Op-Ed: Why pictures of the horrors in Ukraine can strengthen our political will

A body wrapped in fabric on the ground beside a swimming pool
A body outside a home for elderly people in Bucha, Ukraine, after Russian troops left the city.
(Vadim Ghirda / Associated Press)

On Tuesday, in a dramatic and furious speech to the United Nations Security Council, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky presented graphic atrocity photographs from Bucha — including close-ups of dead children and clumps of corpses, some with their hands tied behind their backs. “The chamber fell silent,” the New York Times reported, and the photographs ricocheted around the world. Almost immediately, the European Commission proposed to cut off coal imports from Russia and President Biden vowed additional sanctions.

The pictures, apparently, had done their job.

But images can’t make political decisions. Photographs can’t do our thinking for us, though sometimes they can nudge us a bit. It is doubtful that the Bucha photographs will significantly alter the course of the war. What they can do and have done is strengthen a political will that already existed — what the photography critic Susan Sontag called “a relevant political consciousness” — to fight Russia’s aggression. They echo the already deep sense of outrage and revulsion, on the part of governments and ordinary citizens, toward the war and those who launched it. The images tell us something that, in a sense, we already knew.

Horrific photographs like those shown at the U.N. help us do what we were primed to do, but history shows they can rarely do more.


The Ukraine war is being compared to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, and in some ways the comparison is apt. Here, once again, a fledgling democracy is fighting a fierce dictatorship. A people’s army, composed in large part of ordinary civilians, is fighting a far larger and better equipped foe (in Spain, it was the forces of Francisco Franco, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini). Civilians are mercilessly targeted, especially from the air. And in both cases, images helped to tell the story of the struggle.

Writers, poets, journalists and photographers flocked to Spain to support the republic. The war was indelibly photographed by, most prominently, Robert Capa. His depictions of the anti-Franco fighters — some far too young, others far too old — were imbued with something close to tenderness. Here, he seemed to say, were men who were willing to kill, and die, for their freedom, but who did not want to kill or die. Capa sought to mobilize support for the Spanish Republic on the basis of respect, not pity. Many newspaper and television images of the Ukrainian fighters strikingly echo this sensibility.

Capa and his colleagues, especially Gerda Taro and David (“Chim”) Seymour, photographed the war with an explicit political aim: military intervention by the liberal democracies. They failed. In the U.S., France and England, the political will for intervention was weak if not absent, especially on the part of governments. Five months after the end of the Spanish war, Hitler invaded Poland and instigated World War II.

The so-called Caesar photographs from Syria represent another instance of the failure of images — or, rather, on the part of those who saw them to take action. Caesar is the code name of a government photographer from Syria; with the outbreak of that country’s civil war, his duties changed. Now, instead of photographing mundane events like car accidents, he was told to document the incomprehensibly cruel tortures that President Bashar Assad’s dictatorship has committed on an enormous scale.

Caesar’s images are among the worst I have ever seen, and far more disgusting than anything yet shown from Bucha. They depict bodies — people — who have been slowly starved to death; whose faces have been mutilated by knives; whose eyes have been gouged out, apparently while they were still alive. (It is not exactly clear why the Assad regime has recorded its own atrocities, though this suggests both a confident sense of impunity and a kind of moral derangement.)

Horrified by what he was seeing, Caesar and a friend spent two years smuggling tens of thousands of torture photographs out of the country, which put them and their families at risk of death. The photographs have been verified by forensic experts, including the FBI, and in 2014 were widely circulated in major newspapers, on the websites of human rights organizations and at the United Nations. Caesar, who now lives under witness protection in Europe, testified, in disguise, before Congress. Perhaps more important, his photographs were shown to world leaders including then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Laurent Fabius, then foreign minister of France. Like Capa, Caesar hoped the images would change the world’s attitude toward the war.

The effect of the photographs was … zero. No liberal democracy had any intention of significant involvement in the Syrian civil war, especially in light of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assad, whose major ally is Russian President Vladimir Putin, has dismissed the photographs as propaganda and suggested they might have been Photoshopped.

Now it is the Kremlin claiming that atrocity photos are fakes and trying to discredit the images from Bucha, which is one of the many bitter ironies of this war. After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Russians began circulating photographs of Nazi atrocities to the West. Some of these photographs were taken by Russian army photographers; others were plucked off the bodies of dead German soldiers, who had snapped what we might call atrocity mementos. In 1942, the Soviets, whose casualties would be far greater than those of any other country, published “We Shall Not Forgive!” a book filled with grisly Nazi-taken photos.

Like the Soviets who, 80 years ago, desperately conveyed their struggle to the West, Zelensky today aims to mobilize greater military intervention in support of his country. Whether he succeeds remains to be seen. But success or failure will primarily depend on geopolitical considerations and political will, regardless of how devastating the Ukrainian images are.

Susie Linfield, a journalism professor at New York University, is the author of “The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence.”