Each morning I pick up my phone and flinch slightly before tentatively opening Instagram. Some weeks ago I decided I had to follow Motaz Azaiza, a 24-year-old photographer working on the ground in Gaza, where he lives. Some 15m others have made the same decision, which probably makes Azaiza one of the most influential journalists in the world just now.
I’m pretty sure all 15m of us flinch before we see Azaiza’s daily stream of images.
Here’s a young girl stuck under the rubble of her destroyed house after reportedly being bombed by Israeli warplanes. In a piece of pure chiaroscuro—you could be looking at a Caravaggio—a light illuminates her face. She is still alive, but her situation looks mortal. There’s no such heightened art in another: simply a woman’s arm protruding from a heap of rubble and dust. Or a video of a charred child, one leg missing, jerking his head near a roadside gutter.
Some are so upsetting that Azaiza seems to have subsequently deleted them. I will not forget the young boy in his football strip breathing his last gasps alone on the floor of an overcrowded hospital. Nor the multiple human shapes visible under tons of collapsed concrete.
There is a film of Azaiza cradling two bloodied babies in a car as they speed to find some sort of help. And, in a separate reel, there is another young baby in Azaiza’s arms. But there’s no hope for this one. The caption simply describes how someone knocked on the window of the ambulance in which he was travelling and “put this little martyr baby in my arms.”
“Admittedly,” wrote the Rev Giles Fraser, of BBC Moral Maze fame, recently, “facing the truth is often impossibly demanding, especially when the truth is as distressing as this is.”
Only Fraser wasn’t writing about Azaiza’s images; he was one of a selected audience in London invited to a private screening of Bearing Witness, the Israel Defence Forces’s hastily assembled 47-minute compilation of footage taken during the Hamas massacre on 7th October.
Fraser described his terrible shock at what he saw. “Ten minutes in, I started to shake... [Later], in the small hours, there was little protection from all those images: the beheadings, the children crying out for “abba” as their father was murdered before their eyes, the sheer joy with which Hamas hunted down and slaughtered their victims, the lifeless bodies of children in their Mickey Mouse pyjamas, the contortions of the dying, the endless pools of blood.”
Only a fool would try to find any kind of equivalence in these two representations of what has happened in Israel and Gaza these past few weeks. There are unspeakable horrors and atrocities on both sides. A moral maze indeed.
Phillip Knightley’s 1975 landmark history of war journalism, The First Casualty, described the high water of access to the battlefront in Vietnam, where professional photographers roamed freely, sometimes jostling with “mercenary journalists”, a few interested in reporting, some “there for the thrill.”
But, in the decades since, war zones have gradually been cordoned off from outside scrutiny. The conventional military playbook—and not only with authoritarian regimes—doesn’t invite witnesses to slaughter and destruction until after the shooting is over.
I remember the shock in the first Iraq War—where visual imagery had generally been controlled and/or sanitised—when the Observer published a grotesque photograph of a charred skeletal Iraqi corpse in a truck which had been blasted from the skies by American top guns.
No other western news organisation used the picture, which became the inspiration for Tony Harrison’s powerful anti-war poem “A Cold Coming”, itself echoing Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”. It was too shocking.
But here in 2023 we have Azaiza resolutely refusing to allow us to ignore what is going on in Gaza—“the contortions of the dying, the endless pools of blood,” to quote Giles Fraser in a parallel context.
As it happens, Azaiza shoots with professional cameras and drones. But there are numerous fellow residents who are capturing the wreckage and slaughter with camera phones—and publishing the images on social media. Citizen journalism as it was meant to be.
There’s no question that Palestine is “winning” the asymmetric war on TikTok, X and Instagram. Is that because of skewed algorithms, as some have suggested, or does it represent a global revulsion at the unhideable reality of the war, just or not, that Bibi Netanyahu’s government is inflicting on the population of Gaza?
The Times columnist Gerard Baker asked his readers to speculate whether the allies in the Second World War could possibly have won “if German deaths in 1944 had been reported like those in Gaza.”
It’s a reasonable piece of hypothetical history. How long would the First World War have lasted if our lads had been able to deploy iPhones and TikTok instead of relying on Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon to spread the word about the pity of war? How long would the British and German publics have supported the carnage?
If the First World War had been drastically shortened because (to quote the headline over Baker’s piece) “media onslaught makes winning wars harder”, there might have been no Treaty of Versailles, and no Second World War. Good thing, or bad thing, hypothetically speaking?
Around 50 Palestinian journalists have been killed in Gaza since 7th October, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The work Motaz Azaiza is doing is ridiculously dangerous. His images are so raw and unfiltered they are almost unbearable.
But I am glad he is there, bearing witness, just as I am glad the IDF has assembled the equally painful evidence of the murderous acts that Hamas wrought on 7th October.
And so long as Motaz Azaiza is there, risking death on a daily basis, I feel an obligation each day to ignore my urge to flinch and to confront his heart-rending and horrific photographs on Instagram.
It is, quite literally, the least I can do.