The Daily Heller: War Voyeurs and the Unceasing Stream of Images

Steven Heller reflects on his addiction to the daily photo loop of destruction, death and suffering.

The Daily Heller: War Voyeurs and the Unceasing Stream of Images

A warning label should come with The New York Times that reads, “Obsessive Viewing of War Photographs Can Be Habit-Forming.” Every day I habitually view so many digital and print photos of the Ukraine-Russia war that I have become a compulsive war voyeur. I wonder, do others have a similar addiction to the daily photo loop of destruction, death and suffering? If so, how do they process the information?

With the Jan. 1 issue of “The Year in Pictures 2022,” the annual New York Times Sunday section, I think I overdosed on the vivid images of human lives ruined by a brutal and senseless war … and yet I return for more. Throughout the year the imagery of war has increased in its intensity. Every morning, I ritualistically click the daily gallery on the Times‘ landing page. Pictures from Ukraine often show heroics, others resilience, but many are just heartbreaking images of wasteful deaths of fighters and civilians, funerals of young and old. As is a common practice, the editors have removed images that are too gruesome for a reader’s consumption. Conversely, and paradoxically, among some fit for publication there is a classical painterly aura of horrific beauty, like the wrap-around cover (the front half shown above).

Last Sunday’s installment, consistent with those of past years, establishes a record of the year’s most memorable news stories and some indelibly iconic images that transcend our times. I always look forward to the editors’ selections because the photos cover a range of subjects that depict life as it played out in real time—a mixture of good and bad, happy and sad—which is even truer for this edition. This year the tragic Ukraine-Russia war is dominant and has taken an emotional toll.

“2022 undoubtedly belongs to the war in Ukraine,” writes Executive Editor Joseph Kahn, “a conflict now settling into a worryingly predictable rhythm.”

An earlier print and digital section brings this point home. The Times special investigation (mostly video) exposes the Russian military unit responsible for the cold-blooded execution of more than 30 civilians in the occupied eastern city of Bucha, Ukraine. It revealed an even uglier side of this war—cell phone photos and magnified aerial views show civilian male corpses lying near their homes in the front- and backyards and streets where they were murdered, shot at point blank range by weary Russian troops. We see from their smiling ID portraits obtained by the Times that most of the soldier-killers are very young. Although not as grisly as some battlefield crime scene photos, the motionless bodies of men face-down or contorted frozen as they fell, wearing commercial brand-name winter parkas, are just as terrifying as any of the dead I’ve seen in battleground pictures.

Since the 19th century, photographers (like Matthew Brady, whose Civil War landscape of bodies is shown below) were limited to using long-exposure film. These early image technicians took oddly serene tableaux of war’s apocalyptic aftermath; a practice that developed into a popular genre for the living. Since the early 20th century, when cameras became smaller and lighter, enabling action photographs to record in real-time more vivid horrors, the public’s voyeurism (what I call wartime rubber-necking) has exponentially grown.

Union soldiers lying on the battlefield of Gettysburg. Photo by Matthew Brady.

Photographs serve as documents and records of history, fuel propaganda and even entertain. Frankly, I am sometimes torn when I fixate on war images whether my underlying motive is somehow to inoculate myself against such horror or entertain myself, like playing a gruesome video game.

When I was young, I was entertained watching sanitized battlefield newsreels and pouring over photo books (Time-Life) on World Wars I & II, in which most of the blood and gore were removed. During Vietnam, the comparatively uncensored photographs of soldiers on both sides killed or maimed in battles convinced me to never go to war. Subsequent wars throughout the years since have produced ever more vivid photographs that trigger despair, fear, hatred or, of course, patriotism—something for everyone.

The Ukraine-Russia war is somehow the same yet also different than others I’ve lived through from a distance. This war feels more like a reality show than other conflicts—we watch from a safe distance separated by screen, while real people suffer extreme consequences. We are passive voyeurs receiving a replenished feed of misery. And everyone has a front-row seat of humanity at its worst (and its most vulnerable). Sure, I could click over the games, sports or real-estate sections, but the pictures just keep on coming, and I keep on looking.