Studying impact of war images

Oct 03, 2002, vol. 25, no. 3
By Marianne Meadahl

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The replay of images in the days leading up to the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks raises questions about how we cope with reliving trauma.

It sparks theories about such notions as compassion fatigue, information overload, desensitization or even fascination with the suffering of others.

But Debra Pentecost says revisiting traumatic events through media images doesn't only remind us of what happened. It helps us to never forget.

Pentecost, who graduates Oct. 4 with a PhD in communication, began studying the impact of war photojournalism on society after living in Belfast in the early 1990s, trying to understand the effects of the Northern Ireland conflict.

“I was fascinated by how people normalized the abnormal experiences that were part of their everyday lives,” says Pentecost, who later studied images of the Gulf War and Bosnia.

She says debate about the impact of war images goes back to the U.S. civil war, but graphic images captured during the Vietnam war marked a critical defining moment for photojournalism.

“While the U.S. Pentagon successfully orchestrated a clean vision of war during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, vowing not to have another Vietnam, an alternative position arose, questioning whether the public even wanted to be confronted with images of war's horrors,” she says.

As part of her research, Pentecost showed a series of graphic images to an audience and weighed their responses.

She found that while viewers had a tendency to want to avoid disturbing experiences, there was a willingness to “bear witness” to troubled world affairs.

Pentecost says while a certain degree of compassion fatigue may contribute to a notion that the power of war photojournalism is diminishing, “there was no definitive confirmation of a death of photojournalism.

“There does exist a very real tension between war being remembered and forgotten, and further, the form that remembrance should take,” she says.

Pentecost hopes to teach and says students need to become more critical of the world around them and question what they see.

“Especially in a world where public relations firms are being called in to sell the idea of war,” she adds, “we need to be asking questions about the political weight of the images of war.”

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