Images from Ukraine: Who Really Wants the War to End?
“Soledar: De violents combats des deux côtés” LCI (broadcast 11 January 2023), screenshot
by Dork Zabunyan
The least we can say is that we don’t feel that we lack images of the war in Ukraine. These images, from multiple sources—journalistic, military, civil, and so on—have been massively populating our screens since February 24, 2022, the date the Russian invasion of the country started. The time seems long gone when film critic Serge Daney declared, shortly after the end of the Gulf War in April 1991, that “there existed a real missing image during this war, that of Baghdad under the bombs.”
Despite CNN’s real-time coverage at the time, or more accurately because of it (the US military apparatus tightly controlled its news processing), the collateral damage of Operation Desert Storm remained largely unseen. The war was supposed to be “clean,” and the reputation of the so-called “smart” bombs that were then falling on Iraqi soil, causing hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, was not to be tarnished. This reputation has not withstood the test of time; no military command would still communicate in terms of the “surgical” character of its aerial bombardments. Today, there is no shortage of images of Ukrainian cities pulverized by the deluge of fire from the Russian air force: Kyiv, Irpine, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Zaporijjia, Severodonetsk, Izium, Balaklia, Kherson, Kramatorsk, Bakhmut, Soledar, Dnipro …
The problem, apparently, is therefore no longer the lack of images, as in Daney’s time when the World Wide Web did not yet exist, nor even the hypervisibility of the conflict that online platforms now promote. The problem lies elsewhere. It resides primarily in the extreme monotony of the images selected by the news media to illustrate the war in Ukraine, independently of the obsessive search for the iconic image that tends to overshadow all others (as is the case potentially of the woman pictured next to her bathtub in a destroyed apartment building in Dnipro).
Whatever the fragment of territory the enemy has touched, the same spectacle of desolation is relentlessly offered to us: gutted buildings, burned-out vehicles, haggard or destitute civilians. The destruction exists, and it is necessary to continually document it and draw up a list of it with a view to future trials for war crimes, in the legal perspective of a long time which, of course, is not that of live information.
Repeating these same images in the mainstream media renders these urban centers interchangeable, crushing the specificity of each of them as well as the singularity of the populations that make them up, reduced to passive entities whose strength of resistance is constantly obscured. Why not dwell more on the organization of this force on a daily basis? Why not return afterwards to the territories affected by the bombings to show the energy of a people confronted day after day with a war of extermination?
These images are cruelly lacking in the collective imagination of the war, at least for those who experience it from a distance. This constitutes another type of missing image, because Ukrainian civilians, when they enter the field of the photojournalist’s lens or the TV journalist’s camera, too often become extras amidst a décor of ruins. The image professionals working for its widest diffusion pursue, above all, the immersive requirements of their brief, supposedly to offer the truth of the event. From this, a deceptive “hyperreality” results, “aiming to produce,” as Sylvie Lindeperg writes in another context, “the feeling ‘more true than the true’ to relive [history] as if we were there,” or “even better than if we were there.” But the historical event is never without its remains, and no one can claim its capture by the image once and for all.
It is unlikely that the current war imagery—where the spectacle of destruction coexists along with a form of aestheticization of its composition (well-centered framing, highlighted chiaroscuro, a respect for harmonious proportions, and so on)—meets its declared objective: to shock the collective conscience, and via this shock, to make the intolerable elements of the war stop. But the war in Ukraine does not stop, despite the persistence of this iconography of devastation. And the indifference grows.
It will be said that not all the images fit into the monotony of the media flow, and that an indefinite number of them, scattered across social media networks, provide a real alternative to the information disseminated by the mass media. This alternative should not be measured by the variety of its visual content alone; it consists in asking a simple question whose implementation remains very difficult in practice: does what I perceive of Ukraine provide me a glimpse, even in an uncertain way, of an end to the armed conflict? Or am I still a spectator of this “incredible inventiveness that war shows when it comes to ensuring its own perpetuation,” as the American critic Barbara Ehrenreich has argued?
This is perhaps the touchstone of the circulation of war images: do the images themselves participate in its “incredible inventiveness” by promoting, even unwillingly, its “perpetuation”? Or do they outline, without necessarily being the actual cause, the possibility, even in the imagination, of a failure to curtail the continuation of hostilities?
As mentioned, all kinds of images of the ongoing war are disseminated on social media, first and foremost those of the front lines, so far mostly absent from the television coverage. The strategic reasons for this absence on the Ukrainian side are obvious: by showing the development of an attack, or even a counterattack, or a deployment of troops before or during a fight, the enemy is provided with clues about the disposition of soldiers or the use of military equipment. These more or less edited images do exist, however, and there are many Telegram accounts which, among the Russians as well as Ukrainians, show the advance of troops in a wood, the firing of a column of tanks at the entrance to a village, the ramps of anti-aircraft missiles on the side of a country road, and so forth.
