Before and After Images: Eyal Weizman’s The Image Complex


Photography extract from Decoding video testimony, Miranshah, Pakistan, March 30, 2012 © Forensic Architecture in collaboration with SITU Research.

The city is a varied sensorial field that has particular ways of sensing and documenting war.  Buildings register impact or blast force; infrastructural systems the rate of circulation and flow; orchards and fields in the agricultural outskirts of cities record the movement of vehicles.  People remember and bear witness to their encounters, sometimes capturing the events that surround them and uploading the image files online.

Image-making capabilities are spread among all the participants of contemporary conflict. Militaries employ satellite and drone mounted sensors, helmet mounted cameras as well as optical heads on guided munitions: ‘kamikaze’ witnesses that crash onto their subjects. Beyond purely operational use, images can be produced automatically, by machines for machines, to facilitate military operations and footage can also be used for propaganda purposes. For example, selective sections are released strategically to communicate the bit of reality that the military considers useful to advocate its position.

Satellite imagery has, since the beginning of the new millennium, become commercially available for public consumption in gradually increasing resolution. One of the most distinct features of satellite images is that they are taken from a space beyond the vertical extent of the state’s sovereignty – national airspace is capped by the lowest possible orbit a satellite can travel along, an altitude that has never been specified because the range of some low-orbit spy satellites is kept secret.

When human rights organisations use satellite imagery to monitor conflict, they undertake the same cold war era practice that satellites were designed to perform: the gathering of intelligence about foreign states from beyond their own borders. This need of human rights monitoring ‘to peer behind the walls of national sovereignty’ especially ‘in countries that are sealed off from [their] researchers’ quite literally mirrors the universal ambitions of the movement: that the principles of human rights are above those of state sovereignty.

When a crisis occurs, commercial providers align the orbits of image satellites to cover ‘regions of interest.’ Operating like photographic agencies they hope to sell their images to organisations or state agencies. Anyone that can afford it can now buy a satellite photograph from available image banks, or ‘task’ a satellite to align its orbit to pass over specific sites at specific times (for several tens of thousand USD).

The photographic resolution in which satellite images are made publicly available is reduced for both privacy and secrecy reasons and masks the human figure within the square of a single pixel. State institutions, such as the police or intelligence agencies, have access to the full resolution of these photographs, as well as to data from other undisclosed sensors in them. They can also limit the public availability of certain images by ‘taking them off the shelf’ for a specified amount of time.

“We can no longer rely on what is captured in single images, but rather on what we call ‘image complexes’: a time-space relation between dozens, sometimes hundreds of images and videos that were generated around incidents from multiple perspectives including ground, air and outer space.”

Additionally, on average it takes commercial image-satellites ninety minutes to orbit the earth during which time the planet has also rotated.  They are therefore unable to photograph the same site for another 24 hours, making it very difficult to capture specific incidents as they unfold. The fact that neither events nor people can be registered, shifts the viewer’s focus from the figure (such as in a photojournalistic representation of an individual in action) to the ground (changes in the built environment, the urban fabric or landscape).

From the satellite’s orbit, incidents could be represented as material transformations, changes and variations on the cover of the earth. The human event is thus read in the ‘event of architecture’ – a constantly shifting relation between people and the environment they inhabit or destroy. This brings an architectural or archaeological gaze upon conflict, neither of which are earthly material practices, but rather tuned to material transformations captured in images.

Incidents are mostly interpreted as a giant ‘spot the difference’ game undertaken between two or more images before and after the event. The ‘before’ photograph, often retrieved from the image archives of satellite companies, sets the baseline; the normal state, against which the ‘after’ image (often ‘tasked’ to repeat the same frame) can be studied as presenting differences and deviations.

The ‘after’ image is always the first to be retrieved making satellite image archives depositories of potential ‘befores’ to devastating ‘afters’ yet to come. The absence of the event from representation might be seen as analogous to the effects of trauma on memory. Psychological trauma erases or represses precisely those events that were hardest for the subject to experience.

Before and after images produce the most basic element of the filmic technique that Sergei Eisenstein called ‘dialectic montage’ – the juxtaposition of two shots that embody a certain conflict or tension between them. The political insight – just the missing event – cannot be captured in the images themselves but exists in the ‘gap’ between them. Juxtapositions of buildings with ruins, icebergs with water, tropical forests with mono-crop fields, present history as a series of catastrophes, and function as a call to action, thus making before and after images the very embodiment of ‘forensic time’.

For human rights researchers, citizen-produced images are the complementary technology to satellite imagery. If the latter misses the figure and captures only the ground, the former’s very logic is to focus on figures – on incidents and people. Some of the most important photographic resources from the battlefields of Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine are produced by the people living there and made available on social networks almost instantly.

These recordings mark new kinds of testimonies. Most often human rights groups, legal experts or documentarists collect testimonies post factum. User-generated footage is a form of testimony delivered in real time, as events unfold outside legal protocols and on the terms of those seeking them out. Many are like messages in a bottle – uploaded to the Internet in the hope somebody will see them. Each photograph or video record, with the two ends of the camera, both the event and something of the mental state of the individual recording the event. Rushed, blurred and erratic camera motions reveal the risk involved in taking these images. The Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué vividly demonstrated the price that such participation entails. During the early years of the Syrian revolt he collected videos posted on social media sites associated with the opposition. Some of them showed a repeating pattern: soldiers locking sight with the videographer, raising their gun, then, the fall of the camera to the ground.

The increase in the number of primary sources has expanded the perceptual field of conflict and allowed people to become non-armed participants rather than victims. But this expansion does not necessarily add clarity. Multiplying the perspectives on incidents helps dispel lies, but also enables new ones. User-generated images can equally be used in the service of accountability or for the spread of propaganda in a secondary conflict about authenticity, veracity and interpretation. The proliferation of such testimonies, and the risk involved in their taking, calls for a complementary practice of trawling through blogs and social media sites, engaged with verification, location, and the composition of a scene, using material from multiple perspectives.

Whereas recent debates in the field of photography and visual cultures have been concerned with the political relation of spectators to single images and trophy shots – the image’s ability to capture ‘the pain of others’ and its affectivity as a call for action – at present no single one of these modes is authoritative. Most often we can no longer rely on what is captured in single images, but rather on what we call ‘image complexes’: a time-space relation between dozens, sometimes hundreds of images and videos that were generated around incidents from multiple perspectives including ground, air and outer space.

Seeing with the ‘image complex’ is an active practice that requires construction. Assembling, archiving and composing the time-space relation between individual images can only be undertaken within virtual 3D models of the spaces in which the photographs or videos were taken. Architecture thus becomes useful not only as primary evidence, the object of analysis, but rather as an optical device, and as a way of seeing.

Eyal Weizman

This essay was featured in Loose Associations Vol.1, October 2015 – the new quarterly publication on photography and image culture from The Photographers’ Gallery. For more information visit our online bookshop

Eyal Weizman is an architect, professor and Director of the Centre for Research Architecture. In 2010 he founded Forensic Architecture – a multidisciplinary agency of architects, artists, filmmakers lawyers and scientists. They undertake spatial research in and of conflict zones and provide evidence for political groups, international prosecution teams, truth commissions, the UN and NGOs. These investigations are also the starting point for reflections on architecture, media, violence and law.

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