Fillip 13 — Spring 2011

Producing Images in Times of War
Haema Sivanesan

What do we know of war?
I recall a telephone conversation with Khadim Ali in May 2008. Ali was frantically preparing for his first visit to Canada to continue working with Jayce Salloum towards the installation of the heart that has no love/pain/generosity is not a heart at the Alternator Gallery in Kelowna, British Columbia (2008). In the midst of having videotapes translated and subtitled, undertaking the frustrating task of applying for a Canadian visa, and preparing for the installation of a major new collaborative work, Ali was forced to surrender his laptop containing documentation of all his artwork at an armed checkpoint in his home city of Quetta, Pakistan.

Quetta, the capital city of Baluchistan, which borders the province of Kandahar in Afghanistan, had been in a state of heightened insurgency for several months. Bomb blasts and rocket attacks were a daily occurrence, along with murders, kidnappings, and disappearances. Ali was anxious to get to the bazaar to buy war rugs1 for the installation. I was anxious for Ali who, as a minority Hazara, was a likely target for armed insurgents or the Taliban. I recall cautioning him to be careful—it was not worth risking his life for an art installation. But Ali firmly set aside my concerns, reminding me that he had grown up in Quetta. He had always lived with these dangers. One had to get on with one’s life. 

For those who have never lived through war, the concept of it derives primarily from media constructions: from photographs reproduced in newspapers, or television images also circulating freely online. Susan Sontag argues that such images of war do not exist beyond the realm of spectacle; they represent conflicts that take place elsewhere, and they have impact primarily for their shock value. The problem with such images, she argues, lies in their inability to prompt sustained inquiry or adequate reflection upon the contexts of war, its politics, and its effects. Sontag writes: public attention is steered by the attentions of the media—which means, most decisively, images. When there are photographs, a war becomes “real.” Thus, the protest against the Vietnam War was mobilized by images. The feeling that something had to be done about the war in Bosnia was built from the attentions of journalists—“the CNN effect,” it was sometimes called—which brought images of Sarajevo under siege into hundreds of millions of living rooms night after night for more that three years. These examples illustrate the determining influence of photographs in shaping what catastrophes and crises we pay attention to, what we care about, and ultimately, what evaluations are attached to these a world saturated, no, hypersaturated with images, those that should matter have a diminishing effect: we become callous. In the end, such images just make us a little less able to feel, to have our conscience pricked.2

For most of us, our knowledge of war is contingent on its representation in the media. However, media representations generate complex effects, and, as Sontag argues, images of war do not inevitably invoke compassion, empathy, or concern among viewers. For instance, reportage of an event can stir up political action, but it can also stun, and, by extension, generate a sense of impotence, defensiveness, or hostility. What response the media generates is in part a measure of a larger social and political engagement. But Sontag’s point is that as consumers of images, we are not adequately critical of how such images are produced, for what purpose, and to what end. A photograph can neither represent the complexity of the situation of war nor effectively communicate the complexity or extent of its horrors. Accordingly, Sontag reminds us that the photojournalistic image is not neutral, its function being determined by the commercial and editorial interests of newspapers. 

Bamiyan: An alternative perspective 
on the war in Afghanistan
If we understand the war in Afghanistan primarily through media interests and rhetoric, then Salloum and Ali’s collaborative project is an attempt to go beyond this discussion of war—to go beyond the hype and sensationalism characteristic of mainstream representations and discussions, and to bring complexity to our understanding of, and engagement with, the region. To realize this project, Salloum and Ali travelled together to Kabul and then overland into the Bamiyan Valley of Central Afghanistan to examine the situation of the Hazara people, a persecuted Shia Muslim minority. The Hazaras believe themselves to be descendants of the sculptors and labourers who produced the colossal images of the Buddha, which since about the fifth century CE had been a defining feature of the Bamiyan Valley’s arid landscape. In March 2001, however, six months prior to Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Taliban destroyed the ancient and monumental figures of the Buddha. As the material in the heart that has no love suggests, the Hazara people perceived the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas as an act of terror and humiliation, sealing the Taliban’s capture of the Bamiyan Valley.3 The destruction was also a gesture of provocation and defiance aimed at the international community.4

