Unstocking Football in Conflict Zones

By: Abhijeet Narayanan, Srishti Sikka, Shauryavardhan Sharma and Brishti Bose 


The image we’ve chosen is an animated representation of two kids playing football in a conflict zone. The artist illustrates the ruins through absurdly tilted buildings and fault lines on the ground. The children are seen in tattered clothes, playing football with melancholic expressions on their faces. The image does not attempt to represent a particular instance or event but rather the idea that children playing sports in conflict zones has become more or less a universal symbol of evoking sympathy. This essay will analyse the image from the perspectives of both the author and the spectator. The artistic choices part of the image will be analysed on the basis of colour to understand the use of forememes and chromemes as theorised by Andersen, Vouri, and Guillaume. We also use moral spectatorship as theorised by Mortensen and Trenz to analyze the image through the spectator’s lens, and examine the implications of such a symbol being a stock image on the internet. 

Stock Images

A stock image is an image that is free of copyrights so it may be used for a wide variety of purposes, including commercial uses. This definition requires the image to be devoid of specificity and context, allowing a larger scope of application. This lack of context and emphasis on generalised viewership enforces societal norms, seeping into both the representation as well as the interpretation of the subject of the images. These images rely on the idea that there is a shared and common understanding of the concept that is being depicted. Stock images bring internal parts of the viewer by receding and allowing the viewer to use his own devices to interpret the image through internalised notions. The idea of abject poverty is filtered into the stock image through the general representation of torn clothing, unkempt hair, and dirt on their faces. Furthermore, these norms also highlight gender stereotypes due to the generality feature of stock images. The image shows two boys playing football, represented with short hair and dressed in pants and t-shirts, projecting the idea that sports are limited to men even in conflicted and disaster-hit regions. It also reduces the impact of the concept of ‘conflict stricken’ by desensitising the audience through universalisation of a grave issue. The severity of the situation is downplayed by viewing the image through a general lens, therefore normalising the refugee crisis, poverty, and conflict. 

In addition to the generalised view embedded in stock images, the usage of sports acts as an important instrument to add elements of humanity within the political and economic portrayal of poverty. Sports have always been used as mediums of patriotism and national unity in popular media. While the image wishes to bring out affective emotions by pushing the viewer to sympathise with the children forced to play in a disaster stuck region with no facilities, the decontextualizing of this image due to the nature of stock photography reduces the immediacy of the need for action that is often the aim of portraying sports in a highly politicised context. 

Moral spectatorship

The picture also appeals to the audience in an interesting way. Usually, visual aesthetics relating to children are used in two ways, either to shock or to appeal affectively to the audience. This picture does both, by creating a jarring distinction between the ruins in the background pitted against the positive image of children playing football in the foreground. To the viewer, it raises the question of whether it is a depiction of a scenario far removed from the occurrence of war and ruin or one which is integrated within it. The expression on the faces of the children is not a happy one, perhaps suggesting that they’re attempting to bring in some sense of innocence and normality to a moment that lacks it. 

Additionally, although it is a stock photo, it carries all the factors that make an image viral/ appeal to a collective public. Firstly, because the image is situated in a crisis, and makes an instant connection with its viewer. Secondly, it has an aesthetic familiarity– the cartoons are similar to those seen in textbooks, drawings are simple and easy to comprehend, and there are no hidden meanings, making them appealing to a larger audience. Thirdly, the image proposes a civic mode of engagement and fits into the category of resistance, raising questions of whether the children are resisting the ruin brought by war? Or is this their way of removing themselves from the situation or finding joy in what remains? Fourthly, the image, because of its simple drawing style, has a semiotic translation and is interpretive. Its style makes it coherent to a vast audience, and to some extent, the image also speaks for itself. Lastly, as mentioned before, the image emotes an affective response from the viewer– the exaggerated ruins bring out the grandiosity of the war that has been, and the children playing in the foreground play at the innocence, the hope that they may still carry. 

Interestingly, two of the three kinds of moral spectatorship can also be seen in the viewership of the image. Emotional spectatorship, which appeals to the sentiments of the audience, and critical spectatorship, since the picture is obviously political, hence expecting a political response from its audience. What must also be considered when taking into account the emotional spectator, is that they are theorised to be someone who is externally viewing the image but is able to emotionally align with the context it depicts. A depiction like this leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. One, in such an image, does the fact that the context is non-specific allow for/alter emotional associations? Do the animations and the exaggerated nature of destruction make the image palatable at the cost of the emotions it could invoke? Similarly, just like the rhetoric around video games and animated films, is engaging with this image as a critical spectator possible or necessary? Does it allow for the same depth of discussion when it comes to concepts in IR that say an image with clear context would? Or is it just a mere exaggeration? Keeping in mind the nature of the image, that is, a stock image, is it then possible to even critically engage with it, given its generalizable and non-specific nature? 

The Aesthetic

From the point of view of the author, several interesting techniques are used in the creation of this Stock image. First, there is a clear attempt to exaggerate the circumstance being portrayed. This is evident in all aesthetic elements of the picture from the shape of the buildings to the colour palette used, to the emotions expressed facially by the children from perhaps melancholy to innocence as mentioned above, to also strikingly the colour of their skin. All these choices are not mere circumstance, but deliberate means to create paradoxically both an element of generalizability as eschewed in stock images, but to also contribute to the creation of a narrative that wants a viewer to respond emotionally while reflecting on such instances they’ve encountered/heard about. Interestingly, during our exhibition when we asked viewers to write down their immediate thoughts upon seeing the image, without reading the accompanying description, at least 10 responses had ‘Syria’, referring to the ongoing crisis in that region. 

Second, from our analysis of the reading by Andersen, Vouri, and Guillaume on the role of colour and the visual medium in the field of security studies, it is also evident that the concept of formemes and chromemes as put forward by them build this picture. In the picture, the cracks, the ruin, the shape of the ball (to make it seem out of air) and the whole background is created with the help of geometric shapes. These create therefore an impression of warzone which is almost universalised and pictured anywhere. Further, the title on the houses represents a surreal, almost meta representation of the extent to which conflict zones can be inhospitable to life. 

The colour of the children’s skin is also a clear marker of the people the author believes are living under such conditions. There is also a closeness in the shade used to represent their skin as well as the bricks and broken ground – a symbol for ruin of the body and perhaps, of the mind. Paradoxically again, while as mentioned above, the imagination of playing football in the middle of an active war zone would seem to suggest an element of innocence, the children depicted are not smiling – the game does not seem to dispel the scene around them, it appears to add to it. This ties in to the point expressed above about stock images, and the reduction of a complex scene to a mere picture which is generalizable, easily replicated, and can be used in a wide variety of contexts, thus removing all emotional constitutive elements which might form an actual war zones and the lives of people living in the same.