Hugh McCabe reviews John Berger’s 1972 essay Photographs of Agony where Berger questions the effectiveness of graphic war photography. Originally published in New Society magazine, the essay was subsequently reproduced in the 1980 collection, About Looking.
Hue, 1968 by Don McCullin
Writing during the closing phases of the Vietnam war, Berger begins by describing both the extent of the American bombing campaign of the north of that country, and the indiscriminately cruel nature of the lethal armanents being used. He notes a photograph in the newspaper by Don McCullin, from earlier in the war, depicting a man holding his injured child in the aftermath of a bombing.
Shocking images such as this had only recently become acceptable in American newspapers and Berger recounts two commonly cited reasons for this. One is that the public are demanding to know the truth of war and the newspapers are giving them what they want. The second is that the public have steadily become immune to images of horror and the newspapers are competing to show ever more horrific images in order to gain their attention. Berger rejects both of these, and goes on to suggest that such images are now acceptable to the mainstream media because they are clearly failing to have their intended effect.