Warning: Some of the photos may contain graphic or objectionable content.
“Words,” the journalist Sebastian Junger once wrote, “are often the primary instrument of liars, and photographic images are the primary instrument of those who insist on the truth.” The photographs that have emerged from the war in Ukraine over the past few weeks have borne essential, indisputable witness to things no human being wishes to see: a mother and her children killed trying to flee a war zone, a pregnant woman being stretchered out of a bombed maternity hospital, bodies being piled into makeshift mass graves. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, as the adage goes, photography is the first call to emotional response. Conflict photography in particular is a curious hybrid of testimony and art form, as its practitioners are charged with assessing and composing images under tremendous pressure. Their work also carries the ethical necessity of weighing the line between what’s gratuitous and what’s necessary.
At the same time, other factors at play influence the images we see, are moved by, and disseminate to others. The photograph I’ve seen more than any other on Instagram over recent weeks—shared widely by friends whose children, like mine, are toddler age—is one of strollers left at a train station in Przemyśl, Poland, for women who fled the conflict carrying their babies in their arms. The image is less brutal than hopeful, conveying a sense of solidarity between mothers divided by geography and circumstance. I understand why it’s been shared—the impulse to find slants of light in darkness is what helps people endure. But the ubiquity of that one image made me think about the momentum that certain images seem to gather as they’re pinged around the world, and how that influences our individual perception of war. When we’re seeing the same images over and over, what might we also be missing?
For roughly a century, photographers, critics, and media historians have debated “image overload,” the idea that being exposed to so many different images so many times a day is undermining our ability to fully process what we’re seeing. And yet the pictures coming out of Ukraine prove that war photography, which arguably began 175 years ago when the first such images were captured during the Mexican-American War in 1847, has lost none of its power to stop people mid-breath, show them something unthinkable, move them to act. With all this in mind, I talked with Sarah Meister, the executive director of the Aperture Foundation and a former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, about the emotional force of conflict photography, the questions we should ask, and the responsibility we all bear when we share photos with the world. The following interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Sophie Gilbert: So I wanted to start with this: I was reading a 2015 review of the Pulitzer-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario’s memoir, and the reviewer was wondering whether image overload had made war photography less effective as a medium; we’re all so saturated in images, in photos of suffering all the time, that those kinds of images have less meaning. But it was really interesting to me that Ukraine has kind of blown that theory out of the water, just because photos capturing the war so far have had so much impact. And I wanted to ask you what you made of the public’s response to the pictures we’ve seen over the past few weeks.
Sarah Meister: One of the most amazing things about the medium of photography is how much people’s responses echo responses that have happened in previous generations, with each technological innovation and, frankly, also each trauma, each crisis that photography grapples with. So the idea of image overload somehow making us inured to the horrors of something that we might see in a photograph—I don’t subscribe to that. I do think that with a great photograph, it’s the subject matter. It’s the composition. It’s the context. And with the right mix of those, you can really get people to slow down rather than simply feeling overwhelmed by, let’s say, scrolling through a feed or whatever the historic equivalent of that may have been.
Gilbert: I’m so glad you said that, because it’s really fascinating to me that in this moment of so many platforms and modes of storytelling, the format that seems to be having one of the most profound influences is photography. War photography has been around for 175 years. Do you have a sense of why a still image conveys something, moves someone emotionally, in the way that maybe a news broadcast or a TikTok video doesn’t?
Meister: Photography has two things going for it. One is that, rightly or wrongly, there is a perceived direct connection to reality when you look at a photograph. This has been contested throughout the history of the medium, but it is a tenacious perception of what a photograph is and what it does. There are other kinds of media where you also have that kind of direct connection. But with a still photograph, the maker can become more invisible. You are often less conscious of what that maker has done to bring you that image. Whereas with, let’s say, a video camera on someone’s shoulder or a TikTok clip that somebody is editing, you’re conscious of someone else’s hand in that. And in certain circumstances—especially with something as serious as war—that might be seen as somewhat of an interference. With a still photograph, when it’s an incredibly compelling image, you look for longer. And I think if anything, what we’re facing now is a moment where we have to look for longer. There’s something that a still photograph does that is distinct and meaningful in how it commands our attention. And with a great one, you can’t look away.
Gilbert: Are there shared qualities to the images that have struck you the most in recent weeks?
Meister: The ones I’ve found the most compelling have been ones where the maker is not just grappling with the horror of what’s before them, but they’re actually thinking about what makes a picture that, again, makes you want to look for longer. Danny Lyon put on his Instagram an image that—I don’t know how Instagram does this, but basically they say, “This is traumatic; click here if you really want to see it,” which I think is a very respectful acknowledgment of how horrible some of these images are. And, of course, how horrible the reality that they represent is, not just the images. But he so poignantly described how you almost want to believe that the children in the image are sleeping. You see their little backpacks and you just can’t believe that they’re dead. You want to will them to stand up. And then you’re left with this horrible realization that no matter how much you wish for that, that’s not going to happen. And I think that points to another thing: The combination of words and pictures is also an important one. And something that photographers have often grappled with is, how much information do you share and what words accompany your photographs? And how does that inflect your understanding of or approach to them?
