The haunting images from Syria moved me to action

The media has a right - and even a duty - to publish graphic images.

What do you do when you see a picture of a toddler with his hands tied and his throat cut? A week ago on Saturday I was scrolling through the #Syria hashtag on my Twitter feed when pictures of the Houla massacre started coming through. That night I looked at many of them. I shook, sobbed but I kept looking. 

I’ve seen worse in the days since then: video footage not of dead children but of dying ones. A young boy, his throat slashed, appears to be dead but suddenly gasps for breath. Someone gently, so gently, undresses him. Another gasp, Then silence. A chubby baby in a nappy, bleeding from stab wounds, screams in agony. The screaming goes on and on. A tiny newborn lies still in its blanket, then gulps for air. Is still again, for a long time. Another gulp. But weaker now. 

There is enormous controversy about whether the media should publish this kind of material. In this country, they don't; last week’s Times front page showing a close up of dead boy was exceptional in every sense, but it did not show the physical destruction of a child’s body wreaked by shells, bullets and knives. That was left to Martin Fletcher’s extraordinary accompanying words  - and to read his simple description of the children’s corpses was to shudder and despair. 

But nothing he or I write conveys the violation of a child’s body slashed and stabbed and smashed that an image can sear into your understanding of what one human being can do to another.  Pictures and footage of Houla's dead and dying children - and the many others killed before them - can be seen on YouTube and via Twitter, and I think people should sometimes choose to look.

I look out of respect, because that child felt terror and pain; for me, to look at that image - or watch footage of their terrible dying - is to begin the process of attempting to acknowledge what they went through, to fully know that until minutes before they had been laughing and squabbling and refusing to eat their tea just as my children do, and to value the incalculably precious life that has been stolen from them. 

The media in some countries runs this kind of material as standard, and it leads to charges that people become inured to the horror of violent death. I’m sure that’s the case. The impact of the Times’s front page derives from the rarity of using such an image so prominently. I imagine the team which put that page together agonised about whether to go with that picture, or to use of the more graphic ones, or indeed to show an image of a dead child at all. 

In this country, we don’t face the prospect of being killed in our own homes and streets. We rarely confront the prospect or consequence of violent death. Our unfamiliarity is a privilege - seeing it occasionally, though it’s nothing like living it, makes others’ pain harder to ignore. 

My pain on looking is, by comparison, of no relevance - except, importantly, in terms of what such feelings might galvanise me to do. Looking - and choosing to keep looking - at this kind of image must prompt action, else it becomes not only emotionally devastating but ultimately pornographic and disrespectful.

I've not known what to do for months now, but last Saturday night, I knew I had to do something or I would always be ashamed.

On Sunday 10 June, at noon till 2pm, the 'Stop Killing Children' protest will be held outside the Syrian embassy, 8 Belgrave Square, London. Please join us. Bring your kids. It's not enough. I don't know what is. But doing something must be better than doing nothing. And without me seeing those pictures, this wouldn’t be happening.

Follow protest updates on #stopkillingSyrianchildren and on the Facebook Event page (which includes some of the type of imagery described in this column)

Protestors chant slogans against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as they carry a mock coffin. Photograph: Getty Images.

Louise Tickle is a specialist education and social affairs journalist.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.