The Socialization of ISIS using the “Five-Photos”


Condemned To Be Digital

Volume 3, Issue 10
January 17, 2018

SHUYI YIN (M.E.D. ’18)

On August 23, 2015, Reuters Damascus reported that Islamic State militants had blown up the Temple of Baalshamin. This destruction, wrote the news outlet, “would be the first time the insurgents, who control swathes of Syria and Iraq and captured Palmyra in May, damaged monumental Roman-era ruins.” Maamoun Abdul Karim, Syria’s antiquities chief, confirmed the demolition.[1] There were no images released on that day across media.

The following day, Syrian Ministry of Culture Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) and news organizations including Al Jazeera, BBC and The Guardian, also covered the story.[2] At that time, most media outlets only showed images of the city of Palmyra and the structure of the Temple of Baalshamin before the destruction. The New York Times, however, released a photo showing the bombing scene, culled from the perpetrators themselves (figure 1).[3] At the bottom of the photo, in Arabic, was the caption: “The moment of the explosion of the Temple of Baalshamin in the city of Tadmor” with the place of the incident, “Homs,” next to it.[4] On August 25, NBC News and The Guardian published the same striking panoramic image together with a sequence of photos depicting two men transporting the explosives and positioning them in the temple (figure 2, figure 3, figure 4). Another photo showed the site of destruction after the bombing (figure 5).[5]

These five photos are exceptionally momentous due to their provenance and the intent of their release. Despite widespread media coverage, there are only five photos documenting this event, produced and disseminated by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The primary source of the photos, which circulated through traditional and new media platforms, was also both the subject and author of the documents in question. This transmission then has a “spatial-representational segregation.” Paul Frosh, a scholar on photography and cultural production, points out that understanding these images requires us to “make inferences about the non-depictive techno-cultural conditions in which the image was made.”[6]

The five photos showing the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin could be understood as one entity, or as a continuing sequence. At first glance, the images demonstrate the practical act of staging and executing the destruction.The news media, act as a broadcasting platform and also as a space for politics and morality.[7] This process becomes  an invitation for a public spectatorship of witness mediated by digital remediations.[8]

The images function not only as representational devices; but also  as forms of socialization and networking. According to Frosh, when the producer of an image and its referent are one and the same, the image “says not only ‘see this, here, now,’ but also ‘see me showing you me.’ It points to the performance of a communicative action rather than to an object, and is a trace of that performance.”[9] That is to say, the series of images entail an entire process of performance, including ISIS’s  “scene-setting” (the preparation itself) and the results of the bombing. As the photos enter into the network of  ISIS’s official website and the global circuity of the news media, a feedback results giving ISIS a  global voice: the first stage in a process of multiplying loops. The five-photo entity is thus an action as well as a coding process, where ISIS “types in” its input (images) with predictable results. From a cybernetics perspective, the following trace or algorithm is coded in the structure; that is, the rest of the process and reactions will continue automatically. As a result, these five images as an entity were able to create a remote witness.

The loops muddled the existing narrative of the photos as merely a representational tool. They became a socialization tool which allowed for feedback and interaction. Perceiving the socialization nature of the destruction activities and gestures is critical because terrorism destroys not only for the sake of destroying, it destroys for attention. In other words, the attention is more important than the act of destruction, or even the destroyed artifact itself. With this understanding in mind, it would be both indifferent and perilous not to inquire whose attention ISIS was trying to attract, who ISIS’s socialization targets were, and most importantly, what algorithm helped ISIS finish the loop.

figure 1: A photo released by the Islamic State shows a detonation in the Temple of Baalshamin in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra. Credit: Militant website/ Via The New York Times.

figure 2: Images published by ISIS showing two men carrying explosives into Baalshamin. Credit: ISIS/Via The Guardian.

figure 3: Explosives seemingly wired to the outside of the temple. Photograph: ISIS/ Via The Guardian.

figure 4: Explosives around the base of the foundations. Photograph: ISIS/Via The Guardian.

figure 5: After the destruction.Photograph: ISIS/Via The Guardian.

[1] Kinda Makeih, “Islamic State Militants Blows Up Temple in the Ancient City of Palmyra.” August 23, 2015. Reuters.

[2] DGAM. “Palmyra: ISIS blown up Baal-Shamin Temple.” August 24, 2015.

“ISIL destroys ancient temple in Syria’s Palmyra.” August 24, 2015. Al Jazeera.

“A Tragic Goodbye to Our Heritage.” August 24, 2015. BBC World Service Newsday.

“ISIS Blows up Temple Dating Back to 17AD in Palmyra.” August 24, 2015. The Guardian.

[3]  Anne Barnard, “ISIS Speeds Up Destruction of Antiquities in Syria.” August 24, 2015. The New York Times.

[4] “Tadmor” is both the Arabic name and the modern city of Palmyra and it is in Homs Governorate, Syria.

The texts at the bottom of the image are translated by the author’s Yale MED program fellow Dina Taha who is from Egypt and whose native language is Arabic.

[5] Matthew Grimson, “ISIS Images Purportedly Show Bombing of Palmyra’s Baal Shamin Temple,” NBC News, August 25, 2015,

Karem Shaheen and agencies in Beirut, “Islamic State Releases Images Said to Show Destruction of Palmyra Temple,” The Guardian.August 25, 2015,

[6] Paul Frosh. “The Gestural Image: The Selfie, Photography Theory, and Kinesthetic Sociability.” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 1607-1628.

[7] Lilie Chouliaraki, “Symbolic Bordering: The Self-Representation of Migrants and Refugees in Digital News,” Popular Communication (2017), 15:2, 78-94.

[8] Ibid.

[9]Paul Frosh.  1607-1628.

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Volume 3, Issue 10
January 17, 2018

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