WAYS OF SHOWING PEACE (III): Peace images and complexity

There is an abundance of possibilities to visualize peace. Take, as just two examples, The Global Peace Photo Award[i] and The German Peace Prize For Photography[ii]. Both awards unite under one umbrella diverse images, representing various photographic aesthetics as well as political messages. It is not always possible to pinpoint what these images have in common, what could characterize them as “images of peace”.

Maybe we are mistaken in our underlying wish to judge an image for its peaceful potentialities, in our wish to be able to say, “this is an image of peace”. But perhaps this is possible after all. Not in a generalizing and everlasting way, of course, but by establishing possible criteria for such an assessment. These criteria, by all means, do not aim to present a gold standard, but rather function as a heuristic element, a tool to guide our reflections on these images.

In the first episode of Ways of Showing Peace, we argued that “if a sense of peace prevails, individuals and groups of people tend to do things they would not do in the absence of a sense of peace”. And we concluded that such activities can be visually documented. In Ways of Showing Peace II, we put forward that whether a sense of peace prevails or not, then, depends on an individual’s perspective, experiences and understanding of peace. In short: “while some observers may stress that, to them, a certain sense of peace prevails, others may disagree.” Thus, showing peace is a complex endeavor, changing and evolving over time while always simultaneously offering diverse options, not all of which are mutually supportive.

In recent years, more and more people express the idea that the world is becoming more complex. The point here is not to discuss whether the degree of complexity of our social reality has increased in fact or not but, rather, that this very observation – that it has become commonplace to refer to the world’s growing complexity – reveals an increasing perception of such a complexity.

Indeed, decision making is becoming increasingly difficult. The awareness of a growing number of exceptions to the rule, the questioning of taken-for-granted categories, the declining authority of institutions defining a dominant (or hegemonic) understanding of the world; all these aspects impact on an individual’s knowledge of the world and the ability to navigate in this complex environment. Returning to the search for an image of peace, one must acknowledge that other people’s diverging life experiences may challenge how we picture peace and might even question our understanding of good/evil, right/wrong, war/peace and other organizing as well as regulative binaries.

In violent conflicts, the complexity of social reality is commonly reduced. Narratives and stories surrounding a conflict become simplified as such simplification promises assurance and predictability in an environment characterized by the opposite. Conflict fosters in-group coherence at the expense of its relationship to out-groups, rather than functioning as “an integrating component of the relationship”[iii].

Conflict resolution scholar Sara Cobb suggests in her work on the mediation of conflict narratives that reducing complexity by silencing the narratives of the Other leads to a “flattening of the Other”, what she considers a “narrative form of dehumanization”[iv]. In her writing, Cobb calls for narratives that have a humanizing effect “through the process of revealing or unveiling the complexity of the people, as persons, as human beings”[v].

We therefore advocate the embracement of complexity: the “celebration of difference”[vi], thus working “with difference and not by reducing difference”[vii], allowing for a variety of perspectives and interpretations rather than reducing complexity to a very limited number of options. However, working with difference implies critical and self-reflective engagement.

What does that indicate for the judgement of images regarding their peaceful potentialities? We want to suggest thinking about images of peace in terms of their relation to the complexity of social life. Helpful questions might be: Does an image tell us anything new? Does it display a perspective that is commonly underrepresented in (visual) discourse? Do we gain a better understanding of social relations, possibly regarding a conflict, that is, one that reflects its complex dynamics? Does it render the complex dynamics behind a certain social conflict more visible? Does it challenge the tendency to simplification underlying much published photojournalistic work? Does it help us understand that in complex situations, there is never just one cause and there is never just one path to resolution?   

As a matter of course, there will certainly be different views on whether an image contributes to a complexification of our understanding of social reality, whether it adds further layers and perspectives. Ideally, however, such an image kicks off a conversation and a discussion – an exchange of ideas from which new perspectives might emerge including peaceful ones transforming, perhaps, images of peace into images for peace. Further research and thinking are nonetheless required to establish more accurately at what time a visual narrative can be considered to contribute to a more complex representation of our environment.

See also:

Ways of Showing Peace (I): Reflections on the visualization of peace

Ways of Showing Peace (II): Visualizing Contested Peace

[i], accessed on February 17, 2022.

[ii], accessed on February 17, 2022.

[iii] Coser, Lewis (1956) The Functions of Social Conflict. New York: The Free Press, p. 80.

[iv] Cobb, Sarah (2013) Speaking of Violence: The Politics and Poetics of Narrative in Conflict Resolution. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 59.

[v] ibid: p. 200.

[vi] George, Jim & David Campbell (1990) Patterns of Dissent and the Celebration of Difference: Critical Social Theory and International Relations. International Studies Quarterly 34(3): 269–293.

[vii] Couldry, Nick (2000) Inside Culture: Re-imagining the Method of Cultural Studies. London: Sage, pp. 21-22. emphases in original.