Let us face it, from its very outset, no one entertained any doubts about how the final chapter in the wrenching impeachment trial last week of former president Donald Trump would read.
Sure, the House managers were able in their testimony to crystalize the horror of what happened on January 6 inside the US Capitol, drawing on facts adroitly marshalled and lucidly weighed.
But what won the day for them — and left the nation spellbound, with well over 12 million riveted viewers glued to their TV screens — was how they in effect asked the jury to look at and not so much listen to these facts.
It was, after all, the harrowing, viscerally unforgettable footage, of still and moving pictures, they showed of the mob assault that clinched it, including that of a rioter prowling the corridors in search of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, cooing the three syllables in her name in a singsong voice, clearly intent on doing her harm, “Naaancy!
Where are you, Naaancy?” It was a clip reminiscent of that terrifying scene in Stanly Kubrik’s iconic horror movie, “The Shining” (1980), of Jack Nicholson wielding an axe as he pursued his wife and yelling, “Heeere comes Johnny!”
Yes, true, words can captivate you, edify you, transform you and even, when you encounter them in great works of literature, transfix you to a point where would be forgiven for ascribing to them feelings or some mystery of autonomous being. But pictures do more. Much more. The tired cliché has it that a picture is worth more than a thousand words, but the truth is that a picture is worth more than words. Period.
Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, and later emancipated from the tripod, photography has emerged as an art form with an aesthetic all its own, one that has merited examination by prominent thinkers, including the late Suzan Sontag, the doyenne of literary critics in America, in books like “On Photography (1977) and “Regarding the Pain of Others” (2003).
How a photographer, say a photojournalist, can capture in a photo, in one-hundredth of a second, the humanity of a moment and then give it an added pitch of meaning, revealing the rich symbolism hidden within it, surely is a supreme mystery.
Consider some of these iconic photos, captured by photographers while on their beat, and how, over the years, they stayed with us, often haunting us. Consider, then, that unspeakably sad picture by photojournalist Kevin Carter, shot during Sudan’s 1993 famine, of a little girl, fallen to the ground from hunger, while a vulture, smelling death, lurked nearby.
(The photo, syndicated worldwide, touched so many people that after it appeared in the New York Times, hundreds contacted the paper to ask about the girl’s fate.) Or that one from Vietnam in 1972 of a nine-year old local girl, later dubbed Napalm Girl, running away, naked and screaming, from a napalm bombing, toward the lens of photojournalist Nick Ut’s camera.
And consider also, now closer to home, that picture of a hooded prisoner standing on a box with electrical wires connected to his hands in Abu Ghraib Prison, snapped not by a professional but by a US Army sergeant called Ivan Fredrick, a picture that nevertheless became so influential that it swayed public opinion in the United States and was reproduced on innumerable protest posters around the world.
Or that photo, taken by Palestinian cameraman Mustafa Hassana, released internationally, of a bare-chested Palestinian demonstrator, at the Gaza border with Israel, holding a Palestinian flag over his head in one hand and swinging a slingshot with the other, likened to Eugene DeLacroix’s famous painting of the 1830 Paris uprising, La Liberte guidant le peuple (Liberty Guiding the People).
The wounds these pictures, and countless others like them, depict — of death, of war, of famine, of suffering, of injustice, of atrocity, of struggle — stay with us, speak to us, gnaw at us for all time, never sutured.
All of which brings us back to the impeachment hearings in US Senate last week as the managers displayed image after image of the anarchic passions that propelled a frenzied mob to assault America’s citadel of democracy — image after image whose gruesome starkness and harrowing intensity showed how the madness inherent in human rage, when unrestrained, can at times destroy what there is of man in man and restore in him what there is of beast.
The camera that captured all that did not blink. It did not intervene. It did not opine. In the custody of a masterful photographer, it need not have resorted to that, for while doing its job, the camera is provisioned with the animate energies of a reality all its own, one richer than objective reality itself, richer than words.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile