Hannah Bass on Frontline: a year of journalism and conflict

2011 was an incredible year for news. Unrest across the world was organised via social media and often documented by citizens using little more than mobile phones. Rolling news bombarded us with grainy footage of protests and kilings. Now a new exhibition, sponsored by Sky News, looks back on a year of reporting violence.

Frontline: A Year of Journalism and Conflict, at Somerset House, collects photography and video from Egypt, Syria, Libya, and the London riots. iPads offer visitors interviews with journalists and a glimpse behind the scenes of war reporting.
The Libyan civil war produced images that were disturbing and often difficult to verify or understand. This culminated in the amateur footage of Gaddafi himself, bloodied, and brutalised at the end of his life. The way the uprising was experienced by both Libyans and onlookers abroad raised questions about how we view images of physical suffering and death.

Alex Crawford’s reportage is a highlight of the exhibition. Her Sky News report from the Zawiyah massacre in early March was the first evidence of Gaddafi killing his own people.

The scenes she filmed in a makeshift hospital are of bloody chaos. Children scream with pain; men are haphazardly bandaged and left in corridors. Meanwhile, a still photograph shows a baby girl with a gunshot to the stomach, her body mercifully covered with a sheet. Other photographs simply show the hospital floor, spattered with blood and scattered with discarded instruments.
Attacking soldiers, the reporter tells us, are among the wounded. The doctors, scared to show their faces on camera, are a quiet presence, just gloved hands trying to make order from madness.

The ethics of war reporting throw up difficult questions. I found myself wondering whether, for example, the British media would show such graphic images of white Westerners’ bodies? Was this footage dehumanising?

But we see the rebels themselves photographing each other’s injuries and displaying their own for the news cameras. Libya was suddenly open to the foreign media and the documenting of death and atrocities against the body was central to its liberation.

The exhibition avoids using any images that are compositionally “beautiful.” Notably, the hospital scenes are just a frenzied montage with minimal narration from Crawford. There is no analysis, and no attempt to make sense of the destruction of bodies. This seems, in a curious way, the most sensitive decision.

On television these rolling images represented a reality where violence has become everyday. Here, in the dark tomblike bowels of Somerset House, they have a different impact. They become a recording of human pain and tragedy of which we still cannot make sense.

In a separate room, which bears a warning for sensitive visitors, the gruesome footage of Gaddafi’s death plays. It’s a stark contrast to the Sun’s front page at the time, which splashed the picture of his corpse with the headline “That’s for Lockerbie.”

The decision to use the footage was controversial. I had felt squeamish about a human body being used as morbid trophy. Journalists on the film argue that war isn’t sanitised and neat and the public shouldn’t be hidden from that reality.

But the most compelling argument is that the corpse was the news. The body of Gaddafi, the monstrous cartoon dictator, had come to mean more than a human body. Documenting its destruction was central to the Libyan people’s understanding of their own conflict. The body was later put on display and crowds of Libyans queued up to photograph it on their mobile phones.
The exhibition allows us time and space to consider footage which, at the time, flooded our screens without pause. But Gaddafi’s is still the only dead body which the news or the exhibition tries to make sense of. As for the chaos in the hospitals and the bodies in the street, the cameras can only bear witness.

Frontline: A Year of Journalism and Conflict is at Somerset House from 12 January to 5 February. Admission is free.