Witnessing war hurts us. Here’s why we must let it.
Felipe Dana/AP/Shutterstock

Four weeks ago, we woke up to a different world. 

Since then, the pain of war has moved and connected us all. This pain is growing, mobile, contagious. It is moving through screens and borders. Through stories of humanity and stories of war.

A man saving his fish. A woman giving birth in a basement. The badge of dead journalist Brent Renaud reading ‘peacekeeper’. The tears of elderly

The people who lost their homes. The left-behind toys in left-behind houses. 

Pain has traveled through the memories of those who witnessed World War II. Through the terror of what is to come.

After the initial shock of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, many are beginning to adjust to the new reality — our team included.

As we continue with our daily routines, a single photo of a war scene can suddenly shatter our illusion of normality.

But as we continue with our daily routines and anxiously refresh our news feeds, a single photo of a war scene — which may seem trivial compared to the scale of the catastrophe — can suddenly puncture through to our hearts and shatter our illusion of normality.

Suddenly, war becomes very relatable, very familiar, very human.

The other morning, when I was making a coffee, the image of a Ukrainian woman adjusting her curtain rail appeared in my mind’s eye.

This image hurts me somewhere I can’t place, moves me in a way I can’t express.

I remembered, or rather felt, their old TV, similar to the one we had in my parents’ house in Belarus. I remembered the inconspicuous crack in the ceiling beam, but most of all, the casual expression of the man. It’s as if the curtain rail was a regular house problem and not the result of the war outside their window. 

That moment I suddenly became very alert to the scale of the tragedy. Who are these people? Where are they now?

An image like this has clear, cultural, historical power. What Roland Barthes calls the studium1. The two figures in their shattered home, the outdoor clothes worn inside that situates them in a place and time. The ceiling crack gives a sense that for them, like for many, the roof may yet cave in.

But for me it also carries the punctum2, personal, indefinable resonance. It hurts me somewhere I can’t place, moves me in a way I can’t express.

Why, from everything we have seen in Ukraine, has this particular image stayed with me? Is it the similar location of the window in my own kitchen? The old TV? The conflicting calmness on the man’s face? Or is it the disruptive realisation of the fragility of our everyday?

We can think about war in numbers, in quantities of lives lost among civilians and the military, in people fleeing Ukraine and prosecuted in Russia; the total number of tanks destroyed and bombs averted, or even in estimates of the upcoming economic crisis.

Numbers are convenient. You can twist them in line with your ideology, use them to illustrate scale, or to distance yourself from everything that’s going on. 

We often try to create a sterile environment of data to inform those in power. But what if we were to leave the fingermarks of those who collected this data and those whom it represents?

Human stories are much harder. We often relate to them on an affectual level that lies beyond our history, language, class or culture, even though it originates there. Such encounters with visual records of someone else’s life can result in an intensively subjective experience that we are often unable to articulate. They create connections and emotional responses that can transfer to us, sometimes with the quality of our own memories. 

As Barthes puts it “the incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance” 3. It intervenes and disrupts the routine and familiar order. This might not necessarily lead to philanthropic actions or increased social awareness, but it makes us pause and recalibrate ourselves toward others. We encounter our deep and common humanity.

War depersonalises people. So does politics. That is why we must preserve and develop this sensitivity toward each other, even when our natural instinct is to burn all bridges and turn our backs on those we disagree with.

War depersonalises people. So does politics. That is why we must preserve and develop this sensitivity toward each other.

The uncoded meaning I’ve tried to describe is incidental. It cannot be turned into a tool or a method. What we can do is to allow ourselves to be open to this sensitivity. This applies to policy experts and researchers, who often try to create a sterile environment of data to inform those in power. But what if we were to leave the fingermarks of those who collected this data and those whom it represents? Could it help these meanings to find their way into our everyday meaning-making? 

When we tap into this uncoded meaning, for a moment we can escape thinking about communications as a linear sender-receiver process. Rather, it becomes a rhizome that sprawls and branches, creates connections and interspaces, allowing these accidental points of contact, transmitting more than we thought possible.


1 Roland Barthes. Concept first described in “Camera Lucida: Reflections of Photography”, 1982. According to Barthes, studium (lat. “study”) indicates cultural, linguistic and political reading on an image. It allows us to process cultural codes, recognise context, scenery, emotions or gestures of people, time and space of the image.

2 Barthes describes photograph’s punctum (lat. “to prick”, “to sting”) as an accident which bruises and distresses the viewer. It is a partial object, a poignant detail in the image that produces new uncoded meaning.

3 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (Translated by Richard Howard. Hill and Wang, 1982), 51.

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