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op-ed
april 2007

The power of pictures

 





  Op-ed
by Hans Durrer
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"Film footage of the servicewoman taken prisoner in the Persian Gulf, wearing a black headscarf, as she "admitted" to trespassing on Iranian waters, will become one of the iconic images of the crisis between Iran and the West." That is what the Independent wrote on 29 March 2007. Since, as Eugène Ionesco stated in Rhinoceros, "You can only predict things after they have happened", this of course remains to be seen.

Tony Blair, according to the Daily Telegraph, "described Iran's behaviour during the crisis as "disgraceful," and said the decision to broadcast footage of the seized party yesterday was "contrary to all international laws." Given that Mr Blair did not seem to have agonised over international laws when he sent British troops — why not his sons? — alongside North American troops, to invade Iraq, one would think that he's not really in a position to cite international laws. Yet there are also legal and defence experts who said, according to the Independent, that "the television footage could have been in breach of the Geneva Convention, despite Britain and Iran not being in a state of war. One analyst, Paul Beaver, said: "There are a host of reasons why this could be in breach of the Convention. They have not been charged, and they have not been allowed consular access."

Next The Geneva Conventions, well, that is a wide field. Like all such conventions, they need to be interpreted. When the North American government showed photos of the dead sons of Saddam Hussein, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the guarantor of the Geneva Conventions, remained even more neutral as usual. "We are not sure whether the two dead brothers are considered war dead," the ICRC spokesperson Antonella Notari was quoted in Spiegel Online. The fact that the US belongs to the biggest donors of the ICRC may have helped to reach this conclusion.
  There is no doubt that the release of these pictures has served propaganda purposes. In fact, pictures released by governments almost always serve propaganda purposes. The question here is whether these images show the persons portrayed in a degrading manner. Do they? Not to my eyes.
  How one reads pictures is of course a personal — and, not to forget, a culturally conditioned — matter. So what did I see? I saw several males and one female eating, one of the males with a healthy appetite. I saw the female wearing a headscarf and smoking a cigarette. I did not feel appalled watching them, they did not look degraded to me. Moreover, I strongly believe that their relatives must have felt relieved seeing them alive and well.
Next Then a second video was broadcast on Iranian television. This time it showed the servicemen in their uniform and the woman in a black robe and a headscarf — since, in the meantime, she most probably had not converted to Islam, nothing could have demonstrated better the collision between two, at this point in history, irreconcilable civilisations. While a crewman read an obviously scripted apology — "We trespassed ... I would just like to apologise for entering your waters without permission" — the female captive, seemingly amused — did she wonder about her new attire? — looked on. Mr Blair felt clearly less amused when he said on television: "I really don't know why the Iranian regime keeps doing this. All it does is enhance people's sense of disgust at captured personnel being paraded and manipulated in this way. It doesn't fool anyone." Right. So why bother?
Next One of the reasons is the power of these pictures, for they show the British government helpless — hence Mr Blair's anger. Another reason is that what we will remember from this incident will be the pictures and not so much the circumstances that went with it. It is the pictures — for they convey emotions and it is to these that we seem to cling — that will form our collective memory. Remember the video footage, courtesy of the United States army, of the capture and subsequent "medical examination" of Saddam Hussein? Not exactly in tune with the toothless Geneva Conventions, as some commentators have pointed out.
  The North Americans in charge didn't care then, the Iranians in charge did not care this time. Needless to say, this is not what these pictures show. It is however what we above all need to remember. For the power of pictures lies not only in creating memory but also in blocking it.
   
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