Photographs, Trauma and the Ownership of the Dead

By Matthew Gault

On 30 August, public and digital anthropologist Kate Ellenberger began a discussion on Twitter about using images of the deceased, in particular of their bodies, without the consent of family members. She also reflected on the impact these images can have on readers.  In Northern Ireland we frequently see images of the dead and of the aftermath of violence shared through print media, documentaries, and increasingly through social media. These images are widely shared and seen as either in the public domain or of historical value. Yet for many within Northern Ireland, and further afield, these are images of events that caused trauma or changed their lives dramatically. I believe that the use of images of the dead of the ‘Troubles’ raises four important questions. Firstly, why use images of the dead and of atrocities at all? Secondly, what are the potential risks of using these images? Thirdly, how do these images influence how we understand the Troubles? And, finally, who has, or can grant, permission to use images of the dead?

The first of my questions may seem trivial: images are used to illustrate and complement text.  In newspapers, they draw the readers’ eye to a story. On social media and blogs, text that is accompanied by images attracts higher numbers of readers, thereby generating greater levels of engagement. Beyond these practical concerns, however, images of the dead can serve a greater purpose. Advocacy groups, like the South East Fermanagh Foundation, and activists, like those behind the Twitter accounts ‘OnThisDayTheIRA’ and ‘Imperialist Watch Ireland’, use portraits to humanise victims. The Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN)’s  ‘Human Face’ page does something similar. Photographs of the aftermath of atrocities, like the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s ‘Murder, Murder, Murder’ leaflet, issued in the aftermath of the La Mon firebomb in 1978 (which can be seen in the Ulster Museum collection, although readers should be wary that it does include a photograph of a burnt, and unidentified, body), are used to highlight the damage caused by the conflict. Both uses of photographs are political in nature. The first encourages readers to see the victims as people, not as soldiers, terrorists, freedom fighters, or police. The second highlights the damage done by paramilitary groups during the conflict as a challenge to the legitimacy of the political parties that historically represented them.

In writing about conflict, war, and violence we must always be aware of the impact that our writing will have on our readers. The same is true when we select images or footage to illustrate or accompany our scholarship. A photograph of the remains of a building or of the wounded following a bombing might be provocative and so generate impact. Yet, crucially, it can also re-traumatise those who experienced that event, or similar events. The images we see as researchers, writers, columnists or documentarians are of historical value. It is vital that we bear in mind, however, that for many within Northern Ireland they are a reminder of the day they were wounded or the day they lost a loved one.  Of course, it is never possible to mitigate all risks: if people are online, or read the newspapers, they will encounter such images.  Consequently, I believe that if we are to use them it is important that we provide ample warning for the reader before the photograph appears.

When deployed, images derived from the conflict can also frame the memory and perception of the conflict. Image searches for ‘the Troubles’ will produce photographs of soldiers; paramilitaries; gable end murals; and bombed out streets, all primarily in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry. Photographs of rural Northern Ireland, such as South Armagh and Fermanagh, during the conflict are comparatively rare. In my opinion, this has precipitated a skewed view of the ‘Troubles’ as primarily an urban conflict.

Events can become more vivid in the imagination and memory when accompanied by an image. Conversely, without an image they can be rendered less memorable. The ‘iconic’ images of the ‘Troubles’ draw attention to particular events and away from others and come to represent the whole conflict rather than just a part of a more complex story.[1] For example, most readers will know of the Remembrance Sunday bombing in my hometown of Enniskillen and the striking and disturbing images of that day, but how many know of aspects of the conflict in Co. Fermanagh beyond that event? This is not to say the existence, or non-existence, of photographs explains the hierarchies of attention within conflict memory, but they do colour how it is viewed in popular discourse.

The final, and most difficult, question is that of ownership. This question also pertains to wider of discussions of commemoration and memory. Does the image of the deceased belong to their family? Do they belong to the organisation they were affiliated with? Do they belong to their community? Or do they belong to the people of Northern Ireland? The answers to these questions are dependent on how you view the individual, their relationship to society, and on how you understand the conflict. Viewing the ‘Troubles’ as a shared tragedy that everyone in Northern Ireland suffered through can lead to the understanding that the dead are owned by everyone in society. However, for those who see the ‘Troubles’ in the wider context, in which localised tragedies happened to individuals and families, the dead are not owned by Northern Ireland’s society but by the individual’s local community. Undoubtedly, the image and, indeed the memory, of the individual will always be subject to competing claims of ownership and these claims can create tensions between and within groups.

I do not think that we should entirely abandon the use of images of the dead.  Nevertheless, researchers, journalists, documentarians and activists need to use them with care and with due consideration for all those who have suffered during the conflict. This is true for all images of the ‘Troubles’. It is our responsibility, as scholars, to think about why we need to use a particular image of the dead; if the value gained from using it outweighs the harm it might cause readers; and if we have the right, above and beyond the purely legal right, to use those images.

(Image: Enniskillen War Memorial
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © David Dixon – geograph.org.uk/p/5557985 )

[1] The editors of Writing the Troubles have made a similar observation. See James Bright, Thomas Dolan and Roseanna Doughty, ‘What do we mean by Public History? The view from Writing the “Troubles”’, Studia Hibernica, 46 (2020): 98-104, at p. 103.


Matthew Gault is an Anthropology PhD Student in the School of History, Anthropology, Politics and Philosophy at Queens University Belfast. He is researching the commemoration and memory of the conflict in rural Northern Ireland, primarily County Fermanagh. He previously worked within the Victims and Survivors sector for three years. He tweets at @MALGault.

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