About Those Photos of Little Girls and Artillery Shells …

Photographs of Israeli children doodling on artillery rockets have inspired strong reactions across the world. But what's the story behind the photos?

(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner;
click for larger image)

(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner;
click for larger image)

The sweet-faced little Israeli girls drawing with markers have their hair in pigtails. It makes it all the more shocking, then, that they are doodling on artillery shells — shells about to be aimed at Lebanon, where several hundred civilians have been killed in the past few days. Any photographer would be out of his mind not to capture this shot. It’s a lot of things at once: the very image of innocence playing with a tool of death and destruction; a sad comment on the culture of war; a view of Israelis that we don’t often see in the West, where pictures of young Palestinian children wearing fake suicide bomb belts are a more common sight.

No wonder, then, that those photographs, taken by Associated Press photographer Sebastian Scheiner, showed up everywhere — from the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News to smaller papers like the Memphis Commercial Appeal, not to mention all over the blogosphere.

You don’t need to be Susan Sontag to know that images of war always present us with a problem of representation. They are usually emotionally charged, bloody, wrenching, and almost always presented with no real context. What are we looking at? The man screaming in grief or pain. The dead child amidst the rubble. The father throwing his body over the lifeless corpse of his son. What we receive in these moments is more than just news; it’s a jolt of emotion, be it anger, despair, or frustration.

To look at the way the photos of the little girls have been used by bloggers is to understand how this enigmatic image — Who are these children? Where are their parents? Why are they so close to weaponry? — has become emblematic for many people opposed to the Israeli assault. For those pathologically inclined to hate Israel no matter what, it is a confirmation of all the worst fantasies they have about Jewish society. Most of the Web sites expounding this view have interpreted the photos as Israeli children sending a message to Lebanese children, and have even placed them next to shots of dead Lebanese children, sometimes with a caption such as, “Dear Lebanese/Palestinian/Arab/Muslim/Christians — Kids, Die with love. Yours, Israeli Kids.”

But reality is always more complicated (and infinitely more interesting) than propaganda, and it’s worth understanding the provenance of these photos, at least as an example of how much we miss when we react emotionally to pictures that are intended to get us riled up. Luckily, Israeli blogger Lisa Goldman has done this work on her blog, On the Face. She tracked down Scheiner, the AP photographer who snapped the shots, but he wouldn’t talk on the record. So she got an account instead from a reporter for Yediot Aharanot, an Israeli daily, who was at the scene.

For the full story, you must visit her blog, but, in a nutshell, the children are from Kiryat Shmona, a community that is smack on the border with Lebanon. And as Goldman explains it:

“There was not a single person on the streets and all the businesses were closed. The residents who had friends, family or money for alternate housing out of missile range had left, leaving behind the few who had neither the funds nor connections that would allow them to escape the missiles crashing and booming on their town day and night. The noise was terrifying, people were dying outside, the kids were scared out of their minds and they had been told over and over that some man named Nasrallah was responsible for their having to cower underground for days on end.”

They had just spent the last five days underground in a bomb shelter and this was the first time they had come up for some air. A new army unit had arrived in town, attracting a lot of media attention, and the children and their parents gathered around the missiles. It was the parents who wrote a few messages, then, as Goldman relates it, “the photographers gathered around. Twelve of them. Do you know how many that is? It’s a lot. And they were all simultaneously leaning in with their long camera lenses, clicking the shutter over and over. The parents handed the markers to the kids and they drew little Israeli flags on the shells. Photographers look for striking images, and what is more striking than pretty, innocent little girls contrasted with the ugliness of war? The camera shutters clicked away, and I guess those kids must have felt like stars, especially since the diversion came after they’d been alternately bored and terrified as they waited out the shelling in their bomb shelters.”

Goldman writes, “perhaps the parents were not wise when they encouraged their children to doodle on the tank shells. They were letting off a little steam after being cooped up — afraid, angry and isolated — for days. Sometimes people do silly things when they are under emotional stress. Especially when they fail to understand how their childish, empty gesture might be interpreted.”

We give space to this story only because it helps explain the birth of one particular wartime picture that has already had ramifications. Goldman puts it best when she says, “I wonder why it is so difficult to … get it into our heads that television news and photojournalism manipulate our thoughts and emotions.”

We don’t necessarily think that’s a willful manipulation, nor are we suggesting suppressing certain strong images. What we would suggest, however, is that editors think not just about the emotional response certain photographs can elicit, but also about whether in any given case they have supplied readers with the information they need to really understand what it is they are seeing.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.