“Freedom” of Expression

By: Dalya Eichler  |  May 10, 2024

By Dalya Eichler, Staff Writer

Art is a complicated thing. In general, we see art as human expression. On the surface, when art is mentioned, it is common to think of beauty, paint, and famous pieces. When we strip away the stereotypes and talk about human expression, are there boundaries to how far this freedom extends? As a Jewish artist at Stern, a lot of the pieces I watch my peers create tend to overlap. The aspects of religious life and upbringing slip into their work consciously and subconsciously. Furthermore, when learning about art history, controversial pieces arise, and the question of “was this too far?” gets raised. There was a piece I learned about in my Art History course at Stern that brought up that exact question. Fountain by Marcel Duchamp was a very controversial piece given that it was more or less a bare urinal. Many historically controversial pieces I have learned about don’t seem like the biggest deals. They don’t cause physical harm or elicit a dangerous response. As time goes on, however, the boundaries get pushed. Artists will incite harm and go beyond what is considered “normal” for the sake of advancing art. I talk about all this because, for the first time ever, a piece of this so-called “art” became famous. And I was horrified. 

Shani Louk, a 23 year old Israeli tattoo artist, was brutally dragged into Gaza at the hands of sadistic terrorists along with dozens of other attendees of the ill-fated Nova festival on October 7. After she was kidnapped by Hamas, the world prayed for her safe return. Tragically, this was not the case. Shortly after she was declared dead, a photo of her body, abused and beheaded, being used as a footrest on the back of a pickup truck surrounded by her captors, surfaced the internet. 

Every year, a panel of professional journalists sit to award a photo Picture of the Year. This photo was the winner for 2024. A photo depicting a kidnapped and slain young woman tossed onto a truck. I have felt deep emotions when interacting with art before, but never one such as this, and now I wonder, should there be rules for art? 

Photojournalism of war will always be gruesome. But, to hide behind the camera, publicly shaming and disrespecting a victim, a family, and a nation, should be criminal. This is different from how war is usually documented. Famous war photos I have seen never showcase murder like a prize. I look at ancient European pieces depicting war, and the difference is striking. Sure you can have a bloody scene, but it is a creation hand painted by man, entirely different, depicting a time period without necessarily showcasing horrendous acts done to any specific helpless victims. To me, the contrast is obvious. 

When searching the internet for articles on this topic, I encountered many articles on a photo I hadn’t heard of or seen before. It was a woman in a hijab clutching her niece’s body wrapped in a sheet. The Rolling Stones piece on it was the first to pop up on my screen. It also won an award, the World Press Photo of the Year. The photo was taken in 2023, according to the article, but it is resurfacing now. With this I realized that the media tries to really switch a narrative and will constantly create a contest of current events: in this case, a contest of victimhood. It seems as if we are shown photos side by side and asked: who do you feel more bad for?

While researching all this, I found a quote given by Nissim Louk, Shani’s father, about the photo. With this quote, despite my intense feelings on the topic, I can’t help but feel that my opinion is null. Nissim stated, “It’s good that the photo won the prize. This is one of the most important photos in the last 50 years. These are some of the photos that shape human memory – the Jew raising his hands, the paratroopers at the Western Wall – photos that symbolize an era. This documentation of Shani, and of Noa Argamani (another hostage) on the motorcycle, they symbolize this era. I think it’s a good thing to use it to inform the future. If I start crying, what will come of it? This is history. In 100 years, they will look and know what happened here. I travel the world and everyone knows who Shani is.” Pushing boundaries in art at times might seem gruesome and immoral, and, maybe this time, that is all this was. But, if the impact the piece leaves can positively affect our future, and those involved with the subject see that as well, who are we to say the art should not be? To deny that the photo winning a reward is horrible would be wrong, but to say this photo going viral won’t impact our future as a people would be criminal.