This past week I’ve been in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It’s been about a decade since I was last here, and in the interim the country has concluded a nasty war against the LTTE , the Tamil independence movement, and a new, fragile reconciliation government has come into power. So naturally I’ve been thinking about the war, its aftermath, and inevitably how it was depicted. The images that come to mind are neither the genre war photos of soldiers discharging guns, nor the social landscape imagery of silent battlefields, such as the Roger Fenton image of the Crimean War.
Instead I primarily recall satellite images, of the last remaining territory controlled by the LTTE, on the Northeast coast. Provided by the UN agency UNOSAT, for sale from commercial satellite operators, and also visible in Google Earth at lower resolution, these images show houses, schools, hospitals, roads, first intact, and then destroyed.
As the war drew toward its conclusion, in May 2009, a civilian population living in Mulattivu District collected in a protected “Civilian Safety Zone.” A comparison of satellite images subsequently showed intense bombing of that area, with visible craters, damaged buildings, and over 1300 grave sites. These photos are evidence of the location of shells falling, buildings targeted, populations shifted. There are extensive, detailed published analyses of these images and their meaning, pointing to possible war crimes.
We typically claim to find meaning in these images for their forensic value, and their descriptive power primarily evidentiary, not aesthetic, or narrative. And yet, just as with images of bodies holding guns and moving through space, or of images of fields, forests plains and mountains that became battlefields for a time, these indistinct, degraded and often blurry depictions of the earth’s surface, gridded over with lines of longitude and latitude, elaborated with arrows, demarcations, and notations, also lay claim to our imagination.