Militant-published image credited to the AP in recent New York Times coverage of ISIS in Iraq.

Terrorism, as its name suggests, is about instilling fear. Terrorists strive for high body counts because they are interested in killing their targets, but also because brutal public bloodshed makes people more fearful of the presented threat. “Public” is a key word here. Terrorism that doesn’t announce itself is just murder, and while murder may check that first box of eliminating targets, it does not utilize those killings toward the broader goals of scaring people while recruiting fighters/inspiring lone wolves.

Scholars of terrorism write frequently about the public relations efforts of various terrorist factions. For an interesting look at the particular marketing activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham see J.M. Berger at The Atlantic. Blogs like Brown Moses and Phillip Smyth’s Hizballah Cavalcade writings at (the rest of that site is neat too but includes a lot of primary source documents in Arabic that I can’t read) also contain interesting analysis of jihadi media.

Photographs and videos often figure prominently in these discussions. They are a major means that jihadis use to document their activities and represent themselves, and the experts who follow extremist groups study these images to better understand the actors in play and to glean further information about the truth on the ground.

It has practically become a trope in contemporary discourses on photography that images which were once considered to be evidence of absolute facts are now known to be just as unreliable as, say, secondhand accounts of what alleged eyewitnesses said that they saw. The caption accompanying the Times photo carefully describes what the picture “appears” to show, and the article notes that the militants’ claims could not be verified and cites experts and officials who doubt the high number of purported casualties. Likewise, in this brief Politico piece about the recent ISIS-released pictures from Iraq, Aaron Zelin notes that “ISIS claimed it had killed more than 1,700 people, though the pictures account for a few hundred at most.”

Even if it does not represent objective truth, the above photo serves ISIS’ public relations apparatus by projecting a sense of confidence and power. The left third of the image is occupied by one militant’s arms, in a dual sense of the word. His open left hand directs viewers to enter into the scene, as if to say “check this out,” while his automatic rifle dominates the corner of the frame. The weapon emphasizes the insurgents’ strength and, by foregrounding the prisoners, underscores their helplessness in the hands of their captors.

Following the line of the fighter’s left arm, which encourages viewers to look, our eyes arrive first at the legs of (presumably) his comrade, which again reinforce who is in control. Then we are left in an uncertain place. There are bodies on the ground with their hands bound behind their backs. Since they are face down, we cannot distinguish individuals except for by their shirts and, given the blurred quality of the image, this is not particularly easy in places where several people wearing dark garments are lying together. At first, this leaves the eye with nothing else to settle on, until it floats down across the prisoners’ backs to the only fully visible face in the frame. This face, that of a young man who is suffering and perhaps trying to grapple with the prospect of being murdered, produces a kind of slippage in the delivery of ISIS’ message. Here is not a statistic, but an individual with whom the viewer (depending on who they are) can try to empathize. This person is powerless, but in this document they are present. This is not really a consolation, nor does it suggest that dominated subjects can necessarily assert themselves through the frame, but it does remind us of the ambiguous, even entropic nature of images.

Photography is and is not like language. Photographs have rhetorical aspects which can be interpreted as I have done briefly in this post, but they cannot quite be broken down like sentences whose constituent words can be isolated and defined. Instead of carrying meaning, the image is an isolated fragment torn out of context and offered as a suggestion that we look, for a moment, at what someone chose to capture with a camera.

Current technologies allow for the instant, widespread dissemination of photographic and video media which can be understood, at least in part, across traditional barriers of language and culture. While militant groups also release written documents or include spoken language in their videos, their images are especially powerful for their ability to be read globally, by people who have had no prior exposure to Arabic or jihadi ideology. However, like any other text, everyone does not read them the same way, and so the photographs, which were published by ISIS to assert the reality of their success, become spaces for confusion and contestation as citizens of the world look on and wonder what is really going on.

This photograph and the broader use of photography by extremist groups provide a good example of how new technologies and media allow more people to grow their megaphones and speak beyond their immediate environment. However, rather than resulting in a clarified situation wherein photography enables a utopian “common language” that connects the globalized world, the chaotic nature of images only creates further complexity as they are produced and read by various actors who view them through subjective, local eyes.