Panel III: Construction – Images of Terror and Atrocities: When Images Become Weapons

John Heartfield, Krieg und Leichen – Die letzte Hoffnung der Reichen, (War and corpses – The last hope of the rich), photomontage originally for the Arbeiter-Illustrierten-Zeitung, 1932


Charlotte Klonk

“It contained a bit of zeitgeist: Our world was so fragmented!” George Grosz wrote when looking back at John Heartfield’s design for the leaflet advertising the Kleine Grosz-Mappe. Typographical chaos, images cut and pasted together, a combination of pictogrammes and photographs: These mixtures of talking images and picturesque text have helped shape the graphic form of our media world today, on the internet and also in the printed press (wherever it is still printed). Such visual devices have become so routine that perhaps they are no longer experienced as jarring or appalling.

In contrast to methods of fragmentation and recombination, the subject of dismemberment is still considered taboo. In fact, media ethics may now be enforcing restraint even more rigorously than during the period when Grosz and Heartfield were shocking viewers with their depictions of disabled war veterans or allusions to amputations. Terrorists react to the ban on illustrating dismembered bodies – a self-imposed prohibition adopted in the press and electronic visual media – by producing and disseminating images of their own actions. The third panel addresses these pseudo-documentary images of terrorism and atrocities as a modern, largely anonymously-produced genre, questioning where their montage techniques and rhetorical strategies differ from Heartfield’s art methods and praxis.

In commentary about his film Irradiés, which received the Berlinale Documentary Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020, Rithy Panh asks us to consider that a silent image can speak louder than a soundtrack and that memory is inevitably repetitive. According to Panh, even repetitive loops in critical debate should not frighten us. As he writes, in his work he keeps coming back to the controversial question posed between Claude Lanzmann and Georges Didi-Huberman, on whether or not images of genocidal acts should be shown.

Intentions and collateral impact, hyperrealism and surrealism, shock effects and the risk of numbness are some keywords in the five essays. Deserving of special attention is the question of whether it is reasonable to speak of an “independent life” of digital images, or if this impression results under certain circumstances primarily because the exact course of “viral” chain reactions remains vague at best. It would seem that a bit of zeitgeist from our world is also up for revie

Charlotte Klonk is professor of art and new media at the Institut für Kunst- und Bildgeschichte, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She has published widely, including topics on natural science and painting (Science and the Perception of Nature, 1998), on methods in art history (Art History: A Critical Introduction, 2006), on the history of exhibitions (Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000, 2009) and about the use of images in the fight against terrorism (Terror. Wenn Bilder zu Waffen werden, 2017).

Verena Straub (Berlin):

The Digital Image Montage from Jihadistic Propaganda to Cyberwar

Islamic State / Al-Haqq Mujahideen media agency, All praise is due to Allah, 6:38 mins., 2017, in Arabic with English subtitles

The concept of using images as a means of political agitation is more relevant today than ever before. Terrorist militias, such as the Islamic State (IS), circulate highly manipulated images as propaganda offensives intended for their affective impact. However, digital montage techniques are not used only to incite violence. The current explosion of satirical Photoshop memes on the internet makes it apparent that those who use image propaganda can themselves also become the target of visual attacks operating fully within Heartfieldian sensibilities.

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Questions for Verena Straub

The questions for Verena Straub are only available in German. To read the interview, please switch to the German version of the symposium.

Verena Straub is an art and image historian. She is currently working as a research associate in the “Affective Societies” Collaborative Research Centre at the Freie Universität, Berlin. She investigates and analyses digital images in the context of political agitation, and in her doctoral work has examined video testimonies by suicide bombers. Additional research interests in Straub’s work focus on visual studies, performance and contemporary art.

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Klaus Speidel (Vienna):

How Surreal Encounters Depict Violence: From Lautréamont to Heartfield to Cattelan and Ferrari via Magritte

John Heartfield, Goebbels Rezept gegen die Lebensmittelnot in Deutschland (Goebbels’ Recipe for the Food Shortage in Germany), AIZ, 1935

This essay introduces the umbrella concept of “concurrence” that encompasses all media, which refers to the consilience of objects, people or situations that originate from different contexts or occur in unexpected combinations. John Heartfield, René Magritte, Chema Madoz, Rosemarie Trockel, Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari have used this technique to imbue their images with force. Heartfield not only had an innovate effect on political photomontage, as has long been established, but can also be seen as having significantly influenced Surrealism. Together with art historians and artists, including René Magritte and Frida Kahlo, he created a visual-rhetorical fundament for contemporary provocation.

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Questions for Klaus Speidel

The questions for Klaus Speidel are only available in German. To read the interview, please switch to the German version of the symposium.