Obviously, these images are not neutral. They constitute visual weapons for the forces involved, who use them to sharpen their communication channels to support the morale of the troops, to impress the enemy, or even to reinforce the population’s knowledge of the defense tools available. Unwatchable videos also exist: murdered civilians lying on the ground following the passage of the Russian contingent, or of the dismembered bodies of soldiers scattered on the asphalt burned by artillery fire; images that again raise the question of what place the representation of death has on a battlefield when the conventions of war have already been broken. The visual cartography of the conflict thus reveals an echelon of images of horror, some of which actually do not pass the media filter.
However, there is a fine line between the treatment of the situation in Ukraine on the television and the reticular dispersion of images found on the Internet. We are no longer in the circumstances described in 2006 by Brian De Palma at the time of the war in Iraq, with the gap that so distressed the filmmaker between the extremely policed information in the American media and the terrifying reverse side of this same war visible on online platforms (YouTube had just been created). The result was Redacted (2007), a “mockumentary” about the American invasion of Iraq, in which De Palma fictionally passed on a whole composite war archive that he had collected online (logbooks of US soldiers made with small HD cameras, videos of Iraqi insurgents posted on the Internet, scenes of US army blunders, and so on).
“Soledar: De violents combats des deux côtés” LCI (broadcast 11 January 2023), screenshot
Today, the transfer of images from social media to television channels is an editorial reflex nourished in the newsrooms that are turning into a sort of editing room for this barrage of highly heterogeneous videos. For example, an LCI [La Chaîne Info, the news channel of TF1] program on the battle of Soledar uses fragments of footage taken from several Twitter accounts whose usernames are mentioned on the screen without telling us who the people behind these accounts actually are, or how these images from the front line reached them.
There are French, Ukrainian, and Russian accounts, and the channel is also relaying propagandistic approaches such as that of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, without taking any on-air precautions such as informing the public about the origin of the images. Unwittingly, then, we become the recipients of propaganda messaging in times of war, which is the best way to make it effective, at a time when Russian channels such as RT and Sputnik are banned from broadcasting in several European countries, including in France.
The composition of LCI program’s set is more widely symptomatic of the arrangement, at least in the dominant media, between the words expressed and the images that accompany them. First of all, it is important to note the barely concealed delight of the presenters in the violence of the fighting in Soledar. The repetition of the same information, bordering on stuttering, telling us how this fighting is among the “bloodiest” since the beginning of the war is embarrassing in this sense. It is as if the undignified spectacle of an ever more deadly conflict assured the channel of the loyalty of a public that had become ever more voyeuristic and bloodthirsty. This is not the way to counter the “perpetuation” of war in the minds of the public, on the contrary.
The points of view of the experts present on the set—former generals, military communication strategists, international relations specialists—sometimes provide elements of analysis that are not useless (such as the tensions, inside the Kremlin, between the Ministry of Defense and the founder of the Wagner Group). But the split-screen protocol, with the expert speaking on the right-hand side of the frame and the scrolling images from social media on the left, betrays the precarious place that is ultimately reserved for the audience. The latter is reduced to becoming the mute receptacle of the specialist discourses that impose themselves on viewers, shaping the way the images are perceived, and which would necessarily remain empty without the experts’ invaluable words.
Is the unbearable hell of the fighting mitigated by this device? Nothing is less certain. Jacques Rancière has highlighted how this arrangement between expert knowledge and images that only illustrate it contributes to trivializing the horror: “What we see above all in the news on our TV screens are the faces of the rulers, experts and journalists who comment on the images, who tell us what they show and what we should make of them. If horror is banalized it’s not because we see too many images of it. We do not see too many suffering bodies on the screen. But we do see too many nameless bodies […, too many] bodies which are an object of speech without themselves having a chance to speak.” Images are still missing, in other words, even in the era of the all-image.
What is missing, and what the discourses of “rulers” or “experts” cover up, is the singularity of a face that tries to survive in Kherson, the persevering movement of an unwanted exile on the side of Lviv, the collective reconstruction of a destroyed neighborhood in Mariupol, and so forth. The art of images—documentary or fiction—can make these thousand ordeals the primary material for writing a history of this war.