the heart that has no love is a collaborative installation that appears as a spatialized scrapbook that develops a sense of journey or itinerary, and produces an impressionistic account of the landscape of Afghanistan beyond the front line of war. The project takes its title from a Sufi song sung by Hazara girls at a school assembly in Kabul. One of the videotapes depicts a scene of these girls at a morning assembly in the school courtyard under a brilliant blue sky—an image of future promise. The installation consists of photographs of various sizes arranged in conceptual clusters and displayed alongside miniature paintings that contribute a narrative and allegorical thread. Also included are ambient and documentary videotapes and various collected ephemera, including objects, notes, children’s drawings, documents, and maps that comprise the evidence of a journey. Arranged in thematic constellations, the clusters of photographs play with scale and composition, often developing patterns of repetition and reiteration, producing a mode of visual analysis. 

The photographs and videotapes that comprise the heart that has no love focus on the everyday realities and quotidian details of ordinary people who have lived through decades of conflict. They are intimate in their keen observation of detail: of looming snow-capped mountains viewed through dusty windows, of picturesque landscapes littered with disused tanks and war artillery alongside moments of enduring life—a pigeon sheltering in the alcove of a restaurant, a budding dandelion in a bed of hail, a shocking pink tarpaulin stretched out as an awning. These images of the landscape convey an eerie stillness and desolation evocative of a mood in Afghanistan. Salloum depicts the scarcity of things and the frugality of living, recorded as a photographic catalogue of piles—of sticks, rocks, scraps, shrapnel, junk, disused parts, ruins. Every object is worthless yet precious, giving the viewer an insight into the conditions of poverty in Afghanistan. The photographs and interview tapes included in the heart that has no love reveal the concern of the Hazara people for having access to the basic privileges of modernity—for essential civic amenities such as sanitation, running water, and roads; for education, opportunities for women, dignified work, hope. 

One of the videotapes records the ruins of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The silent, looped footage pans across a vast and enigmatic array of sandstone rocks—the rescued fragments of the colossal Buddhas—sorted into piles, catalogued, and housed in sheds near the original cave site. A related cluster of photographs depicts larger in situ ruins wrapped in high-tech plastic. This material documents the ruins of the Buddhas at a specific moment in history—at a turning point between destruction and conservation or possible restoration. 

For the Hazara, the ruins of the Buddhas are the ruins of an identity—symbolic of an originary sense of connection to a place and evidence of the Hazara people’s role in Afghanistan’s history. The ruins of the Buddhas, however, also conserve a violent and traumatic history, as indicated by a cluster of photographs and video footage that documents the scores of indelible bootprints left by Taliban soldiers who threw their boots against the soot-stained domes of the cave complex as an ultimate desecration of the site. The ambition to reconstruct the Buddhas from their ruins suggests a process of recuperation—a process of remaking or rehabilitating history and identity—to restore a symbolic order, to restore dignity and a sense of belonging. 

A recurring theme in Ali’s miniature paintings is that of the Shahnameh, an epic eleventh-century poem by the Persian poet Ferdowsi that examines the moral codes informing a virtuous mode of sovereignty. Of particular interest is the story of Rustam and Sohrab, two princely warriors who fight on opposing sides of a battle. Unaware that Sohrab is his son, Rustam kills Sohrab. The story deals with the futility of war and the tragedy of misplaced heroism within the context of an ancient and epic poem concerned with elaborating the ideals that constitute a model form of nationhood. But Ali examines the Taliban’s appropriation of the heroic figure of Rustam to serve their own ends, the effect of which is that younger generations no longer have an awareness or understanding of the original story. Another video in the installation depicts an impoverished farmer, Syed Mohammed Shah, who sings the Shahnameh. In this video Shah reflects on how he had been taught to recite the Shahnameh in times of hardship as a means to understand loss and come to terms with suffering. He comments on how this knowledge of the Shahanameh is now being lost. Ali draws on this cultural history as a means to reflect on and come to terms with the current situation.