Klaus Speidel is an art and image theorist, art critic and curator. From 2003–09 he was a fellow at the École normale supérieure. He completed his PhD in philosophy at the Sorbonne in 2013. From 2015–18 he led a Lise Meitner project at the University of Vienna, funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), on narrative in individual images. He has held teaching positions at several universities and art academies in Europe. In 2015 he received the AICA France Prize for Art Criticism.

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Philipp Müller (Hamburg):

On Writing about the Publication of Depictions of Terror

In the case of terrorist crimes, violence and its mediatization are usually closely linked. It is not only the newsroom editorial departments and social media platforms that are called upon to be self-critically transparent about their publication practices but also their users, who are urged to question their own behaviour in production, reception and distribution. The mass media and social media platforms’ regular dissemination of photographs and videos of terrorist crimes carried out to attract attention makes an inquiry into their attraction factors all the more urgent – also in order to focus on critical image analysis as an important complement to media ethics and media policy discussions. This is exemplified by the text accompanying some smartphone videos of the attack in Nice on 14 July 2016.

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Questions for Philipp Müller

The questions for Philipp Müller are only available in German. To read the interview, please switch to the German version of the symposium.

Philipp Müller studied art history in Heidelberg and Hamburg. He has been collaborating on projects at the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) Centre for Advanced Studies Imaginaria of Force in Hamburg since March 2019. His dissertation project “Technische Gewaltbilder: Anziehung und Abstoßung” (Technical Images of Violence: Attraction and Repulsion) deals with the effect of drastic images and videos of violence in current media coverage and contemporary art.

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Anette Vowinckel (Potsdam):

What is Image Propaganda?

Unknown artist, Sicher in die Zukunft – CDU, election poster by the CDU national party headquarters in Bonn, 1994,, accessed 14 June 2020

The term “propaganda” usually refers to verbal messages, but images in the form of posters, graphics and reportages have also been used for propagandistic purposes. The term is not unproblematic ‒ unlike in the first half of the 20th century, it is predominantly used in a pejorative sense today. Referencing diverse case studies, such as a British army recruitment poster from the First World War, or a CDU election poster from 1994, this essay demonstrates how visual propaganda was assiduously put to use.

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Annette Vowinckel is a historian and cultural scientist. She is head of the department for Contemporary History of Media and Information Society (“Zeitgeschichte der Medien- und Informationsgesellschaft”) at the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam and teaches history at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.

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Kristina Jaspers (Berlin):

Dialectic Montages? John Heartfield’s and Peter Jackson’s Responses to the First World War

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) directed by Peter Jackson, 2018. Transportation of corpses and wounded men, highly coloured

The First World War is thought to have been the first “media war”. Psychological warfare also made use of film imagery as an instrument of propaganda for the first time. John Heartfield’s response to the often false and distorted handling of images in news reports from the front provoked the impulse that led him to new developments in photomontage. He sought to enlight viewers by exposing internal contradictions and techniques of manipulation. Director Peter Jackson also wished to enlighten audiences about the First World War through his documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). Yet, he only shows victims, not those responsible. Jackson’s collage, image and sound editing techniques are meant to emotionalise and glorify. What does this mean for the film’s reception?

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Video message by Kristina Jaspers (in German)

Audio message by Kristina Jaspers (in German)

Questions for Kristina Jaspers

The questions for Kristina Jaspers are only available in German. To read the interview, please switch to the German version of the symposium.

Kristina Jaspers is an art historian and philosopher. As curator at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, she has been responsible for more than 20 special exhibitions on subjects such as psychology and film, production design, storyboards, and retrospectives on F. W. Murnau, Ingmar Bergman, Ulrike Ottinger and Martin Scorsese. Jaspers has published widely on the intermediality of film, art and cultural history. Recent publications include “Tempo! Tempo! Tempo! Das Bauhaus und der Film”, Film-Dienst, 07 (2019); as well as the catalogue concept and essays in Kino der Moderne. Film in der Weimarer Republik, 2018.

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Gerd Kroske (Berlin):

PIXELVISION – “When Images Become Weapons”

Gerd Kroske, missile strike in the Westjordanland, 2015

This essay examines recent shifts in popular image perception. The inherent claim to authenticity of amateur images has attracted public interest to such a degree that professionally made documentary images are often relegated to second place. They dominate news and social media channels and shape our perception of the world. In turn, it would seem that only montage ‒ as an artistically contemplative, critical form ‒ can harness such unlimited potential. The installations by the multidisciplinary research group Forensic Architecture provide provocative examples. Above all, what do these high resolution images reveal to us today; what might they be hiding?

