“’Images of peace’ … They are indeed hard to find. Or better: they are easy to find, but hard to sell,” the filmmaker and photographer Wim Wenders observed in January 2006 in a long conversation with the writer and philosopher Mary Zournazi, documented in Inventing Peace (p. 38).
When images of peace can easily be found, what do they look like? And what do Wenders and Zournazi mean by peace?
Zournazi’s suggests thinking of peace in terms of “being peace” – a term meant to contain “individual peace and calm, the spiritual sense of it and more global dimensions of its possibility.” To which Wenders responds by asking: “what about letting it [peace] INCLUDE discord, tension, controversy etc. if only and as long as ‘peace’ remains the common denominator?”
For Zournazi, peace is even broader than that: “it has within it love and violence.” It’s dialectical rather than either/or. And she wonders:
Zournazi: Can images contain this peace? Can stories or film do so? Are poetry and painting the only true forms of peace where we can get closer to the truth?
Wenders: It’s easy for poetry to claim the territory of peace. Words can define the world in a nutshell. Images can’t. They always lead to other images. There is a worldwide convention, an agreement, a pact, on what words mean, isn’t there? (That’s why contracts are made of words…) Yet there is no accord whatsoever on what images mean. They don’t ‘mean’, to begin with! They ‘imply’, ‘suggest’, ‘hint’ or whatever … You can right away start a new conflict when you want to ‘define’ what images really mean. In a culture that is more and more image driven, where ‘the word’ loses its grip on all levels, it is no wonder that ‘the truth’ gets so fuzzy.
Peace is the most serious denial of war as an option to deal with conflict. […] Peace is convincing. Peace is contagious. Peace starts with listening… (pp. 38–39)
We would like to join this conversation with three remarks:
1 Regarding the alleged “worldwide convention … on what words mean,” we would like to add that, according to Pedro Lagoa, in classical antiquity “written narratives … were seen as subject to multiple interpretations, distortions, and transformations, depending on the time and situation, economic imperatives or the whims of political and religious leaders. This distrust was further reinforced by the fact that the system of notation and punctuation used was prone to ambiguities in reading, making it extremely difficult to interpret the texts ‘correctly’.” (Pedro Lagoa, in Ana Catarina Pinho, ed., Reframing the Archive, Porto: Archivo Press, 2021, p. 32.)
In short, written texts encountered as much suspicion then as images encounter nowadays. Thus, Wenders’s convention regarding words is as much a social construction as is the lack of such a convention regarding images. And the world of words is certainly much more complicated than Wenders implies.
2 That “You can right away start a new conflict when you want to ‘define’ what images really mean” shouldn’t be a problem when peace, with Wenders, is understood as including “discord, tension, controversy etc.” Here, Wenders re-establishes the misleading peace–conflict dichotomy that he suggested deconstructing earlier in the conversation.
3 “Peace starts with listening,” and looking, we would like to suggest, helps us listen precisely by starting a new conflict about the meaning(s) assigned to an image. Conflict has social functions and it can be positive for a relationship, provided that the basic foundations on which this relationship rests are respected, or in Wenders’s words, “as long as ‘peace’ remains the common denominator.”
The problem, thus, is not to define – or to try to understand – what an image ‘means’ to us in a given social situation but, rather, to demand agreement with our understanding on the part of others – to impose our point of view on others and, by doing so, delegitimizing their points of view.
During a conflict, conflict narratives tend to become simplified; images, and conversations about images, help re-complexify such narratives, thereby contributing to both a more adequate representation and a better understanding of the conflict.
Different individuals and different group of people are likely to assign different meanings to (what seems to be) the same image and all of them – not only others but we, too – use the meaning thus constructed to support their/our interests, identities, and policies.
Talking about different meanings helps us see images through the eyes of others.
Back to Wenders, then:
Seeing through someone else’s eyes is certainly a very important lesson,
or call it a ‘tool of perception’,
In any confrontation or dialogue,
but especially in any peace process.
To be open to a different point of view, literally,
and thereby allow yourself to adopt another person’s perspective,
understand the thinking, the suffering, the pain or satisfaction,
shortly: the very existence of another being … (p. 121)
Wim Wenders and Mary Zournazi, Inventing Peace: a Dialogue on Perception (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013)