Like many artists of his generation who were trained at the National College of Art in Lahore, Pakistan, Ali’s work underscores the need for a progressive and democratic or socially just approach to politics in the region, obliquely positioning a critique of jihad. When read in the context of the recent history of the subcontinent, Ali’s paintings, like those of his contemporaries, engage the discourse of an incipient modernity, where, in Pakistan, as in India, the notion of modernity in art develops and is informed by the discourses of nationalism and negotiates a relationship between the past and the present. In Afghanistan, an indigenous discussion around a notion of nationalism is yet to be formed as society struggles to gather itself through and despite ongoing decades of war. The continuing war and the ongoing struggle to establish peace and security raises the question of how to imagine the development of a nation within the context of desperate poverty and rampant corruption, and given a persistent culture of tribalism and the indomitable power of the warlords. It seems naive for the US and allied governments to attempt to impose the political conditions of a democratic nation-state when the ethnic and geographic landscape remains fragmented and in ruins. After almost a decade of war, the heart that has no love draws on a specific situation to weigh the impact and effects of the US invasion of Afghanistan against the dilemma that is becoming apparent in the move to withdraw NATO troops: namely, that without a balance of power in Afghanistan’s government, or without the protection of foreign troops or a peacekeeping force, the slaughter of minorities will be inevitable.

Iconoclasm as terror: Destruction 
as image production 
the heart that has no love represents an opportunity to examine political priorities and human values at a time of unprecedented global anxiety. The project was wholly contingent on a relationship of trust and hospitality between two artists, which formed the basis for developing a cross-cultural dialogue that examined the complex circumstances and impact of the war in Afghanistan on a specific minority community. The project was an attempt to revisit the events of March 2001 and to consider them within the context of an ongoing series of Al Qaeda–linked attacks that have redefined global geopolitics and the nature of contemporary warfare. 

It has become increasingly clear that Al Qaeda’s brand of terror is designed to draw attention to an ideological divide that takes its rhetorical framework from a conservative reading of sharia law, utilizing it to position a violent attack upon the imperializing force of Western, neoliberal, capitalist ideology. What is of interest here is the iconoclastic strategy by which Al Qaeda and its affiliates have raised worldwide attention to this ideological divide. In the case of Bamiyan, the destruction of the ancient Buddhas was justified in terms of an Islamic stance against idolatry.5 Further, the destruction was also intended as a gesture of defiance against the global community, which was perceived by the Taliban as being more concerned with the historic and cultural value of the Buddhas than with the ongoing suffering of the Afghan people. The global community’s response was interpreted by the mullahs of the Taliban regime as a demonstration of the West’s callous and materialistic values.6

In the case of 9/11, Al Qaeda’s strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon destroyed landmark symbols of US capitalist power and military authority. The attacks could be regarded as a spectacular ambush in Al Qaeda’s guerrilla-style strategy of global jihad. The attacks invited the US government’s response, but did so in a manner that was equally designed to challenge the sovereignty of the United States before the global community. Al Qaeda’s methodology draws on principles of provocation and sabotage, and exploits their psychological effects. But it also draws on an ancient and iconoclastic methodology of warfare that emerged through a long-developed understanding of the symbolic power of monuments and their importance in demarcating and defining the political identity of a place.

