Events,  Publications

Killing for Show

Photography, War, and the Media in Vietnam and Iraq

New book by Julian Stallabrass

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

In the autumn of 2014, the Royal Air Force released blurry video of a missile blowing up a pick-up truck which may have had a weapon attached to its flatbed. This was a lethal form of gesture politics: to send a £9-million bomber from Cyprus to Iraq and back, burning £35,000 an hour in fuel, to launch a smart missile costing £100,000 to destroy a truck or, rather, to create a video that shows it being destroyed. Some lives are ended—it is impossible to tell whose—so that the government can pretend that it taking effective action by creating a high-budget snuff movie. This is killing for show.

Since the Vietnam War the way we see conflict—through film, photographs, and pixels—has had a powerful impact on the political fortunes of the campaign, and the way that war has been conducted. In this fully illustrated and passionately argued account of war imagery, Julian Stallabrass tells the story of post-war conflict, how it was recorded and remembered through its iconic photography.

The relationship between war and photograph is constantly in transition, forming new perspectives, provoking new challenges: what is allowed to be seen? Does an image have the power to change political opinion? How are images used to wage war? Stallabrass shows how photographs have become a vital weapon in the modern war: as propaganda—from close-quarters fighting to the drone’s electronic vision—as well as a witness to the barbarity of events such as the My Lai massacre, the violent suppression of insurgent Fallujah or the atrocities in Abu Ghraib.

Through these accounts Stallabrass maps a comprehensive theoretical re-evaluation of the relationship between war, politics and visual culture.

Killing for Show offers:

  • 190 photographs encompassing photojournalism, artists’ images, photographs by soldiers and amateurs and drones
  • A comprehensive comparison of the role of photography in the Vietnam and Iraq Wars
  • An explanation of the waning power of iconic images in collective memory
  • An analysis of the failure of military PR and the public display of killing
  • A focus on what can and cannot be seen, photographed and published
  • An exploration of the power and limits of amateur photography
  • Arguments about how violent images act on democracy


Killing for Show is an urgent contribution to photographic and war history. Drawing together the barbarous histories of America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq through an unflinching analysis of the photographic images they produced (and those they didn’t), Stallabrass manages the exceptional feat of writing reasonably and perceptively about a catalogue of mindless cruelty. His incisive readings of a vast, and largely neglected, archive of photographs underpins a persuasive and chilling account of how images of war are used to wage war. Arguing that to resist the ever-expanding reach of our militarism of the image requires a detailed understanding of how killing and showing (and not-showing) interact, Stallabrass provides an agile and uncompromising model of activist looking.
— Mignon Nixon, Professor of History of Modern and Contemporary Art, University College, London

A huge achievement, equal to the subject. This illuminating book recognises the full diversity of photographic material to emerge from the conflicts and provides a more balanced account than any previously available. As a guide to these terrible events, Stallabrass is consistently attentive, judicious, and humane. There are memorable discussions of everything from the formal qualities of North Vietnamese photography to the politics and aesthetics of amateur photography in Iraq.
— Malcolm Bull, Professor of Art and the History of Ideas, the Ruskin School, University of Oxford

In this incisive and insightful examination of the role of visual culture in the depiction of war and violence in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Stallabrass delivers a devastating critique of the various ways in which photography is implicated, consciously or not, in the neo-imperial machinations of America and its allies. He draws out the crucial similarities and connections but also the significant differences in how American administrations attempted to manipulate and control the media in the conflicts in Vietnam and South East Asia and those in Iraq and the Middle East as ‘force multipliers’ to enhance their combat capabilities into the wider geopolitical arena and to try to garner support domestically. But he also explores how dissenting voices of independent photographers, artists and citizen journalists have found cracks in the armour of the monolith of state power, and the vital role that these alternative viewpoints play in defending the core values of civic society.
— Paul Lowe, Reader in Documentary Photography, London College of Communication