Piotr Szczęsny, the man who self-immolated a few weeks ago in front of the monumental Palace of Culture in the center of Warsaw, left a post-mortem manifesto detailing his reasons for his dramatic final act. He denounced the country’s right-wing government for damaging the independent judicial system, for its unrelenting media propaganda, for its xenophobia and anti-immigrant policies, for nepotism and anti-globalism. “I love freedom above everything,” he wrote; a loudspeaker he had brought played the song Freedom by a 1990s Polish rock band throughout the act. “I hope that my death will shake the consciences of many people.”
In the aftermath, the Polish community, both at home and abroad, has indeed been rocked to its core. Grief and bewilderment are manifest across social media platforms and mainstream media alike. Images abound of single sentences extracted from the manifesto and written out on walls and pavements by Warsaw citizens (and then just as quickly removed by city authorities overnight). Photographs of candlelight vigils overzealously patrolled by police officers are ubiquitous. However, not a single photograph of the immolation itself has resurfaced. So far, there has been no documentation of this politically charged, emotionally fraught and visually graphic act. The fire, an obliterating force of revolt and desperation, has been transformed into a contained, regulated symbol of grief through an endless stream of candlelit scenes. The man’s body, the primary site of self-imposed violence and death, is present only through its traces: a discarded, scorched item of clothing, a blue loudspeaker abandoned on the pavement. These images offer no grand gestures, no sweeping emotions, no spectacle. Rather, they convey the perplexity of the aftermath.
Image credit © Gazeta Wyborcza
How to make sense of an event where snapshots went unsnapped, where photographs went untaken? The lack of imagery might explain the relative absence of this news piece from international media. Self-immolation, an event contingent on the act of looking, witnessing, photographing, filming, sharing, has been one of the most contentious photographic tropes in the history of photojournalism. Visceral, immediate, and irreversible, it captivates audiences with a force that other forms of dissent (hunger strikes, sit-ins, occupying public spaces) often lack. Malcolm Browne’s photograph of Thích Quảng Đức, a monk who set himself alight to protest the South Vietnamese dictatorship in Saigon in 1963, became an award-winning icon, continually referenced in studies dealing with images of war and violence (and further popularized on the cover of Rage Against the Machine’s album). Its visual impact parallels the force of the event itself: by the end of 1969, Quảng Đức’s act had been repeated over eighty times, far beyond Saigon.
Image credit © Malcolm Browne, AP
Elsewhere, at least eight Americans self-immolated in the 1960s to protest the war in Vietnam (one of them, Norman Morrison, was revered in Vietnam for his purported martyrdom, and a stamp was issued in his honor). The death of Jan Palach, a young student who self-immolated after Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1969, prompted half a million people to take to the streets.
More recently, despite restrictive censorship inside China’s Great Firewall, documentation of the wave of self-immolations inside Tibet that started in 2009 were leaked to Western media. Images of Tunisian market trader Mohamed Bouazizi (in 2010) and Jamphel Yeshe running ablaze down the street in Dehli in 2012 became internationally covered stories of dissent against their respective regimes. Either raw, blurred and imperfect, aesthetically exquisite, or impossibly visual, these pictures have been imprinted into our retinas and are here to stay.
Why, then, have the images from the Warsaw self-immolation not yet (re)surfaced? It seems easier to explain the absence of these images in mainstream media. Photographing death by fire touches upon the ethics of photojournalism: editorial decisions to run graphic images negotiate questions of privacy and identifiability; respect for the deceased and their families; endeavours to raise awareness about wrongdoings of the state; content sensitivity for the (young) public; and potential re-uses of the image for propaganda and political bias. Polish newspapers seem determined to avoid sensationalism, letting citizens’ grief take prominent place in the visual coverage—letting the photographs taken after the event inform a fuller understanding of what happened.
It is hard, however, to think that no witness, in their bewilderment, reached for their phone. Today, smartphones incessantly provide immediate images of violence that travel into the public sphere, often bypassing governmental or corporate media channels. It also cannot be the matter of content policies—other images of self-immolation can easily be found on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Yet in my search for explicit coverage from Warsaw, I only encountered older photographs (mostly from Jan Palach’s self-immolation in 1969, a grim reminder that Poland is on its way to becoming a totalitarian state, too).
Sometimes, fictive images are posted, like stills from the movie about Palach by Polish director Agnieszka Holland. Disconnected from their original context, featuring old-fashioned cars and bystanders in outdated clothes, these digitalized archival prints or staged screenshots mobilize gratuitous voyeurism rather than contemporary political outrage.
Image credit: Still taken from Burning Bush, directed by Agnieszka Holland
But visual thrills hardly ever change the political status quo. The absence of images from Warsaw seems to parallel the silence that often goes hand in hand with political oppression. No official response has come from Polish government officials so far; the pro-government media has dismissed the event as a result of a mental illness; the church has condemned it as a mortal sin. Most recently, a Wikipedia entry featuring Piotr Szczęsny’s death and its circumstances was removed.
Nevertheless, I will keep moving back in time to this photographic moment that remained un-photographed. Death by fire, performed in a public space, is a visual embodiment of violence enacted by a political regime. As such, it has the power to assert dissent and offer resistance to systemic oppression and social injustice. When its image goes missing, or when it remains in the hands of those interested in concealing it from public view, the complacency and passivity of bystanders are more than likely to remain intact.
Marta Zarzycka teaches at the Center for Women and Gender Studies at The University of Texas at Austin and is the author of Gendered Tropes in War Photography: Mothers, Mourners, Soldiers (Routledge, 2016).