However, it is not the privilege of cinema or creative photography alone to achieve this; any maker of images should be entitled to undertake this task, and there is no reason to deny the “information system” access to it. It depends on the choice of images shown—the impression of overflow must always be relativized—as should the nature of the words used on-set to comment on them. As Rancière, again, writes: “The system of information does not operate through an excess of images, but by selecting the speaking and reasoning beings who are capable of ‘deciphering’ the flow of information about anonymous multitudes.”
YouTube landing page of Xavier Tytelman, sreenshot
The war in Ukraine has also brought out the new “decipherers,” experts among experts in armed conflict, especially when the field of operations becomes the pretext for the use of new weapons. These are military men, more or less senior, retired or not, some of them reconverted in diplomatic advice-giving, and frequently invited to appear on TV shows (such as the case of David Petraeus, ex-General of the American army and ex-Director of the CIA, omnipresent in the media on the other side of the Atlantic), unless they have already created their own YouTube channel—such as Xavier Tytelman, ex-member of the naval aviation core, specialized in the detection of aerial navigators.
Tytelman, thus, regularly posts videos in which he focuses an educated eye on the use of military equipment in Ukraine, whether it is used by the Russians or the Ukrainians. His discourse is indeed very technical, and the thousands of Internet users who comment on his analyses are grateful to him, praising in particular the fact that he takes the trouble to geographically locate the towns and villages shown in the footage, which is the least we can do, we must admit.
Tytelman’s editing of images, however, remains highly problematic. In a video posted in January 2023, significantly titled “Carnage à Bakhmut, nouvelles armes (AMX-10 RC & drones) et frappes stratégiques” (“Carnage in Bakhmut, new weapons (AMX-10 RC & drones) and strategic strikes”)—in which the insistence on the horror of the fighting meets an overview of the military equipment that promotes this horror—we see a multitude of different sequences from social networks or websites whose references are given, but whose conditions of circulation are hardly provided.
Everything leads us to believe that most of these videos come from the Discord sharing platform, where all kinds of data transit and are exchanged between Internet users. This is how unpublished images of the war, which propel us to the front line, are edited in such a way that they serve once again as simple supports for the expert’s word. This one, as erudite as it is, forces our gaze to fix itself where its author wants us to fix it, sometimes even by highlighting in blue or red areas of the image—for example, two columns of tanks facing each other—as if the public would be unable to follow the thread of the proposed commentary otherwise.
In fact, the expertise here comes closer to the promotional message, insofar as our perception is forced to focus on only one aspect of the image—the one dedicated to a technical knowledge about weapons. In this sense, the border between scholarly discourse on the equipment of belligerents and the commercial clip extolling the effectiveness of a weapon by its manufacturers is becoming increasingly narrow.
This disturbing mix of genres can be found in many reports posted online by media outlets: for example, a video available to view on Le Parisien website about the famous Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone, used by the Ukrainians at the beginning of the war. In addition to the analysis of an expert in “global and emerging risks,” the montage is created from images showing the impact of bombs on the ground recorded by this same Bayraktar drone, and others where we see the brand new drone in a Turkish army hangar. Clearly this is a sequence intended to celebrate this airborne equipment, and therefore to sell it.
Images from disparate, even antagonistic sources thus coexist within an indistinct magma, and the spectacular aesthetics that this indistinction conveys are reminiscent of the propaganda videos that every war creates on the back of it (in the recent past, the media branches of the Islamic State terrorist group have renewed this shock aesthetics in a disturbing way, the formal effects of which are still being felt).
The war in Ukraine is no exception. Respect for its victims should commit us to undoing these wild image associations from which the protagonists have more often than not disappeared. If one feels the slightest concern for the victims, it is difficult to find in these images any outcome that could alleviate their suffering. In this visual environment, a cessation of hostilities is not even a distant horizon: it simply does not appear as a horizon.
Referring to the images of “precision guided weapons” that were mass-produced during the “two Gulf Wars,” Harun Farocki said that “[I]t was more than the usual wartime trickery of the opponent. Here there was a continuous attempt to make the idea of a seeing bomb so popular and common that, thereafter, they would have to be ordered, developed, and paid for.” The “inventiveness of war,” in order to perpetuate itself, finds an additional way to assert itself here. Thus, one learns jointly in the reports on the Turkish drone Bayraktar that the order book for the flying machine is full for the next three years. This is indeed terrifying news, beyond the need to arm the Ukrainians against Russian aggression.
