Is the Flood of Graphic Imagery From Gaza Warping Our Perception of War?

There are 12 premature babies visible in this frame, laid out on two stretchers surrounded by bags of diapers, cardboard boxes, and plastic bags. Some are in diapers that their tiny bodies cannot hold up. Others are swaddled in what look like green surgical gowns. They look like little presents. Another photo shows more newborns on another bed insulated with aluminum foil. Some have spindly legs and bared ribs. The scene is so still that the only sign of life is with the two babies whose eyes are open.

Both photographs are dated November 12. By the time Israeli forces raided Al Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, on November 15, eight of the 39 premature babies in its neonatal care had died.

Considered the centerpiece of Gaza’s medical system, the hospital became a flashpoint in the crisis as Israeli forces began to target Gaza’s health infrastructure in their hunt for Hamas militants.

Amid the graphic scenes pouring out of besieged hospitals across the strip—of lifeless bodies under blankets, emergency care administered by cell phone light, and dusty and bloodied children—the newborns provided a rare anchor for a horrified and heartsick international audience to train its focus, and compassion.

Over the past seven weeks, Americans have been exposed to a kaleidoscopic view of human suffering without respite in the Israeli siege on Gaza. And in the melee of graphic images, they understand little of what they see, and engage even less with what they don’t.

The Israeli military offensive to destroy Hamas has been chronicled largely through scenes of carnage: first, from footage recorded by Hamas militants on October 7 as they breached Israel’s southern border and butchered 1,200 people—most of them unarmed civilians—and dragged 239 captives back into Gaza. Then, from Israel’s retaliatory campaign that has indiscriminately bombed residential areas, schools, hospitals, mosques, and churches every day since, killing more than 14,000 Palestinians and counting, including more than 5,500 children.

“I’ve never been more exposed to graphic imagery in my life,” said Ziyah Gafic, a photojournalist and director of the VII Photo, who grew up in Bosnia during wartime and has covered conflicts around the world throughout his career. “It’s a spectacle of violence that’s being streamed live, and it’s rightfully taking an emotional toll.”

Historically, public knowledge of war has been mediated through a camera lens, but there have always been standards guiding what the viewer sees, balancing a variety of competing interests and following an ethical guide star. Media organizations typically decide to show disturbing images based on their news value, deliberating whether an image endangers or disrespects the subjects or their families, or sensationalizes violence. In this crisis, the more pressing concern is how much horror the viewer can actually take.

This meticulous editing process is not happening on social media, where roughly half of Americans now get their news. There, the entire visual archive is accessible for anyone’s passive viewing. “I think it’s the sheer volume of unfiltered information that’s reaching [us],” said Gafic. “I’ve never seen that.”

In the first 72 hours after Hamas’s surprise attack, in lieu of official information, it was where many Israelis first discovered what happened: via the same social channels that Hamas used to share its violent videos of mostly Israeli victims being terrorized, tortured, and massacred. This was the only lens available to them: the eyes of the attackers. Many are now developing PTSD symptoms as they replay scenes from that day.

Those same platforms were also fertile ground for the sowing of disinformation and conspiracy theories, which achieved nothing in the way of news but helped to openly invited more panic—and aggression.

The voluminous cacophony put media outlets at a disadvantage. They struggled to sift through a ceaseless stream of misleading, doctored, and fake imagery and verify what was real, while simultaneously racing at the speed of social media to deliver their own reporting (which was not without its own errors).

In this disorienting visual landscape, where news content commingles with commerce, performance, propaganda, and deepfakes—where it’s all too easy to mistake one for another—users are tempted to challenge everything they see.

Even with verified images, most Americans don’t know how to interact with them beyond the split second it takes to register what’s happening in the scene, much less commit to thoughtfully engage with a bloated archive of violent scenes of death and suffering.

“We are wired to both want to look at that car wreck and know we need to keep our eyes on the road,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “When it comes to graphic news photos, a lot of the time, people respond either by simply being agitated or shutting down and not really wanting to pay attention to the stories at all.”

In a news environment oversaturated with traumatic imagery, the photograph becomes the first and last point of contact with current events. Only equipped to spectate, the public draws quick conclusions.

“The idea of journalism was [to] engage people, open up ideas, and they[’ll] figure it out for themselves,” said Fred Ritchin, dean emeritus of the International Center of Photography. “Now it’s like we’ve had enough of that.”

It is a phenomenon we’re feeling keenly here in the United States since October 7, with reported incidents of harassment, assault, and murder spurred by news coverage of the crisis. Both antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise, and the loudest participants in the public discourse are often participants in one of these strains of bigotry or the other.

“Images, more and more, are used as a kind of incitement to violence rather than a revelation of it,” said Susie Linfield, a journalism professor at New York University and author of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Instead of engaging with scenes of agony and ruin with empathy, said Linfield, “what I fear is that people … are becoming addicted to the violence of the images without thinking about what’s behind them.”