The Islamic world knows a long history of iconoclasm, beginning with the removal of the idols of the Kaaba in Mecca. Historically, to challenge a ruler’s sovereignty, marauding dynasties would target and destroy iconic structures within a city to undermine the rule of law and shift the centre of power. Examples of this kind of strategy of warfare can be found throughout world history but were particularly prevalent in the Indian subcontinent from as early as the eleventh century until the beginning of colonial rule, when Afghan, Persian, and Central Asian invaders sought to establish sovereignty over local rulers.7 In keeping with this history, Al Qaeda’s method of terror could be described as a contemporary form of iconoclasm that conflates a conservative reading of the Hadith8 with a shrewd insight into the political symbolism of contemporary architectural iconography. 

Al Qaeda has coupled this strategy of iconoclasm with a sophisticated understanding of the media. Following 9/11, the perversely compelling images of the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon circulated almost instantly and globally over news networks. Images of the 9/11 attacks have themselves become iconic because of the media’s ability to reproduce, replay, and disseminate images almost instantaneously. In other words, the power of Al Qaeda’s iconoclasm is in the attention that it receives from the international media—by way of its capacity to compel the media to disseminate the visual impact of this iconoclasm globally, and thereby spread terror. Al Qaeda’s ability to organize and carry out such devastating yet visually sublime acts of destruction could itself be thought of as a form of image production, where television is the ultimate tool and weapon of terrorism. 

Al Qaeda has recognized the power of the media to widely disseminate and circulate images of this type of destruction as a means to generate an atmosphere of widespread fear. It would seem that in Al Qaeda’s view, the death toll that results from any iconoclastic gesture is collateral damage. The image-effect that characterizes Al Qaeda’s strategy of attack goes beyond the shock value of earlier photojournalistic images of war (which document an event that has already happened) to describe the immanence of spectacular violence that exploits the real-time capacity of the media to capture and disseminate the mood of an event that is happening or about to happen. The insidiousness of this strategy produces what Brian Massumi has described as an ambient fear—an atmosphere of sustained anxiety and mistrust, an ambience fetishized by the media and governments into a permanent state of emergency. 

The media interface and political process
The Retort collective has recognized that in our post-9/11 context we are experiencing a new convergence of media, politics, and society. Retort argues that the state’s influence over the presentation of images in the media, coupled with capitalism’s harnessing of the power of images to stimulate consumer culture, has resulted in “weak citizenship,” pacified, if not entirely reassured, by a relationship to the world mediated by television.9 The role of CNN in developing live news and on-the-ground reporting has revolutionized the impact of the media, with the Pentagon recognizing the phenomenon of the CNN effect—the perceived participatory effect of real-time media.10 Its power, and perhaps its reassurance, is that we are made to feel part of the process of responding to an event—of virtually “being there” when an event occurs and of participating in the discussions that supposedly shape response and inform political process. The media becomes a vital instrument of this process: of disseminating news events, generating discussion, and of creating a mood of participation. The media, Retort argues, increasingly determines and describes society’s terrain of belief, “something users psychically invest in and whose imagery of the future they assent to....”11

Given the importance of the media in determining consensus and generating political support, the events of 9/11 clearly represented a huge blow to the state’s organization and management of 
political rhetoric via the media. Al Qaeda intercepted an otherwise carefully managed political game with such visual impact that the United States was required to respond with equal force. 
In February 2003, the US government’s response to 9/11, and specifically its invasion of Iraq, provoked an unprecedented worldwide mass protest. We can cite repeated instances of these kinds of protests—most recently the worldwide protests against the attacks on Gaza (January 2, 2009) 
and the sustained protests against the escalation 
of the civil war in Sri Lanka (November 2008–May 2009). However, as Retort argues, these 
social movements have repeatedly failed to 
address the state. 

Retort attributes the inefficacy of strategies of protest to an inadequate understanding and critique of the neoliberal state, which by definition has relieved itself of social responsibility. Retort argues that the failure of the protests to appeal to the neoliberal state reflects the state’s privileging of corporate and economic interests over public interests, so that in the case of Iraq (as is possibly also the case in Afghanistan), the aim of securing oil and other resources supersedes the immediate human need for safety and stability. So even as citizens gather in mass protest against the state, they have little collective power against the multinational force of capitalist interests that buoy political power. 

