Were we to plot on a graph a case for an ethics of the depiction of violence, we might arrive at a formula for action, and even an aesthetically pleasing image. Perhaps a cartesian chart in which each decision falls into the appropriate quadrant, based on our metadata.
We know that to create a geometry of ethics we first should settle some underlying principles. Executions once required publics for their validation, to revisit Foucault’s old stomping ground. Depictions of killing, as with the casting of death masks, was a part of the spectacle. Yet in other contexts, especially in modern war, witnessing can be a crime.
In any case, a debate about ethics doesn’t seem to touch upon the many ways images of violence work upon us. For instance, years ago in Kazakhstan a local TV station broadcast a story about a woman who had allegedly murdered her infant, and then thrown the corpse out of the window into the snow. The station chose to show a close-up of the body, bruising and blood visible, and a wire wrapped around the neck. I don’t know whether the choice to show these images was based on a conviction that the crime needed public witnesses, or simply spectacle. But I can say that the image of the infant in the snow has stayed with me for years, and it has worked on me in ways I’m still trying to understand – an undercurrent of blood and emotion that feels like a prophecy.
I also wonder at how that image oddly repeats the gestures of another, famous photo of death in the snow, of the Soviet partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, who worked behind German lines near Moscow in 1941. Zoya was captured, tortured and hung. In the image her corpse lies naked, her torso partly mutilated, the rope still around her broken neck. Zoya was one of the most famous partisans of the war, celebrated and mythologized in the USSR with songs and statues. Although the details of the story and her actual identity remain contested, this photo of brutality is bound up with and inseparable from her fame.