In the early days of the siege, President Biden cited images of beheaded babies in committing his support for Israel against the “utter depravity” of Hamas. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “I never really thought that I would see and have confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children.” But he did—and had—neither: An administration official later clarified that the president never saw any such photos, nor did he have any confirmed reports of decapitated infants.

He didn’t need them, anyway; like everyone else on the internet, he had access to Hamas’s body camera footage that recorded the executions of children, families, and the elderly, and at least 32 Americans. But as journalist Rami Khouri noted in Al Jazeera, decapitated infants added perhaps the most visceral dimension to a familiar U.S. foreign policy narrative: “that Washington supports good guys with high national values, and fights bad guys whose actions are brutal, even savage, and must be eradicated.”

The president was quick to discourage conflating “Palestinians” with “Hamas” in official remarks, but when pressed about the rising death toll, he seeded suspicion, falling back on a well-worn Islamophobic trope that vilifies Palestinians as inherently dishonest: “I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using” (referring to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, an agency in the Hamas-controlled government, which has been tallying those killed and injured).

It’s worth noting that Gaza has no defense forces of its own to protect the civilian population, and while Hamas controls the strip—as Israeli and U.S. leadership have repeatedly highlighted with their charge that the group uses civilians as “human shields”—protecting Gazans is not its priority, and the group has made no claim to abide by international conventions. Palestinians too were among those slain by Hamas on October 7.

“I’m sure innocents have been killed,” Biden said on October 25. “It’s the price of waging a war.” On that day, the death toll was around 6,500, and families in Gaza were reportedly resorting to buying bracelets for their children, or writing their names across their arms, so that their bodies—or body parts—could be identified after an airstrike and avoid burial in the mass graves.

It would take hundreds, if not thousands, of verified images of dead Palestinians—including of infants and children—before the president would begin to change his messaging.

The U.S. maintains that there are no red lines for Israel, a public posturing that has drawn intense criticism as well as internal opposition, but the president privately warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that imagery showing women and children being pulled from the rubble would erode support for its offensive, pushing him for longer pauses in fighting.

Then came the potent images of the newborns, who could not be denied their innocence or victimhood.

“There’s something about the mass of them that’s also very disturbing,” said Saree Makdisi, author of Tolerance is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial. “They’re just splayed out like fish in a market. That’s not how humans should be. Why has any batch of babies been reduced to this animalized status?”

Perhaps that’s why their images were so arresting: Theirs depicted a scene not immediately recognizable as one of war, nor one of chaos, but rather of anticipation. Outside their incubators, the newborns were exposed to an unsterilized environment: Medical supplies had run out. There was no food or clean water to mix with their formula, and the very air they breathed was tainted with dust from the explosions and gunfire encasing the complex. It appeared as if it were only a matter of time before they stopped breathing.

In American media, the newborns quickly became icons of the widespread suffering in Gaza since the Israeli offensive began—and their besieged first home, Al Shifa, the lone symbol of war.

After the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, raided the hospital, drawing international condemnation (and, it was later revealed, jeopardizing hostage negotiations), Israel fell under immense pressure to provide imagery that could counter the images of needless suffering from within that hospital, bearing the burden of proof to show that Al Shifa was the “beating heart” of Hamas operations. What evidence it has provided thus far has fallen short—at least, in the eyes of public opinion.

While far from impervious to international criticism—especially coming from its closest ally—the Israeli offensive is propelled by different imagery: the atrocities committed on October 7, the single deadliest day since the founding of the Jewish state.

From Hamas’s cell phone, GoPro, and dashcam video, as well as other sources, the IDF created a 43-minute video depicting the graphic killing or remains of 138 people from that pogrom-like assault. They then held private screenings (consented to by the victims’ families) for media and other exclusive groups to show the scenes that they cannot afford to have repeated and to dissuade journalists from any false equivalency between them and Hamas.

Eventually the same graphic scenes became more widely distributed: Hollywood hosted screenings of its own among industry members, both to assert the very real horror of the massacres on October 7 and to counter waning support for Israel’s offensive. Wall Street and Hollywood billionaires have also joined the effort, brainstorming a $50 million media blitz to “get ahead of the narrative” as attention pivoted toward the suffering of Gazans, Semafor reported. Senior IDF officers would also utilize their video in private briefings with members of U.S. Congress as calls for a cease-fire became more numerous on Capitol Hill.

Other graphic material captured in the aftermath of October 7 has appeared in State of Israel social media accounts: Rolling Stone reported that images of dead infants were used as promoted ads on X (formerly Twitter), targeting Americans’ and Europeans’ sympathies.

The spectacle of barbarism became the cornerstone of Israel’s case not only for self-defense but also for retribution: a thousand eyes for an eye.

“Israel is fighting not only its war, but humanity’s war against the barbarians,” Netanyahu said at a press conference in late October. “Our allies … know that if we do not win, they are next in line in the campaign of conquest and murder from the axis of evil.”

“[This is] how horrific historical atrocities happen,” said Julia Bacha, creative director of Just Vision, a nonprofit media organization that “fills a media gap on Israel-Palestine through independent storytelling and strategic audience engagement.”

