Satellite Photojournalism and the Sublime Object

Taylor Dorrell
Giphantie Journal
Published in
5 min readJan 14, 2020


A Satellite photo taken by the company Planet of destroyed structures at the Ain al-Assad air base in Iraq. Planet/MIIS

The inherent objectivity in satellite images implies a symbolic distance towards subjects which contrasts on-the-ground photojournalism. The visceral closeness of photojournalism can often feel too close and subjective in form — these images are often used as subtle propaganda or detested as being overtly graphic to generate more viewers and profit. The background of the photographer, their intention, etc. is questioned. In regards to generating a consensus of truth and meaning, this can be problematic, leaving a gap that can be filled with mundane overhead satellite images like the ones of the recent missile attack by Iran on a US airbase.

The statement by Trump claiming that the attack was ‘minimal’, trying to establish a symbolic image of Iran as being incompetent, was the only way in which satellite images which contradicted this statement would garner attention — for example if he didn’t mention the damage was ‘minimal’, nobody would’ve cared to see overhead images of destroyed buildings inside the base, if the images were close up, they would be considered exaggerated as they ignore the rest of the base being in tact. We were essentially ready to be presented evidence which contradicted his statement, the meaning was seemingly presupposed.

In the images coming to light after Trump’s statement, it would appear that the intent of Trump’s attempt to prove Iran incompetent backfired. The images instead act as a support for the symbolic lack of truth in Trump’s administration — which we now can say ‘this is how it’s always been’ (Trump continuing to lie even in the face of Real evidence contradicting his claims). However, this is just scratching the surface of examining the meaning of this event and the use of satellite images to play a part in media today.

Distance and the Sublime Object

To take satellite imagery and dissect it in the context of mass media and journalism is to acknowledge the image and image selection as a symptom. A symptom of larger structures that filter and quilt meaning of everyday events. To take this satellite image of the Ain al-Assad air base and examine it in relation to something like psychoanalysis is to reinforce the original implication of importance from publications posting the image in the first place. To reinforce the idea that there is something sublime, yet hidden, which raises the image on a pedestal. Slavoj Zizek says that the sublime object

… is an object which cannot be approached too closely: if we get too near it, it loses its sublime features and becomes an ordinary vulgar object — it can persist only in an interspace, in an intermediate state, viewed from a certain perspective, half-seen. Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 1989 P 192

The distance and mechanical nature of satellite photos not only communicate a kind of objectivity — which reflects today’s data and science driven society, often prioritizing the use of facts and science (although concealing the increasingly privatized version of space) — but also a symbolic distance from the event. If on-the-ground photojournalism is too close, the lack filled by satellite photos comes with a lack of its own — a lack of a visceral closeness. As this distance communicates a symbolic distance, a lack of understanding in meaning, we also don’t know what to make of these events taking place. Similar to Lacan’s object a, we must maintain a distance, a limit, to keep the cycle going. We don’t yet know what the missile strike on the US airfield means and the only images we have of this event, the satellite photos, communicate this same distance.

There is a similar distance in the meaning of the Iran flight. After the Iranian commercial flight to Ukraine crashed, killing all 176 people onboard, the initial cause was considered mechanical. It shifted to accusations and then an admission that Iran accidently shot it down with anti-aircraft missiles. As of now the images of the debris lie scattered across the barren landscape as the cleanup and investigation take place. While the meaning of these events are currently spread out and lack symbolism, we nonetheless anticipate that this process and application will take place in the future. As of now we maintain this seemingly distanced position in relation to the meaning of these events.

Timing of Symbolization

…the Truth of a thing emerges because the thing is not accessible to us in its immediate self-identity” Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 1989 P 243

As articles are written and countries make statements, there’s an attempt to pick up these pieces in the now. However, by attempting to prescribe this meaning as soon as possible we never quite capture it.

The distance of symbolism is not just a case of solving the mystery, but a process of applying meaning in which meaning is transforming, never fully crystalizing. The meaning of both the satellite images of the US base and scattered remains of the Iran plane will not be given their meaning today, but in the future.

If we are prepared to consider history as a text, we can say about it what some modern author said about a literary text: the past has deposed in it images which could be compared to those retained by a photographic plate. ‘Only the future disposes of developers strong enough to make appear the picture with all its details. More than one page of Marivaux or of Rousseau attests to a meaning which their contemporary readers were unable to decipher completely.’ Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schnfce 4 Volume I, Frankfurr:Suhrkamp Verlag, 1955, P· 123

We only can only say retrospectively that something was presupposed (Trump lying). To fill in this gap of meaning, we will see images that fill the gap of the distanced satellite images or the basic facts of the event: Today a story was posted about a couple who flew to Iran for their wedding and ended up being on the flight which killed them, Trump has now announced sanctions and seems to be stepping back from his original intent of continuing to bomb Iran into submission, there are already narratives which claim Trump’s actions as an attempt to distract from the impeachment and improve his chances of being reelected. Will these satellite images act as the aerial photos of the Cuban Missile Crisis did and lead to a real change (the removal of nuclear weapons — the removal of US troops) or will they fall into a symbolic void with the other million images posted that day? What will become of the scattered remains of the current events as meaning is retrospectively applied?

As the details of the flight continue to come forward and new narratives form, images will act as a visual embodiment of this process of retroactively giving these seemingly scattered events meaning. Constantly shifting from the bigger picture to the closer ones, never capturing what’s really there, but continuing these contradictions as the process of finding meaning. Truth is hardly a final product, but a process which is found retrospectively in the process — constantly overtaking and leaving it behind, but never arriving at it.