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
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
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.