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Minding Our Business


Harsh photos; Harsh truths

Army Pfc. Lynndie England has replaced Pfc. Jessica Lynch as the poster girl for the U.S. war in Iraq. Neither Lynch nor England may be all that first impressions portrayed each to be. Lynch was not so much the heroine in battle as the victim on a botched mission. England may prove to be more a pawn than a sadistic dominatrix.

But the photos don’t lie about some things. That’s a pathetic naked Iraqi prisoner lying on the floor. England is holding the leash around his neck. And she’s smiling.

First impressions matter. So do lasting impressions. Will Iraqis or Americans remember this military operation from the urgent video of Lynch’s rescue from an Iraqi hospital or England’s raunchy happy snaps at Abu Ghraib prison?

We’ve all heard the Chinese proverb: “One picture is worth more than ten thousand words.” The photos taken at Abu Ghraib have generated tens of thousands of words of shock and indignation about the American guards’ behavior.

Within days the story had a new and even more grisly dimension. American civilian Nicholas Berg was executed and decapitated by his hooded captors. The act was posted on an Islamist web site. You could, if you chose, see the gruesome act on the site. Or see the prelude to it—either the prone Berg and the assassin’s raised knife or a tamer posed photo of Berg and his captors—in print and on the air across the U.S.

America’s military history has been documented through photographic images since the Civil War. Mathew Brady and other photographers lugged their cumbersome cameras to the battlefields. If they did not record the battles directly, they captured the carnage left behind on the battlefield. In the many trips I’ve taken to Gettysburg, I’ve been drawn less to the monuments than to a picture--the solitary figure of a dead southern sniper splayed against the rocks of the Devil’s Den.

The combat photographer—civilian or military—has captured heroic moments in battle. Is there a more recognized shot than that of Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in World War II? Yet even more gut wrenchingly unforgettable are the pictures of the gaunt survivors of the Nazi concentration camps and the cordwood like stacks of those who did not survive. Which tells us the most about that war?

The Vietnam war can be summed up in three photos: a South Vietnamese police chief summarily executing a Vietcong suspect, a naked girl fleeing a napalm bombing, a helicopter taking off from the roof of the U.S. embassy with the last evacuees before the fall of Saigon.

In truth, we rarely see the most gruesome photos taken in combat. Editors spare us much of the reality of war. It’s a tricky balance. For the most part media shied away from showing the charred bodies in Iraqi tanks during Gulf War I of 1991. Some, not all, ran photos of the charred bodies of American civilian workers strung up on an Iraqi bridge this year.

What’s just enough to show the agony? What’s too much? When the reality of 9/11 set in, editors at the newspapers and networks pulled back from running shots of those victims who jumped from the top floors of the World Trade Center to escape its inferno. A reader or viewer might have recognized a relative or friend in the final moments of life.

Photographs can move nations and governments to action. News photographs of starving children got the U.S. into Somalia in 1992 on an humanitarian mission. Photographs of an American soldier’s corpse being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu after a tactical fiasco we now know as “Blackhawk Down” got the U.S. out of Somalia.

Those who take such pictures are an unusual, sometimes strange, breed. In his book “Shooting Under Fire,” photographer Peter Howe describes his colleagues as “courageous men and women (who) go to the battlefield to gather the evidence that prevents anyone from saying ‘I knew nothing about that.’” (Read Howe's article "Shock Treatment".)

But that’s not what happened at Abu Ghraib.

The pictures that make us collectively cringe were not taken by any combat photographer. They show no act of bravery. Incongruously, they display spring break banality in a setting of indifferent inhumanity. Of course, those who took the pictures did not expect to see them in the New York Times and hundreds of other newspapers around the world.

This is not the product of photojournalism, as we once taught it in journalism schools. It is visual communications as it has evolved in a new world of instant and omnipresent media accessible to anyone with a computer. As our journalism school launches its new Visual Communications major, the grisly stories in Iraq give us grist for raising both questions of how to use graphics effectively and why we must use them judiciously.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, acknowledging there were more and presumably worse pictures yet to be seen, lamented as much how the pictures had become public as why they had been taken. “People are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media.”

The first law that seems unquestionably to have been broken in the mistreatment of the Iraqi prisoners seems to trump any law that might cover military secrecy. Even with the photos in hand, some media listened first to Pentagon appeals not to print and air them. But publishing or broadcasting was not a tough call for the media to make.

So now we have two sets of recently published photos that record the cost the U.S. is paying in Iraq and that the Bush administration would have preferred not reach public view. One set shows the arrival home of flag-draped caskets of dutiful American military personnel who laid down their lives in Iraq. The other set shows American military personnel who, for whatever reasons or orders, laid down their principles.

Not everyone is going to like seeing these photographs. Not everyone is going to think they should be published. But the media are right in showing us both perspectives—what those in the military have sacrificed and what they have squandered. The public has a need to see them.

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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