage" (BBC Article)

"When The Camera Lies for Terror"

Questions for Classroom Discussion Regarding Sri Lanka

1) In the BBC article how is a satellite image, which is seemingly neutral and objective, utilized to recount the situation in Sri Lanka? How does the Sri Lankan Government counter the news report?

2) In thinking of Starrett's ideas about photos, how can a satellite image or a map be considered as a photograph or an image with rhetorical power?

3) What is the role of the documentary news photo and related media imagery in shaping or conveying opinions about current events which are often riddled with controversy and emotion? How does the Sri Lankan government attempt to address this question? Do you believe what they are announcing to the public?

4) Without knowing in much depth or detail the history of Sri Lanka's civil war, what can you learn or gather about it from the counter play of images and media? How is our knowledge of complex situations shaped and/or formed by the rhetorical powers of the media and imagery?

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