Contested images, collective memory and the mediatized public sphere: Abu Ghraib and the cultural construction of war icons
Department of Social and Political Studies University of Milan Milan, Italy
War images saturate our mediatized environment, yet only a very few crystallize in the collective memory and become cultural icons. In order for their specific event status to be superseded by their symbol status as a source of social influence, they must have wider cultural resonances and political implications beyond the media representation of a specific conflict. By exploring this process, this paper offers a contribution towards a cultural sociological interpretation of the politics of visual representation of contemporary conflicts, in order to unveil the collective cultural structures that shape the cognitive, emotional and moral ways in which individuals socially construct the meaning of wars.
Why and how do images of war, suffering and pain acquire emotional and moral relevance? Why and how can images become symbolic collective representations? Why and how does a specific war image (among many possible others) become a cultural icon?
In order to answer these questions, this paper focalizes the attention on the Iraqi war and the Abu Ghraib torture photos. On the one hand, it analyzes the dynamics of production and diffusion of contemporary war images, on the basis of a large empirical investigation of the professional dynamics of production and framing of war pictures in the news press, constituted by qualitative interviews with war photojournalists and photo editors. On the other hand, it analyzes a number of re-articulating practices of productive consumption of war images, mainly in the fields of visual advertising, contemporary visual arts and anti-war social movements.
The theoretical framework draws on the recent studies in the field of cultural sociology and cultural trauma, integrated with specific research in the field of media studies on the relationships between media production of war photography and collective memory. This literature shows the centrality of binary symbolic structures and discoursive narratives in shaping the processes of communication of ongoing conflicts. In this context, this paper emphasizes the role played by the visual elements in the framing and re-framing practices through which individuals have attributed meaning to recent wars, by investigating specifically the process through which particular war images came to acquire an iconic status.