Sri Lankan civil war: Use of the image for corrupt ends
The photograph once served as a relatively removed document of warfare, now the image has become a powerful weapon within it. The distance between the photographer and the activities of war has moved closer proportionate to the increasing accessibility of the camera. Replacing a limited number of commissioned photographers are the proliferating numbers of amateurs whose smartphones and digital cameras are well within reach and whose agendas are open corruption.
The accessibility of the camera has been abused on many occasions. In the catastrophic photographs that emerged from Abu Ghraib the act of photographing is implicit in the act of terror. It is known that in Israeli prisons photographs of abused bodies have been shown to prisoners as a method of torture. The photographs taken by government forces during the Sri Lankan civil war evidence further use of the image for corrupt ends.
The photographs and films taken from the latter part of the 25 year long civil war were aired prominently on Channel 4’s documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ this summer. They disclose the camera as a central component in articulating a total contempt for enemy life. Its presence in the hands of Sri Lankan soldiers articulates a complete disregard and disrespect for the Tamil people.
Footage shows photographs of sexually abused women upon whom the military exercise a further act of domination with the camera. In one film taken on a smartphone soldiers are recorded throwing the bodies of dead females into a truck, rating their bodies as they fling them into a pile. This objectification and absolute disrespect for the dead is emphasised once again by the presence of the lens, which is said to be recording the acts as ‘trophy footage’. The filming of brutal executions by the perpetrators is another decisively symbolic act of power.
However, like all weapons, these images can be used to exploit, but also have the potential to protect. The unstable nature of the photograph means it is unable to be monopolised, it can elude total partisan intervention. In the age of the network, the potential for the photograph to be re-written is intensified. The image can become the last civil refuge for those denied the privileges of sovereign citizenship. It can be employed as such regardless of whether this was the photographer’s original purpose, depending instead on the spectator and the discourse it is placed within.
Now these images have been leaked, picked up by Channel 4 and filtered onto the web where they remain, they have the potential to be removed them from their previous complicity in the act of war.
What was once a form of abuse for the people in the frame now has the opportunity to be a key part of a process for justice and retribution.
Pressure is mounting for an international war crimes inquiry into government actions at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. The unlikely statement originally issued by the government that there were “zero civilian casualties” in its final offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels was re-evaluated in August. The proximity to this re-analysis following the Channel 4 documentary is not coincidental.
Last month Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the country’s defence secretary claimed civilians did die through military action, but their count remains ‘very small’. This vague figure still stands intransigently against a UN report issued in April that stated tens of thousands might have been killed in the military push. This new re-evaluation is simply not enough. It is blatantly impossible to substantiate the Sri Lankan government’s claims in light of these images.
A huge audience has watched the photographs and films taken during the civil war so far. ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, has been watched by over a million viewers in the UK and been watched in over 30 countries on 4oD – totaling more than 455,000 across all platforms and more than 360,000 on channel4 4oD. It has also been televised in Australia, India, Denmark, Norway and Belgium. In addition to this, the photographs are available to view online.
Many other images have been leaked since summer, subsequently Channel 4 is putting together a follow-up programme; ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished,’ which will be screened next year. This will offer another opportunity to disclose photographs of abuse in the hope that they will encourage proper political action and a thorough investigation. As such a direct action within contemporary warfare the image is key evidence to the disputed war crimes. It is also one of the only vestiges of military abuse that can be rewritten, along with the Sri Lankan government’s current internal inquiry, ‘The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ which needs to be re-written, immediately.
Picture:Channel 4Tagged in: Abu Ghraib, channel 4, photographer, sri lanka, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields
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