Last week, Islamist militants claiming affiliation with ISIS, orchestrated a deadly attack on the Tunisian-Libyan border town of Ben Guerdane, Tunisia. Gunfire was exchanged into the night. Shortly after the attack was stemmed by Tunisian forces, a selfie was circulated on social media of four young men dressed in military gear, gesticulating towards the camera as two militant bodies lay supine and lifeless beneath them. A faded gloss simulating over-exposure softens the edges of the photograph, akin to the sun-soaked beach photo that so frequently decorates our Instagram feeds. In the bottom right corner, a small watermark (presumably the logo of a photo-editing app) reads, “Candy.”
The image has gone viral.
Beside its obviously crude contents and propaganda — which shares similarities to photos later promoted by the official Tunisian Defense channel — the selfie in question contains a sophisticated, albeit immature, component of artifice that deserves closer inspection.
“Their faces say party; in any other moment, their guns could be red solo cups, their boots could be sandals.”
The four soldiers all wear trademark selfie poses: the camera holder looks up at the lens, mouth agape, eyebrows raised; the Joe Pesci stand-in that serves as the image’s vanishing point and chief jester, draws the viewer’s sight path with his winking left eye and smile askew while the two men beside him sport thumbs up, tongues out, arms up salutation of celebration. Their faces say party; in any other moment, their guns could be red solo cups, their boots could be sandals. These four men, in their youthful excitement could be anywhere; their expressions could be anyone’s. At first glance this selfie appears commonplace and obvious, which is partly why the two freshly killed militants to our right appear at once starkly indispensable and also only an aside, an ornament. Add the beachy filter (what would be “Reyes” in Instagram) and you have a highly shareable image.
Soon screen-printed crewneck shirts sporting the selfie will be available for purchase.
“There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera,” wrote Susan Sontag in On Photography. In the age of social media, where images are exchanged and managed as a carefully curated extension of human identity, these young men can be forgiven for their war selfie, whose aggression appears simply explicit: to control a narrative they are only extras in and which cares not if they live or die. These young men, carefully positioned so that they tower over their enemies, wish to display strength and order, even joy, in the face of approaching chaos.
More nakedly, this war selfie continues a long tradition in which the practitioners of this documentary practice often choose, as Tim Parks observes in The New York Review of Books, to “deliberately aestheticize their subjects, and hence anaesthetize the viewer.”
No doubt these young soldiers, by adding the hazy filter and smirking with thumbs up poses sought to aestheticize themselves: to make tenable, shareable even, something they know at its base to be neither tenable nor sharable. And in so doing they likely sought to make their reality — that threat that nearly took their lives moments before this photo was staged and shot — more tolerable still.
During the Civil War, amidst the early days of this documentary art form, photographers used the battlefield as their staging ground. “Barred from some walks of ordinary truth by the limits imposed by the state of the art,” writes David Bromwich in The New York Review of Books, “photographers during the war did not hesitate to alter or transpose the data of a scene to achieve a higher ostensible truth.”
Seeking this “higher ostensible truth” in practice meant moving dead bodies, rearranging weapons, repositioning the once hidden face so that it “titled for the camera,” and even changing the uniform of a corpse from union to rebel. In the aforementioned case, Bromwich describes the photographer Alexander Gardner and his team dragging a “corpse seventy-two yards uphill” for a more visually striking image.
The stylized war selfie thusly obeys the history and grammar of its forefathers. It too seeks a similar “ostensible truth,” and a desire to understand the unwieldy. Its appearance follows a long line of war photography in its attempt to contain and beautify modern barbarity. From the tragic melancholia of the highly staged Civil War photograph to the endless rage and horror of Vietnam, the war selfie is a logical continuation of its medium’s propensity to match the desires and general consciousness (or cluelessness) of its populace, and to do so through artifice.
Of all its antecedents, however, the photos of Abu Ghraib a mere twelve years earlier, provide for the most interesting comparison.