“We have allowed our fear to become so overwhelming that it takes control of our ability to see another person as a human of equal value to ourselves.”

Such is the task before viewers: to sustain our seeing, and extend compassion to those in our gaze—in a visual regime that supports neither.

In this deeply polarizing crisis, the public are challenged not only to believe what they see is real but to recognize the full humanity of those pictured—a tall order when our preferred news format affords very little context and nuance (if any).

“On Instagram, an image of war can be followed by an image of what someone had for dinner,” said Linfield.

The passive—and passing—viewership hardly accommodates respect for the subject’s suffering, said Ritchin. “You can’t look at news as a consumer item. It’s not just something to ‘like’ or ‘dislike.’”

“I think what we’re actually talking about is a very deep moral complication in how all of us, as human beings, receive shocking graphic images,” said Shapiro of the Dart Center. “Do we receive them in ways that simply make us excited or angry [and] want to consume more and more and more? Do we look for images that confirm our worldview about who the good guys and the bad guys are? Or are there images that … can penetrate both political preconceptions and the numbing that we all bring to a violent world?”

The sense of emergency is pervasive, but how the public engages with this kind of imagery beyond alarm still matters. As does what happens to the people pictured.

Gaza’s children, for example, historically have been so overrepresented among scenes of destruction and ruin shown to the American public that artificial intelligence has trained itself to insert their likeness in its manufactured images of the current crisis. There are so many photos of them now that they could be made interchangeable to a viewership that has never seen them exist outside the contexts of violence and suffering.

Having those photos taken by journalists based in Gaza has not offered a departure from how these children are pictured, but it does offer viewers a rare intimacy with them by virtue of the unique lens these photographers inhabit: The blunt reality that these children are living—and dying—through every day is also shared by the people capturing their experiences.

“It’s an existential situation: They are being killed at an unprecedented rate, working under impossible conditions, and they have to communicate what’s happening to them,” said photojournalist Gafic. “The hope is, if you tell the story, ideally, the cumulative effect will create the momentum to stop what’s falling on your head.”

That’s how the first images of the newborns came to the world: Al Shifa was under active bombardment while sheltering some 7,000 people, and doctors—like the surgeons who took the photos—were appealing for help while still trying to treat patients without electricity, clean water, or any antiseptic or anesthesia. Among those whom hospital staff had dwindling hope of saving were the newborns.

Their images stand out from the endless reel of photographs and footage of screaming and bloodied children we’ve collected over the last several weeks, in part because the public has been able to follow their stories beyond the first frame. We will later learn that one of the babies came to Al Shifa as the lone survivor of the neonatal intensive care unit at Al Nasr hospital, bombarded only days before; the rest of the premature newborns left in their incubators there were found decomposing during the pause in fighting over Thanksgiving.

Since the raid on Al Shifa, 31 of the newborns were evacuated (two had died the night before), and 28 were transferred into Egypt. The priority right now is to ensure their survival, which is currently precarious for at least 11 of them, but the public can at least envision it.

In the countless other images of suffering children, we don’t know how many of the children pictured are still alive. Given the odds against them, we’d be lucky if any of them are.

Meanwhile, on the fringes of the international public’s gaze, families of Hamas’s victims and captives are struggling to hold the image of their loved ones in their minds without them being punctured by the brutal scenes of their murder or kidnapping that continue to circulate online. Even the carefully curated photos they chose to print on shirts and posters petitioning for their safe return have been politicized, weaponized, and abused by seemingly everyone, from aggressive strangers half a world away to Israel’s far right.

They themselves have been both hyperexposed and invisibilized by their government—and continuously terrorized by Hamas—while their demands receive less media attention than their stories.

While Israel’s military offensive has widespread support from Jewish Israelis, families of those killed or kidnapped on October 7 have been some of the most vocal advocates of a cease-fire to prioritize the safe return of the hostages, loudly calling for peace in a hostile climate of violence, repression, and persecution for any opposition to the war effort.

Their sustained pressure on Netanyahu for nearly two months led to the shaky temporary truce that is seeing the first wave of hostages released, but even as their efforts are less seen, they continue their work regardless, challenging the international public—and their own government—to value images of life more than death.

“One of the really important things to listen to are the voices of the people from the kibbutzes and communities in the Gaza envelope in southern Israel, [who] were directly affected by the massacres committed by Hamas—what their demands are and what they are asking for,” said Bacha. “I think [it] really helps break through what can be seen as a monolithic reaction [of] the Israeli public supporting the war.”

Amid the vicious binarism of this crisis, they offer one model for holding nuance.

The fate of both Gaza’s children and the hostages rests partly on international attention, on the public’s capacity to see babies as more human than emblem, and to see victims on both sides of the fence—without qualifying their agony against each other—whether or not they are captured on camera.

“The problem is how to feel the pain of others and not just one other,” said Linfield.

“There is so much anger and hatred. And there is also a whole new group of people [who] have come to care about this,” said Bacha. “How we make meaning out of what’s happening is going to be critical to what happens next.”