Visibility and Violence: seeing the Syrian civil war

By Ellen Cheetham

This short piece focuses on themes I am raising in a current research project around photography emerging from the Syrian civil war, mobilising a visual analysis to address not only how certain events are made ‘newsworthy’ in international media circuits, but which bodies and lives are reflected in such images as grievable. Where current content analyses have had tendency to surmise the themes of images from Syria in a rather overarching manner, discussing the characteristics and features of images, I argue that a more geographically nuanced approach to visual analysis could call to the concerns of academics pondering over how such ‘events’ are discursively produced in media. Rather than making conclusions regarding the nature of images, I would like to propose that future work around Syrian imagery considers the spatial nature of image emergence and considers the differential narratives and representations of happenings across various regions of Syria. Across Syrian regions, differential manifestations of the conflict and negotiations over territory have received discrepant coverage. Ultimately, I consider that in this vein making broad conclusions on visual imagery risks downplaying such issues of visibility. I shall expand on these concerns further in my upcoming dissertation.

In March 2018, problematizing the disparity in media coverage between Syrian regions relative to the ongoing civil war, renowned foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn declared that While the world looks to Eastern Ghouta, civilians in Afrin are being slaughtered in their hundreds by Turkish forces” (Independent, 2018). In his commentary article, Cockburn highlighted that, had these horrific images emerging of Kurdish civilians in north-western Syria been emerging from Damascus, they would have dominated the international news agenda. Yet, they remained almost entirely obscured from both the headlines, and dominant press articles.


Image 1: Map of Syria, pinpointing Afrin (North-west). Google Maps search engine.

The conflict that has raged in Syria since March 2011 (where initial anti-government protests in Dara’a began) has left over 350,000 dead (an estimate gleaned from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in March), and 11 million people displaced. Formerly a safe enclave in North-western Syria, Afrin (see map below) had until the start of this year avoided involvement in the civil war, as an area of coexistence between Arabs, Muslims, Turkmen, Yazidis and Christians. Yet following the US Pentagon declaring that a force of Kurdish border militia in north-eastern Syria were being engaged to join the fight against ISIS, the Turkish government became displeased: an alliance with the Kurdish was met with difficulty as the Turks are also in conflict with the Kurdistan Workers in Turkey (PKK). Turkey considered that the Kurdish ideology and American alliance could threaten their control over the 500-mile border with Syria (Guardian, 2018a). The Turkish military invaded Afrin. And so began another massacre of horrific proportion in the complex and destructive chaos that has been the Syrian civil war.


Image 2: 3-Year-old Alan Kurdi discovered near Bodrum, Turkey on 2 September 2015. New York Times [Online]. Credit Nilufer Demir/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Visual images have played a significant role in attracting international attention to the complex and brutal nature of the conflict in Syria and have featured shocking content. International news outlets, social media and platforms such as YouTube have shared horrific images emerging after chemical attacks in areas such as Douma, images of young children washed up on Turkish beaches after fleeing Syria with their families and images of war victims emerging from ruined cityscapes. Images have also been used as rhetorical devices from numerous political parties and alliances: government oppositional forces and citizen journalists have shared images of destruction and suffering to protest against pro-government forces. President Assad, who has been blamed by numerous influential international bodies as responsible for war crimes, has used images to continue denying his involvement in such acts (which countries such as France, the US and UK have blamed on his government). On his official Facebook page, he has continued to post images of himself in governmental meetings with other officials, declaring in captions that the refugees fleeing Syria have done so to escape terrorism and corruption, which the government are fighting: Russia’s presence in Syria and the middle east is important to maintain international balance and to fight terrorism”. Importantly, images of war have attracted the attentions of the international community and have proved to have great power in generating political leverage and evidence for legitimating governmental intervention policy and action. Following the Sarin gas attack in Ghouta in 2013, Obama declared that the images emerging of individuals ‘foaming’ at the mouth ‘could not be ignored’ and subsequently addressed congress with the intention of authorising limited precision airstrikes on Syrian chemical facilities. Inasmuch, many academics and journalists alike have appreciated the profound way images have shaped the international public’s sentiments towards and understanding of the Syrian conflict, and as such valued the power of the image in directing political conscience and awareness.