The 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal and the darkly lit photos that accompanied it paired perfectly with the disastrous, brazen, and often barbarous war efforts under George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney. Like the war selfie today, the brutal, ill-composed images of Abu Ghraib appear a product of their time: without reason and accidental. As Seymour Hersh wrote in his groundbreaking report for The New Yorker: “The photographs tell it all.”
Indeed, few things are more emblematic of the hapless grotesqueries that took place under the Bush Administration than the lewd imagery of nude and captive bodies piled upon on another, their heads in army green bags while young soldiers sport wisecracking smiles and smoke cigarettes mimicking James Dean. These images are at once quintessentially dreadful in their presentation and American in their ambition. And their accidental and memorable circulation clearly provided lessons for which current military officials and their pairing politicians have taken notice.
The Obama administration’s takeaways from the horrors of Abu Ghraib and its crudely staged torture porn are stark and appear quietly in our every day news cycle. Where the Bush administration waged a “war on terror” characterized by a military culture which oversaw the illegal practice of torture, a massacre of innocents, and careless air-strike operations, the Obama administration has opted to advance its military agenda, and wreak untold havoc, under the cover of drone technology.
Its approach, by and large, seems to be working. In fact, if it weren’t for journalists like The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, who just last week reminded us that “Nobody Knows the Identities of the 150 People Killed by U.S. in Somalia, but Most Are Certain They Deserved It” or whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning before him, we’d hardly know our country’s still engaged on multiple fronts.
In the expedience of these extrajudicial drone killings, the Obama administration, by and large, has managed to excise the appearance of the human toll associated with war, and in so doing remove the threat of its image.
Yet its tidy intentions have exposed increasingly untidy truths. This carefully curated war of drones and covert operations, while pacifying an electorate unwilling to support another war but too busy (and terrified) to notice the constant one before it, has found its foil in ISIS, whose direct target, more than its stated enemies, is the very filter of stability Obama and politicians of his ilk wish to manufacture.
“ISIS, too, seems to have drawn lessons from the images of Abu Ghraib and its ancestors. Its actions show a deep and vile understanding of the importance of a well staged and even better networked image”
“ISIS’s theatrical brutality—whether in the Middle East or now in Europe—,” writes Scott Atran in The New York Review of Books, “is part of a conscious plan designed to instill among believers a sense of meaning that is sacred and sublime, while scaring the hell out of fence-sitters and enemies.”
ISIS, too, seems to have drawn lessons from the images of Abu Ghraib and its ancestors. Its actions show a deep and vile understanding of the importance of a well staged and even better networked image, and its management of chaos and barbarity are a cruel counterpoint to the prevailing western belief in a containable image and an indefinite war.
“The truth is that the more apocalyptic modern warfare becomes, the more the opportunity for glamour presents itself,” Tim Parks reminds us.
The arrival of the war selfie should hardly surprise us. Rather it shares likeness with the “theatrical brutality” of ISIS – both portend a reality where the battlefield and public space are inextricable, and where artifice is used to both anaesthetize and terrorize its viewer.
The arrival of the war selfie, then, should hardly surprise us. Rather it shares likeness with the “theatrical brutality” of ISIS – both portend a reality where the battlefield and public space are inextricable, and where artifice is used to both anaesthetize and terrorize its viewer. These rude images come in all forms these days: whether in the sunny rays of Instagram bleeding into the gore of war or the literal battlefield unfolding within a music theatre in downtown Paris. The war selfie, then, can be understood as a memento mori, a digital reminder of the trade offs we’ve made along the way in order to make war – that intolerable truth – tolerable.
To view the horrific imagery of Abu Ghraib, Ben Guerdane, and ISIS propaganda side by side — separated by more than a decade – puts in stark relief our collective answer to an age-old question: Do we confront our barbarity in stark terms or elide it with artifice?
That the war selfie appears to us now so commonplace and inevitable may be its greatest indictment. Its existence suggests such dichotomies no longer exist.