History is memory cobbled together, understood differently by each individual. Much of our understanding of world events since the 1800’s can be called to mind visually, events represented by single frames. Sontag states “This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding,” (89). In an increasingly media-saturated culture, has technology affected our ability or our desire to understand world events? Is it enough to know that such events are happening?
In today’s culture, I think the desire to understand world events is often overcome by a false feeling of knowing everything already. The expression ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ suggests that the images that pervade our culture tell the whole story. Consider John Kifner’s writing about the image of the Serb militiaman kicking the Muslim woman: “It tells you everything you need to know,” (90). I think many people expect photographs to be a quick and easy tell-all for world events. In the same way that someone might browse headlines online instead of reading news stories, they might browse the images and captions in order to know what’s going on. This cursory overview might seem like an adequate way of “understanding,” but it’s not. As Sontag says, “but of course [a photograph] doesn’t tell us everything we need to know,” (90).
A photograph shows us one scene or image through the perspective of one photographer. It can be manipulated (either digitally or through the presentation) to mean something to one group and something totally different to another group. For example, “during the fighting between Serbs and Croats at the beginning of the recent Balkan wars, the same photographs of children killed in the shelling of a village were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings. Alter the caption, and the children’s deaths could be used and reused,” (10). Clearly, a picture can be shown to mean something it does not, which makes the desire to find an all encompassing truth in a photograph dangerous.
Our ability to understand world events is thus altered by treating an image as a quick capsule of truth. Since people think that “everything we need to know” can be taken in a glance, there is apparently less need and less desire to actually research or investigate the event. Knowing of an event rather than about it makes people docile. If, when looking at a typical image of a bloat belly child in an African famine, the viewer feels shock and empathy, they might consider their job done. They have seen the image, and now they “know” there is starvation and suffering, and they have felt sufficiently bad about it. But this doesn’t solve anything. It’s necessary to see a picture and wonder what’s going on outside the frame.
I think this same logic holds true on a smaller scale. When Sontag says, “this remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding,” (89), she’s right – and not just about world events. A lot of my “memories” cannot exist without the photograph of the event. I say that I “remember” playing in my pap’s pigpen with the pigs, but what I’m really remembering is a picture of me in a dress crouching down in some hay petting pigs. The stories I’ve heard about it fill in my “memory,” but what I understand about the event hinges on the image.
The same type of memory affects the way I think about world events. The image on the girl running from the napalmed village in Vietnam really influenced the way I “understood” the Vietnam War. I first encountered the image in a high school history course and without knowing much of anything about the war I based my opinions and understanding on that one image. It’s a hollow, false way of trying to understand anything, and the use of images in the media is dangerous for exactly that reason. In the same way that the Serbs and Croats could be made to feel hate based misrepresented images of dead children, images today could be misrepresented to influence us.
Although photographs are useful resources, they only capture a fraction of the event. As Gourevitch explains in We Wish to Inform You, it’s appealing to look at the dead bodies but just looking is not enough. The bodies hold only a part of the history of the genocide. A frame can only hold so much, and it takes all parts to make a whole.