The Otolith Group probes these questions reflexively in their film Otolith 1 (2003), which opens with a sequence depicting the 2003 protests in London, England, against the US invasion of Iraq. The protests are described in the film as defining a “nowhere ground” denoting the ambivalence of the gesture of protest—“a protest for the right to protest,” a powerful collective act in expression of a grievance, a hopeful yet politically ineffective call for justice. Otolith 1 weighs the political inefficacy of the protests against their symbolic power, reminding us that the notion of justice exists as an ideal and remains an ongoing project requiring vigilance, critique, and a constant reimagining of its methodologies. Drawing on a notion of futurism as a productive nostalgia and as a methodology by which to critique the dramatic events of our time, the Otolith Group asks: How will our time be read one hundred years from now? What can be learned? Given the crisis of our times, (how) can we imagine a new world order? The Otolith Group urgently advocates the reimagining of politics in a context where the state has neglected the concerns of its citizens. Further, the implicit concerns of Otolith 1 suggest to me that protest does not necessarily equal resistance.

One year in a thirty-year civil war
A recent and timely project offers an alternative to the relentless media barrage of spectacular war imagery and news commentary, considering the capacity of an artist to get beyond the front line of a war zone—to get close to things and to examine the details of everyday life in a context of conflict. In May 2005, four Sri Lankan artists—Muhanned Cader, Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Jagath Weerasinghe, and T. Shanaathanan—began working with London-based curator Sharmini Pereira in an exchange of drawings that developed as a sustained dialogue against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s violent thirty-year civil war. Each artist produced an initial drawing and then exchanged drawings via the post between the heavily bombed, predominantly Tamil city of Jaffna in Sri Lanka’s north, and the nation’s capital, Colombo. Over a period of a year, this group of artists entered into a process of producing drawings in response to one another. The result was a series of some 205 drawings, collated as an artists’ book titled the One Year Drawing Project. 

The One Year Drawing Project is a record of the concerns of this group of artists living and working in a nation at war. Rendered in everyday materials—pencil, charcoal, ink, ballpoint, and felt-tip pen on readily available paper—the drawings 
that comprise the One Year Drawing Project are personal, introspective, and seemingly innocuous, yet they develop as a mode of critical reflection that examines the trauma and anxiety of living through a civil war. The opening sequence of drawings introduces the hand and leitmotif of each artist: Muhanned Cader’s part animal, 
part sculptural form; Chandraguptha Thenuwara’s vegetal camouflage motif; T. Shanaathanan’s abstracted self-portraits; and Jagath Weerasinghe’s painterly figures. Cader’s form becomes a bandaged anthropomorphic figure fleeing an inferno; the bandages become Thenuwara’s reed thatch; then Shanaathanan’s reclining figure with lotus navel and dragonflies; Cader’s form becomes an environmental diorama or vase of lilies; Weerasinghe’s waterscape of tadpoles, jellyfish, and serpents; a man’s body falling to the ground, disembodying into skeletal parts; or a floating 
sea of male bodies; a tangle of serpents; a 
solitary serpent posed to strike; a tangle of legs 
in an inky mindscape; the torso of a man with welts on his upper arm; the crouching torso of 
a man with welts and spurs on his body; a gan-grenous stump of a leg; a delicate pattern of 
falling leaves.

The simplicity of the medium of drawing and the process of mail exchange afforded a free and sustained dialogue within the alienating context of war, encapsulating a notion of time passing—not necessarily in a diaristic sense, but proceeding conversationally. At times a thematic thread is identified and developed amongst the four artists. At other times new ideas or alternative concerns are offered so that the sequence of drawings abruptly shifts. Sometimes the sequence of images drifts into marginal tangents, so that the trope of the “drawing-dialogue” ebbs and flows. The quietness of the medium of drawing belies the psychological demands and precariousness of living in a context of heightening conflict. The bareness of the drawings affords significant insight into the everyday realities of life intertwined with the events of war: the isolation, the scarcity, the anguish, the bitterness, the boredom. 

