From Goya to Afghanistan. An essay on the ratio and ethics of medical war pictures

L.F.J.M. van Bergen, H. de Mare, F.J. Meijman

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For centuries pictures of the dead and wounded have been part and parcel of war communications. Often the intentions were clear, ranging from medical instructions to anti-war protests. The public's response could coincide with or diverge from the publisher's intention. Following the invention of photography in the nineteenth century, and the subsequent claim of realism, the veracity of medical war images became more complex. Analysing and understanding such photographs have become an ethical obligation with democratic implications. We performed a multidisciplinary analysis of War Surgery (2008), a book containing harsh, full-colour photographs of mutilated soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Our analysis shows that, within the medical context, this book is a major step forward in medical war communication and documentation. In the military context the book can be conceived as an attempt to put matters right given the enormous sacrifice some individuals have suffered. For the public, the relationship between the 'reality' and 'truth' of such photographs is ambiguous, because only looking at the photographs without reading the medical context is limiting. If the observer is not familiar with medical practice, it is difficult for him to fully assess, signify and acknowledge the value and relevance of this book. We therefore assert the importance of the role of professionals and those in the humanities in particular in educating the public and initiating debate. © 2010 Taylor & Francis.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)124-144
Number of pages21
JournalMedicine, Conflict and Survival
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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