Gilbert: I wanted to ask you about a quote of the photographer Dorothea Lange, whose 2020 MoMA exhibit you curated. I think it was about how the photographer’s responsibility is to leave subjects with their privacy and dignity and wholeness intact, which I found so striking. And I wondered if you have thoughts on how photographers in Ukraine balance that imperative with the necessity of conveying what the war is like?
Meister: Well, I believe what she meant by that is for us to tease apart whether and in what ways privacy and dignity and wholeness might be jeopardized by making a photograph. And I would say that if anything, over the past two years in particular, the world has become more attuned to the way a photograph can violate those things. But I also believe that in the hands of an attentive practitioner, you can make a photograph of something that respects all of those values as well, and that when it is motivated by a sense of responsibility and care, the very act of making that photograph doesn’t carry with it necessarily a violation. So, in other words, I think intent matters, and I think certainly a photographer’s consciousness of the ways in which those things are at risk in making photographs can help transcend that risk and help answer to perhaps a larger or more urgent need to see and to share.
Gilbert: That’s a very thoughtful response.
Meister: Well, I believe in photography. It’s one of the reasons I loved working at MoMA and that I’m so happy to be at Aperture, because I do believe there’s a way in which photographs matter to history, to our present moment and to our sense of possibility for the future, that is absolutely unique. And the exact nature of that is sometimes elusive or not always clear. But I try to follow those practitioners who do this so well, to try to understand how they’re doing what they’re doing. There are negative consequences to still photographs, as well. I think over the past couple of years, as a society, we’ve been grappling with the ways in which photographs can demean and can remove a sense of agency and humanity from those pictured in them. But in grappling with that, I think we’ve also helped to clarify how important images are, and also thus the responsibility embedded in making them.
Gilbert: That’s a really interesting thought. We’re all makers now with our phones, all day long, and it forces you to imagine yourself behind the lens maybe a bit more. I was trying to make a list of the photographs I’d seen disseminated the most over the past few weeks, and there were just so many that immediately came to mind. And it made me think that, in this particular moment, we’re seeing so much of everything so immediately. Do you think that’s changed the way in which the public perceives the war at all?
Meister: Can I offer a different perspective? Because something that my colleagues and I are wrestling with is that this possibility has existed technologically for some time now. And so one question that I think we also have to ask ourselves is: Are we looking sufficiently broadly? I mean by this no limit to my sense of sympathy and horror to what’s unfolding. But I’m also conscious of how there are other tragedies. Especially with social media, there’s a sense of: Are we giving equal attention? Could we be giving this kind of reporting and care to other areas of conflict in the world? I try to check myself when I think about the “exceptional” nature of a given moment and try to ask myself, What is actually exceptional about this and what is being filtered through something that perhaps I’m under-attending to?
Gilbert: I’m really glad you said that, because before we talked, I went to look up images of the Syrian Civil War. There was one in particular, of a boy sobbing because he’d just lost his mother and brother, that was so devastating, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before.
Meister: It’s not that I don’t want us to be giving Ukraine our full attention. But there is a responsibility associated with photography, and one of the things that’s great about social media is that it shares the responsibility for how photographs reach people. It’s a much more democratic form of access, and it means there are fewer gatekeepers. But even in this moment, when ostensibly everyone has equal access to images and equal opportunity to put them forward in the world and gain attention, [that act] can’t be neutral. We always want to attend to not just the images themselves but how and why we’re seeing them.
Gilbert: I wanted to bring up Lange again, because you wrote in your introduction to that show about the ways in which her work was propagandized. Photographs from Ukraine have already been employed by both sides for their own purposes. Can I ask you about the tradition this is playing into, and what people should be attentive to?
Meister: I think that risk is definitely real. But it isn’t necessarily bad. Propaganda can simply be believing in the importance of what you’ve made an image of and wanting to share that. There’s a wonderful quote about this from [the American photographer and curator] Edward Steichen, regarding the Farm Security Administration photographs, of which Dorothea Lange made many. He wrote, “I do not look upon these pictures as propaganda. Pictures in themselves are very rarely propaganda. It is the use of pictures that makes them propaganda. These pictures are obviously charged with human dynamite and the dynamite must be set off to become propaganda; they are not propaganda—not yet.” I think that’s actually a very helpful way of understanding what a photograph is of and then how it becomes used. I think words have a lot to do with that. Used in the service of something I believe in, I might find something that might be considered propaganda to be a compelling argument in support of a good cause. There have been uses of photographs that wrangle and distort what might be the intent of a maker in support of another cause. A different caption is sometimes all it takes to put forward an argument that a photograph is about one thing or another.