The significance of the One Year Drawing Project is in its immediate and unmediated expression of the reality of living in the context of war. This is especially important in a context where there are very few opportunities for ideas to be openly expressed without fear of reprisal and few opportunities for collective action or expression. The One Year Drawing Project develops a form of collectivity, creating an important means and context by which the artists are able to freely consider and express their experience of this war. What becomes evident as one considers each drawing in the book is the trust amongst the participating artists, underscoring a friendship and respect, despite their different ethnicities, experiences, and points of view. Taken together, the project represents a marking of time and a mapping of lives lived in the tension of civil war, describing the notion of resistance as an everyday negotiation, an ongoing struggle, a practice of living.

  1. War rugs are a category of rug that first began to be produced in Afghanistan during the period of the Soviet invasion (1979–80); they incorporate scenes of war or design motifs that depict the machinery of war. They continue to be produced today and often depict scenes of the destruction of the World Trade Center or the current war in Afghanistan. See

  2. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 1977), 104–05.

  3. See also Ishaq Mohammadi, “A Profile on Bamyan Civilization,” 1999,

  4. The motivations for the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas are discussed in further detail below.

  5. “Afghan Taliban leader orders destruction of ancient statues,” press release, Agence France Press, February 26, 2001, quotes a decree issued by the Taliban militia supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar: Based on the verdict of the clergymen and the decision of the supreme court of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) all the statues around Afghanistan must be destroyed. Available at, accessed August 30, 2010. Pierre Centlivres quotes from the decree: These statues were and are a sanctuary for unbelievers. These unbelievers continue to worship and to venerate these statues and pictures. See Pierre Centlivres, “The Controversy over the Buddhas of Bamiyan,” in South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 2 (2008), 

  6. F. B. Flood, “Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum,” Art Bulletin 84 (2002),, 
accessed December 6, 2009. Flood argues that the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was politically rather than religiously motivated.

  7. In Lives of the Indian Images, Richard Davis notes that Muslim chronicles of the medieval period repeatedly portray the destruction of politically significant images and temples, coupled with the establishment of mosques, as a conversion, a transformation of the land of the heathens into the land of Islam. He notes that this practice was established by Mahmud of Ghaznavi in what is now modern Afghanistan in the early eleventh century, setting the stage for later Turkic and Central Asian rulers. Davis explains that it was important for Muslim conquerors not only to denounce religious images for theological reasons, but also to act against them as a statement of conquest. Although the Bamiyan Buddhas were not attacked during the period of the Mahmud of Ghaznavi, they were attacked later by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in the eighteenth century. See Richard Davis, Lives of Indian Images (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 88.

  8. The Hadith is a collection of reports concerning the direct actions or statements of the Prophet Muhammed. These reports were gathered together in the eighth or ninth century and are referred to in matters of Islamic law. 

  9. Retort (Iain Boal, T. J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts), Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (New York: Verso, 2005), 186.

  10. See Steven Livingston “Clarifying the CNN Effect: An Examination of Media Effects According to Type of Military Intervention,” the Joan Shorenstein Center (June 1997), http://genocide

  11. Retort, Afflicted Powers, 187. Retort argues that the image-world has become the terrain of the spectacular dimension of international politics, brought into sharp focus by the events of 9/11.

Image: Buddha carved from the rock at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, fifth century (now destroyed). Courtesy of the Afghan Infor- mation Bureau, London.

About the Author

Haema Sivanesan is a curator with an interest in the 
historical and contemporary art of South and Southeast Asia. She is currently the Executive Director of SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre), a Toronto-based artist-
run centre dedicated to the presentation of contemporary art by South Asian artists.

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