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Book Reviews

Images et sociétés.
le progrès, les médias, la guerre

by Catherine Saouter
Montreal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 182 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Dr. Magali Deleuze

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Catherine Saouter’s book comes at an opportune time. In the last ten years the study of war and the media has grown. Historians have tried to show how newspapers, radio, and, more recently, television have influenced the unfolding of many local and international conflicts, but this connection is still difficult to measure accurately. Saouter, a professor in the Department of Communications of the University of Québec at Montreal, and a specialist in theories of the image from a semiological and historical perspective, offers a view of “how Western industrial and democratic societies have portrayed themselves through the media”. The author examines documentary photography since the Industrial Revolution, in Canada and around the world, and describes the ideology underlying images of war. The author chooses to use war as a typical example of the “paradox of the utopia of progress at the service of the Concorde, in societies which this same progress has in fact placed amongst the most warlike in history”. This lends originality to this analysis of media images even though the author makes use of work that has been published previously. This book is aimed at a wide readership and the many illustrations make it a pleasure to read.

The book is organized chronologically. The first two chapters, “Documenter, représenter” (Recording, representing) and “Imprimer, diffuser” (Printing, distributing) review the use of pictures shown by the media in the Western world from 1839 to 1918. From the appearance of the ancestor of the camera, the French daguerreotype, in 1838, photography was a means for social expression. The author shows that in Europe, as in the United States and Canada, the advances made in photography: reproducibility, the emergence of the portrait, and “scientific” photography all had an unprecedented impact. Whether it was the portrayal of the harsh living conditions of New York immigrants at the end of the 19th century, or the patriotic symbolism of the first official photograph of the fathers of the Canadian Confederation in 1864 (carefully planned and taken several times), all that was missing to inundate the newspapers and media with these modern images was a universal theme and improvement in the capability to print photographs.

This was provided by the First World War. With the emergence of silent films, the public began to see newsreels, but the accompanying commentary was often improvised and inaccurate. The war, violent and charged with emotion, was in fact best portrayed in news photographs. Controlled and censored, they came to form a “rhetoric of the news image”. In Canada, candid images of combat scenes and the dead and wounded were not allowed, but in their place were a raft of photographs of ruins, kindly soldiers and the like. Was this hiding “the real face of war”, as the author believes? Perhaps, but then every historical period has reflected its own values towards death and war. The Greeks and the Romans did not burden themselves with metaphors to relate their wars and battles, as death was a part of society and everyday life. By 1914, death had become less and less a part of society, and mass deaths, such as during the Spanish flu epidemic, were considered an unjust calamity. Is it perhaps logical, therefore, that in 1914-1918 people preferred to represent this particularly deadly war from an angle that was more human and less brutal?

Between the wars, the pessimistic and raw portrayal of war by German painters, for example, or the reading of Orages d’acier (Storms of Steel), did little to ease the German people’s memory of war’s horrors. Nonetheless the fact remains, as the author explains, that the First World War was an important period for the evolution of documentary photography.

In the third and fourth chapters “Persuader, manipuler” (Persuading, manipulating) and “Dénoncer, édulcorer” (Denouncing, editing), the author first discusses the important issues of press censorship and propaganda during the two world wars, and especially in Canada. This country was far from the battlefront, and the Canadian government did everything possible to eliminate the distance between Canadians and the war in Europe. An insert in the newspapers, “Mrs. Morin Bombs Berlin”, seemed to be particularly effective in convincing Canadians to buy war bonds. Photography and motion picture images from the National Film Board of Canada were thus used by the government for propaganda during the Second World War.

The author next examines the media’s depiction of war from the end of the 19th century to the war in Kosovo, along with commemorative photography, and ends with remarks on the art of good and bad representation. This chapter alone could form the basis of a book; rich and dense, it arouses interest and curiosity, and sometimes even critical judgement on the part of the reader. Photojournalism, starting in the Second World War, has become the judge of the legitimacy of conflict. Images of ‘dirty’ wars, such as photos of horrible atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, as much as those of clean wars, such as the Gulf War where no pictures of the dead were taken, show that the potential for photographers’ royalties and the portrayal of compassion have become the primary journalistic motivators in war photography.

The example of the war in Kosovo is noteworthy. Photos in Le Monde and the National Post, which invariably showed the effects of NATO air strikes on the civilian population while excluding any portrayal of Serb atrocities, seemed intent on depicting a romantic war in which the heroic warrior comes to the rescue of women and children. This made the complex stakes of these hostilities totally incomprehensible and fostered a dualistic view of this conflict and the feeling that it was unjust. In the reviewer’s opinion, the analysis of these media representations should have gone further: should people be shown the war they want to see, or do journalists really believe in the values associated with these images? As well, commemorative photographs reveal, according to the author, a “strategy of avoidance” in which ‘Others’ are often responsible for inhumane actions. Historians will be skeptical, however, at the author’s contention that the 20th century “is now recognized as having been one of the most violent in the history of humanity”, when the people of the 5th century B.C. or the 14th century A.D. were equally bellicose.

The last chapter, “Envahir, conformer” (Invading, conforming) describes the role of television and the Internet in the propagation of images. The author makes acomparison between the media success of Yves Beauchemin’s Le Matou and the proliferation of images that accompanied the Oka crisis in 1990. The public wants to be told about things that seem close to them, and journalists connive to keep the monster alive: “Oka, one death and 1236 articles, Rwanda, one million deaths and 310 articles”. This fact is intriguing, and calls for a more in-depth analysis. André P. Donneur and Jean de Bonville have shown that, up to the 1950s, Quebec newspapers placed emphasis on international news. The Quiet Revolution may have reopened Quebecers to the world, but it may also have led them to prefer articles with a local flavour.

Media coverage of the events of 11 September 2001 completes, as it were, the author’s analysis, which brilliantly brings to light the shift in the tacit relationship between the public and the topics covered to a relationship between journalists and the public. The anguish and the impression of unbearable savagery on the part of the “Others” – the non-Westerners – towards “Us” are now widely shared. The portrayal of this tragedy makes use of the rhetoric of the war image which was developed at the start of the 20th century – ruins, the kindly hero (in this case, the fireman), and the courtesy and the helplessness of the civilians.

This book challenges the reader and offers considerable material for reflection. Gathering together in a single book a variety of articles published over a ten-year period was obviously a difficult task, but Catherine Saouter has produced a reference book that opens the way to the study of many topics. Historians and other researchers will find this careful analysis of the illustrations, photographs and media images of war to be an essential resource.

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Dr. Magali Deleuze is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Royal Military College of Canada.