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Questions for Gerd Kroske

You say you’ve noticed a “general dulling of viewers’ perceptions” due to the mass circulation of shocking amateur videos, thus reviving an old hypothesis about the effects of mass media photojournalism. Why doesn’t this detract “from the power images hold”? Or to put it another way:  Why do such images retain their ability to have an impact, even though, it seems, their effect on viewers seems to be diminishing?

When a former stock boy named Eugene Polley (who later received the moniker “Dr. Zapp”), invented his first TV remote control in 1955, the Flash-Matic, everyone believed that this would be the end of television, which was still relatively new. What this flashlight-sized device promised and actually did, was to give viewers the choice of what they wanted to see on television. The people in charge of programming were very concerned, as they assumed that the viewers’ concentration would suffer as a result of all the “zapping” between programmes. Quite the opposite was true, as rapid switching between programmes was training people’s minds to keep up with the quickly changing images. As a result, the dramaturgy of television plays changed, as well as timing and placement of TV advertising, etc. We might say that television audiences were also “learning” how to select and filter images en passant. With Dr. Zapp’s invention, TV also managed to influence the processing speed of the human foveal system, that is to say its ability to fixate and recognise an image from random, single points. What is known as fixation time(1) in neurology, is simply the ability to decode an image within a fraction of a second – and the speed with which images are processed has been changing rapidly since then.

There are two aspects to the term “dulling” with regard to watching horrific videos: on the one hand, the viewers’ selection of images in a shorter fixation time, and, on the other, the “overwriting” of images previously stored in the visual cortex, accompanied by a potential loss of sensitivity. The viewing of images, like sensory perception, is generally characterised by selection(2) and inference – that is to say, a selection made by a small segment of our stimuli and inclusion of additional information. A logical question would be whether the impact images have actually diminished or whether, on the contrary, their effect is quantified as our receptivity and speed of perception increase. It is precisely our visual perceptions that have a lasting impact on areas of the brain where emotions, memories and expectations are formed.

How are “images etched in our collective visual memory”? Is memory more of a recording device or is it alive with its own agency? Peter Jackson’s work could be described as a sobering example of oversaturation or congestion of visual memory. Did Heartfield also address a collective subject, or rather, storage medium in his artistic practice?

How things are memorised is a major aspect. Perhaps this can be understood if we examine more deeply the narrative of individual motifs in images, and topoi and their effect. This would also apply to Heartfield, whose motifs appeal to the visual memory of the viewer (for example in his work Wie im Mittelalter ... so im Dritten Reich[As in the Middle Ages… so in the Third Reich], an original montage for the AIZ, 1934).(3) His imagery is aimed directly at the affective capacity of an image (here with Christian emblems). Our “iconic memory” is based on image perceptions that are sometimes registered in a fraction of a second, or in flashes of memory (for which the scientific term is “flashbulb memories”), whose precise photographic recall lasts a lifetime, as if burned into the retina. These images are permanently inscribed and become part of the inventory of visual memory. They become “charged”, when there is an existing narrative beyond the image, which also amplifies the affective capacity of the image. Thus images and knowledge of them can mutually energise each other. A good source on this subject is the Handbuch der politischen Ikonografie.(4)


(1) See Alfred L. Yarbus, Eye Movements and Vision. New York, 1967

(2) See W. Stangl, keyword “selektive Wahrnehmung'”(selective perception), in Lexikon für Psychologie und Pädagogik. 2020,, accessed 13 Jun 2020

(3) See

(4) Uwe Fleckner, Martin Warnke and Hendrik Ziegler (eds.), Handbuch der politischen Ikonographie. vol I: Abdankung bis Huldigung; vol. II: Imperator bis Zwerg, Munich, 2011

From 1987–91 Gerd Kroske worked as an author and dramaturge for DEFA –Dokumentarfilmstudio (DEFA documentary film studio). Since 1991 he has been a freelance author and director. A comprehensive retrospective of his documentary oeuvre was shown in January/February 2020 at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna. “Pixelvisions” (working title), a documentary Kroske is currently developing, aims to explore changing image perceptions.

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Artist’s Statement: Rithy Panh (Paris/Phnom Penh):

Irradiés ‒ Irradiated

Rithy Panh (directon), Irradiés, 2020, Film Still

“Is poetry impossible after Auschwitz? I plead for more poetry, more creativity, more freedom …” 

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Rithy Panh (b. 1964, Cambodia) is a filmmaker, writer and producer. He has directed numerous internationally acclaimed films, including Rice People, The Land of Wandering Souls (2000), and the influential S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2004). In 2013 Panh directed The Missing Picture, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and won the Grand Prix in the “Un Certain Regard” section at the Cannes Film Festival. He is a co-founder of the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which is dedicated to preserving audiovisual heritage.

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