Images and Text in War Zones: The problems of representation

By contributor Gordan Hak

On March 24, Dr. Debra Pentecost, Department of Media Studies, will give an illustrated talk beginning at 10 am in the Malaspina Theatre. The presentation is entitled “Beyond the Boundaries of Image and Text: Telling Difficult Stories” and is part of VIU’s long-running Arts & Humanities Colloquium Series.

Pentecost has long been interested in the challenges encountered by photojournalists and documentary filmmakers when trying to represent experiences of war, conflict, and trauma, and the innovative forms utilized to deal with the challenges of visualization. Her dissertation, produced at Simon Fraser University, is entitled “War Photojournalism and Audiences: Making Meaning from Tragic Moments.”

News12_Photo 3 - Arts Colloquium
Dr. Debra Pentecost will discuss Israeli director Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir in her exploration of photojournalism and storytelling.

In her thesis, Pentecost says, “[She] sought to explore the powers and limitations of war photojournalism to capture and convey, in still image form, the many experiences of living in war zones.” Since then, she has built on this base, investigating “creative and innovative approaches to the inherent limitations of the still and moving image, of the written text, and of spoken language.”

In telling difficult stories, photojournalists and documentary filmmakers face three challenges. “The first,” says Pentecost, “revolves around experiences difficult to represent, experiences thought to reside beyond the realms of representation, particularly in terms of renderings of extraordinary trauma. A second challenge involves ethical boundaries and content considered difficult to represent due to its disturbing nature. Third, there are challenges involved in giving visual expression to that which has been actively suppressed, often through political acts of erasure.”

Dr. Debra Pentecost will discuss acclaimed Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s lm The Missing Picture in her exploration of photojournalism and storytelling.
Dr. Debra Pentecost will discuss acclaimed Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture in her exploration of photojournalism and storytelling.

In exploring these issues, Pentecost will look at the work of three people. Susan Meiselas is an American documentary photographer who has published several books of her own photographs, and edited and contributed to others. She received the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1979, and in 2006 was awarded The Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal and Honorary Fellowship. It was her 1997 book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, that attracted Pentecost’s attention, because here Mieselas draws “from a multitude of sources, including the words and images of missionaries, anthropologists, military personnel, Kurdish photographers, newspaper stories, and her own photojournalistic work, to provide a more textured portrait of the history of the Kurdish people that visual imagery would be strained to convey.”

Israeli director Ari Folman is best known for his 2008 animated documentary film Waltz With Bashir. It is based on Folman’s memories of the aftermath of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, which took place when he was a 19-year-old soldier. The film follows his attempt to regain his memories of the war through therapy, as well as conversations with old friends and other Israelis who were present in Beirut around the time of the massacre.

Rithy Panh is an internationally- and critically-acclaimed Cambodian documentary film director and screen writer. The French-schooled director’s films focus on the aftermath of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Rithy Panh’s works come from an authoritative viewpoint; his family was expelled from Phnom Penh in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge. One after another, his father, mother, sisters, and nephews died of starvation or exhaustion, as they were held in a remote labour camp in rural Cambodia. What particularly intrigued Pentecost is Panh’s film The Missing Picture, because of “the innovative use of carved clay figurines set in elaborate tableaux to evoke visual expression of time and experiences that are no more.”

Debra Pentecost is the current Chair of the Department of Media Studies. She also teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, served for several years on the Board of Directors and Screening Committee of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver, and is an involved member of the housing co-operative where she lives.