In my print TIME column this week, I take a look at the much-photographed and -videotaped death of Muammar Gaddafi. (The column is behind TIME’s paywall, because TIME is a for-profit publication in the business of making people give their money to it.)
It’s not a column asking “Do we need to see images of death on our TVs?” partly because I already sort of covered that in an earlier blog post, and partly because the more I looked at the material, the more that seemed to be a first-world problem, when talking about a country where people have to see images of death on their streets.
What did interest me, though, was the vast amount of amateur photography that emerged from Gaddafi’s death. Not just the famous (and disturbing) videos of him being driven and beaten by a crowd just before he was shot; even more striking were the lines of people who showed up as his body was on display in a meat locker, many of them with kids in tow, most of them with phone cameras ready.
When Navy Seals shot Osama bin Laden in May and his death photos were kept under wraps, President Obama explained, “We don’t trot this stuff out as trophies.” For a political leader at the head of a superpower, with diplomatic and image concerns, that’s a reasonable position to take. But for a people who have been under a tyrant’s rule, pictures are trophies—that, and a statement of their authority to document their own reality. (Ironically, those same videos may well have served to deflate the story of the new government that Gaddafi was killed in crossfire, since questioned by international observers.)
I have to assume that, in the mobile-phone era, this kind of amateur picture-taking will increasingly dominate our visual memories of wars, especially popular rebellions. What we saw out of Libya last week was undeniably ugly, and I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to see it. And yet I can see the appeal for the picture-takers who had been living under a dictator: a camera may offend, but at least it doesn’t lie.