Image 3: A young child in Syria’s city of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, after a chemical attack by forces loyal to president Assad. BBC (Online). Credit – Reuters.


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Image 4: taken from President Assad’s facebook page, with the accompanying caption: “Reconstruction is the first priority in #Syria with its support to continue to fight #terrorism so as to free all Syrian territory no matter what it occupies, amend laws and legislation commensurate with the next phase, and fight #corruption, To promote dialogue between Syrians, and the return of refugees who have left Syria to escape terrorism, and to revitalize the political path that some western countries and the United States of America are obstructing”. Credit – Facebook.

American writer Susan Sontag, in her book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) makes compelling and profound commentaries on the nature of photography, and the iconographic properties of the still image which, in the case of contemporary conflict scenarios, can sediment narratives of events and determine how the international community consider contemporary geopolitics. Visual frames are organisational in the way they direct sentiments around complex socio-political scenarios; they attest to the significance of an event and therefore shape collective political consciousness. Inasmuch, news events are produced as significant, where a happening or instance is deemed as particularly exceptional and of interest to the public (Frosh & Pinchevski, 2008). Particularly in an era of mass media, the still image or moving image in such a production creates new publics and makes certain occurrences meaningful in the way that they are performed and communicated to the global audience. We bear witness through technological mediation.

But which images do we respond to? Images have rhetorical force and decide which events achieve global coverage and enable socio-political instances to become politically salient when they are communicated visually and audibly. For Sontag (2003, p.18), “the understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of the impact of these images.” So perhaps the key point at stake here, considering the near invisibility of Afrin, is what we are enabled to see in the first place. Whilst undoubtedly the rise of citizen generated content has done much in Syria (which has without doubt become in part a socially-mediated war) to put undeniable testimony to the occurrence of such atrocities and bring the plight of distant others into our minds, the elision of such events from international news headlines is extremely revealing regarding. So therefore, arguably what does not become an event worthy of reporting is as important and revealing as what does. Where are our sensibilities are attuned to? Whose suffering do we witness? Which situations become grievable and enter our perceptions? In showing images from one instance of suffering, which are left under the radar? Why did Afrin not make the headlines?

My upcoming dissertation hopes to attune to some of these key questions through engaging with visual analysis. Much academic work has been done around the imagery emerging from Syria, employing content analysis in order to understand which particular frames are used to narrate and navigate conflict scenarios. Ways of coding these images can be focused around areas such as what they show, who took them, whether they are emotive and graphic or not and whether they show violence, children, death and/ or destruction. For me, while this approach is useful in understanding the discursive facets of visual imagery, and the way in which events are communicated and made significant, they do not distinguish between the areas these photos came from, and which areas of Syria are being represented which is as much of a discursive construction as the still frame itself. One way I believe that the geographical sciences can engage in visual analysis in a productive means is through beginning to bring a spatially sensitive approach into comprehending photographic content. In my work, I shall be comparing the images coming from two regions of Syria in April 2018 in online news content. The civil war has complex regional socio-political conditions; thus I hope to demonstrate that a more regionally sensitive visual analysis approach can provide valuable insights into the ways in which narratives and subsequent collective understandings of the conflict are shaped. In visual analysis I hope to begin incorporating such questions of visibility and assess the role photography plays in according certain events more salience than others.

Cover image source:

Reference List

Andén-Papadopoulos, K., 2014. Citizen camera-witnessing: Embodied political dissent in the age of ‘mediated mass self-communication’. New Media & Society, 16(5), pp.753-769

Frosh, P. and Pinchevski, A. (2008) Why Media Witnessing? Why Now? In: P. Frosh and A. Pinchevski, eds. Media witnessing: Testimony in the age of mass communication. Springer: London

Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. Penguin: London

The BBC (2018) Syria war: What we know about Douma ‘chemical attack’. [Online] Accessed at: Accessed on: 10/07/2018

The Independent (2018) While the world looks to Eastern Ghouta, civilians in Afrin are being slaughtered in their hundreds by Turkish forces. [Online] Accessed at:  Accessed on: 10/04/2018

The Guardian (2018) Syria’s role in chemical weapons attacks to be investigated. Accessed at: Accessed on: 10/7/2018

The Guardian (2018) Syria’s new exiles: Kurds flee Afrin after Turkish assault. Accessed at: Accessed on: 10/7/2018


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