Roland Barthes wrote of the punctum, that thing in the stadium of the photograph that pricks you, and makes the image personal. In a time when such massive numbers of images are produced of the mundane and day to day (to say nothing of exceptional events) his idea perhaps needs refiguring. At the risk of mauling a beautiful conception of the proccess of reading photographs, one might also think beyond individual images, and speak also of a stadium of all the images produced in response to an event, the galleries, tweets, statuses, and more encountered in the moments and hours after an attack and the cumulative effect they have, might be thought of in contrast to the single image amongst those many, the image which pricks, stops you in your tracks, and lingers on your mind.
With the terror attacks in Brussels photographs with the same sadly familiar tropes emerged, in the vast quantity we have come to expect in a time of mass camera ownership. Images of bloodied victims and shattered buildings, smoke rising in the sky, heavily armed soldiers examining the damage with detachment of one professional inspecting the work of another. Not surprisingly many of these images were reminiscent of previous attacks in other cities, stills and video showing people fleeing through the tunnels from the Maalbeek Station attack calling to mind very similar images from the London terror attacks in 2007. Other images had a local twist to them, not least the staggering multi-culturalism of Brussels on show in many of the photographs, a reminder that even in an age of globalized terror, mass communication and cultural homogenisation, small national differences still have the potential to momentarily jar.
Amongst all these photographs for me the one which really pricked was one taken over a thousand miles away from the bombings. The image above by Fedja Grulovic was taken in the Greek village of idomeni. This border settlement of 150 permanent residents has become a holding point for refugees waiting to cross the closed border into Macedonia, in effect becoming a new Calais for a new Continent as the consequences of the closure of borders across the continent ripple closer and closer to the edges of Europe. The culmination of that ripple will probably be the deal currently being threshed out between the EU and the Turkish government to end migration into Europe completely, an agreement being made despite Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s effective abandonment of many of the democratic tenets the EU is supposed to pride itself on. Estimates for the number of refugees waiting at Idomeni range as high as 12,000, the camp has been compared to a modern Dachau, and yesterday two of the refugees self-immolated in protest at conditions there, although unsurprisingly given the timing and subject matter that event made few headlines.
Grulovic’s photograph, taken at a refugee protest against the closed border, shows a young boy holding a sign which reads ‘sorry for Brussels’ with the last word dripping with childishly drawn blood. The idea of this boy expressing this sentiment over an event occuring thousands of miles away in a city which is the seat of the European Union is made all the more painful by the background behind him. On show is the biblical chaos one would expect in a Hollywood recreation of a refugee camp or transit point, with a great number of exhausted faces looking up from the ground. They are towered over by a man with a megaphone, who may be leading the refugee’s protest but in the context of this image acts instead as a visual shorthand for the ineffective disaster management that has typified the humanitarian crisis on Europe’s borders and within them. On the boy’s arm is a bandage with a bloom of red that echoes the blood on the sign, although it is unclear if this is a real wound, or a sort of black armband worn in tribute. In a sense of course it could and perhaps should be read as both.
‘Sorry’ is a difficult word, a context specific one even by the standards of a confusing language like English. I say sorry when I hear that a friend of yours I didn’t know has recently passed away, I express sympathy. Being English I say sorry when someone has done something to irritate me, I express annoyance, I am sorry I have had this encounter. I also of course say sorry to express regret at my actions, I apologise for my conduct. In the west we sometimes ask Muslims to say sorry for the actions of their violent co-religionists, which seems reasonable only so long as the rest of us are willing to apologise for the conduct of these people as our co-human beings. The boy’s sign is of course most likely intended as an expression of sympathy, tinged by the knowledge that these attacks will likely lead to a hardening and harshening of European attitudes towards refugees. It might also be read though as an expression of regret, of apology. ISIS attacks in Europe are understood at least to be partially intended to stem the flow of refugees from their territories, who are feared as fifth columnists, cuckoos, enemies within. And so increasingly we shun them. We often tell ourselves that while terror is incapable of a millitary victory against democratic nation states, and that the only possibility of true defeat is would be if in the face of this threat we abandon the essential tenets that define us. Humanitarianism, democracy, diversity, empathy. In the context of ISIS, and other threats like a resurgent Russia seemingly intent on bringing the EU to it’s knees, and seeking to do so in part by undermining the continents unity and sense of self, remaining true to these ideas remains more essential than ever, and yet as the deal being made with Turkey indicates, we are selling out wholesale. Reading that boy’s sign, and looking at the chaos behind him, it’s really hard not to feel that we are the ones who might owe him an apology.