In any case, the question of our position as observers—close to that of an observation post—when confronted by images of war that participate in parallel with the fierce competition between the military-industrial complexes at a global level, becomes more and more insistent. In spite of ourselves, are we not becoming “technicians of war”? This is the hypothesis Farocki puts forward: As soon as we adopt “the point of view of war”—in the current case that of the “aerial views” which correspond to the point of view of “television spectators”—we are supposed “to appreciate the war technicians and to sympathize with the technology of war through the images of aerial photographs, which were actually made only for the eyes of the war technicians.”
The problem, then, boils down to knowing how to inscribe oneself into a critical position that is likely to help one maintain a distanced relationship with these images, at a time—that of the immersive paradigm—where everything is done so that there is no distance between “them” and “us.” It is in this sense that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in his remarkable speech delivered via Zoom during the Cannes Film Festival in 2022, invited the cinema industry not to remain “mute” in the face of the current barbarity of the Russian dictator. Just as [Charlie] Chaplin, he added, had confronted “the spirit of Nazism” with The Great Dictator in the middle of the Second World War: “cinema had [then] ceased to be silent, in every sense of the word, even if this film did not put an end to Hitler’s dictatorship.”
“We need a new Chaplin!,” Zelensky continued in the same speech, in a distant echo of the comedian he too was before becoming president. This is a difficult task for contemporary filmmakers, who must confront the imagery of a war that gives the impression that it will never end. Army chief Zelensky, on the other hand, is always careful in his speeches to draw the perspective of a hard-won peace. He wants the war to end, he does not want its “perpetuation.” For he knows, as he states in a voice that is still a bit shaky, that “hell is not hell, war is worse than hell.”
This article first appeared as “Images d’Ukraine: qui veut vraiment la fin de la guerre?,” AOC (18 January 2023), available online: https://aoc.media/analyse/2023/01/17/imagesdukraine-who-really-wants-the-war-to-end/
English translation by Tom Holert (drawing on support by DeepL), additional editing and proofreading by Mandi Gomez
Dork Zabunyan is a professor in Film Studies at the University of Paris 8. His most recent book is Jacques Rancière et le monde des images, Paris 2023.
 Serge Daney, “Montage obligé. La guerre, du Golfe et le petit écran” , in Serge Daney and Philippe Roger (ed.), Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main – cinéma, télévision, information, 1988–1991, 2nd ed., Lyon, 1997, pp. 161–65, here p. 165.
 See Violain Jaussent, “Ukraine: derrière l’image d’une survivante de l’immeuble de Dnipro, seule près de sa baignoire, l’espoir de ‘changer le cours de la guerre’” (January 15, 2023), https://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/europe/manifestations-en-ukraine/derriere-l-image-guerre-en-ukraine-unesurvivor-of-the-bombing-of-the-building-of-dnipro-is-found-sitting-in-the-ruins-a-cote-of-his-tub_5604431.html
 Sylvie Lindeperg, La Voie des images: Quatre histoires de tournage au printemps-été 1944, Lagrasse, 2013/1944, p. 36 (emphasis added).
 While this is not the subject of this article, counterpoints to this iconography do exist, which, without evading the horror of war, show it in a different way. For example, see the remarkable work of the architect and photographer Oleksandr Burlaka, an overview of which can be seen on Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/maidan_nezalezhnosti/?hl=fr
 Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (1997), quoted here by Harun Farocki in “Phantom Images”, Public 29: Localities, ed. Saara Liinamaa, Janine Marchessault, and Christine Shaw (Spring 2004): pp. 12–24, here p. 20.
 See “Soledar: De violents combats des deux côtés” LCI (broadcast 11 January 2023), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZkngrY9qSI&t=1s
 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott, London and New York, 2009, p. 96.
 See Xavier Tytelman’s video “Carnage à Bakhmut, nouvelles armes (AMX-10 RC & drones) et frappes stratégiques” (posted January 8, 2023, 33:20 min), France 24, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdHhh9xY6b0
 See Jean-Marc Rickli, Head of Global and Emerging risks at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), “Comment le drone turc Bayraktar TB2 aux mains des Ukrainiens est devenu la hantise des Russes,” Le Parisien (posted April 6, 2022, 3:29 min), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-g9mC2rCCk
 Farocki, “Phantom Images,” 21.
 See Volodymyr Zelensky’s strong message during the opening ceremony of the 75th Cannes Film Festival, “Cannes Film Festival: Zelensky pits Chaplin against Putin!”, Global Watch Analysis (n.d., posted 2022, 3:28 mins), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0RWuImr11s. Concerning Zelensky’s presence–absence on the world scene via his video-conference interventions, see Dork Zabunyan, “La guerre en Ukraine a bien lieu,” Almanach Trafic (2023): pp. 330–42.May 26th, 2023 — Rosa Mercedes / 05