When to publish images of the dead and wounded?

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Marines and Navy Corpsmen treat an Iraqi Police officer at a station in downtown Fallujah, January 2007. Though seriously wounded with a gunshot through his back, this man was stabilized and survived after being transported to an American facility. Photo by Bill Ardolino.

The AP’s decision to run a picture of a mortally wounded Marine has erupted in controversy roughly breaking down along right-left political lines on mememorandum. The dominant hawkish argument is that the picture violates standards of personal decency, the embed agreement, and the wishes of the Marine’s family, and constitutes exploitative journalism. Some also assert that its publication was intended as a political statement. The opposing position argues that the photographer showcased an important reality of a war which has been essentially sanitized in its presentation to news consumers.

My feelings on the matter are complicated. Let me state up front that I would not have run the AP’s picture. If nothing else, because the Marine’s father explicitly asked them not to run it. My editorial judgment would determine that the value of the picture, as opposed to a short description of the event, does not eclipse the harm caused to the family.

But I also stop short of agreeing with many folks I respect who assert that the image is necessarily political, intentionally demoralizing, or the work of a nakedly ambitious photographer trying to win a Pulitzer via the death of a young Marine.

A few days into my first embed in Iraq, I was staying in an Iraqi police station. Fallujan cops were routinely being shot in and around the edges of the compound, and the small team of advisory Marines and Navy corpsmen would carry each of them up to the second floor landing of the station to treat often terrible wounds. The first time this happened, I froze for about five seconds, and then started quietly taking shots. Some of the Iraqis gave me dirty looks, and after perhaps the fifth picture, one of the cops angrily yelled at me. I felt awful, like a vulture. I put the camera down, and spent some time thinking about what to do with the photos.

I came to the conclusion that pictures displaying the casualties being suffered by the Fallujan police were newsworthy. The care the Americans were showing the Iraqis was also very important. The images of these events conveyed something that a simple description could not wholly communicate: how US advisers were furiously working to save their hesitant Iraqi allies, and that brave Fallujans were suffering aggressive retribution for their decision to stand up as police.

In the end, I grabbed an interpreter and spoke to several Iraqis, notably the man who yelled at me. I told him I was sorry that his friend was injured, and explained why I was taking the pictures, and why I wanted to publish them. In the end, I agreed to disguise the identity of any injured cops, and showed him the blurred or angled shots prior to publication to increase the Iraqis’ comfort. A compromise that satisfied news value and moral misgivings was reached, and the pictures were run.

Perhaps a week later, I took some photos of Iraqi insurgents who had been killed by a fusillade of small arms fire. The shots were dramatic and gruesome, and a particular image of a very young man’s vacant eyes and blood-streaked face seemed to convey a relevant message about who opted to join the by-then unpopular insurgency, and how that decision often ended. I can honestly say that I learned something from seeing it. I didn’t publish the pictures for aesthetic reasons and to avoid the perception of hawking “war porn.” Though I wasn’t personally bothered by the shots, the thought of someone being repelled by or celebrating them was unattractive. But in retrospect, I regret not running any of the pictures. Why?

Death and injury are intrinsic to the conflict. Some pundits have claimed that “everybody knows how terrible war is,” so there is no news interest in publishing photographs that illustrate this fact. I can’t entirely agree. Violence is the central feature of war, but it gets indirect treatment, often because it’s rarer to catch it on film in the current counterinsurgency battlefields. And I believe that war remains an abstract event for people, because it remained somewhat so for me until I saw it outside of a movie theatre. If the interest is pure truth – and understand, that is not the only important interest – the current wars are less sanitized of hard images than the Gulf War, but arguably more sanitized than Vietnam, World War II and other American conflicts where the press displayed pictures of the dead and wounded.

The idea of news organizations publishing photos of such events might seem more palatable if there wasn’t a perception that the media was so inherently skeptical of the US military’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, if the Western media published “grim milestone” stories about Taliban or al Qaeda casualties like it incessantly does about US deaths, news consumers of all stripes might be inclined to place a little more faith in the impartial editorial judgment of our news services. Since that’s not the case, it’s understandable when folks speculate that the AP editors had more than purely informational interests when they reached the decision to publish this photograph.

I’ve seen the photo. From a dry, compositional perspective, it’s not a very good picture, and probably doesn’t meet that basic standard for publication. I think it’s possible for different individuals to look at it and turn or remain anti- or pro-war. It’s also possible to look at that picture and develop a more visceral respect for what Marines and soldiers endure. The picture has inherent value: it illustrates that the Marines are being engaged by RPGs and small arms fire, how sudden that can be, and what the immediate aftermath is like. It’s also moving, demoralizing, sad, upsetting, and inspirational seeing a young man who is vigorous one second and grievously injured the next, with his brothers trying to save him. All of these possible opinions surround a single picture because the issue is complex, and one worth grappling with as we struggle to ethically cover and understand these wars.

I would not have published the photograph because its content was not essential and it violated the express wishes of the man’s family. I don’t think it’s the right time. That said, history will eventually judge it to have value in illustrating a scene from our current conflict. I hope people can recognize these mutually valid perspectives as they debate the issue.

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2 Comments

  • Joel says:

    For me, as a Marine who has deployed to Iraq and will likely deploy to Afghanistan fairly soon, the most disturbing aspect of the photo being published is how it will be used for political purposes by those on the left. They don’t care about the Marine or the family. They just want to use the image of a Marine in his final moments to further their anti-war agenda. That really sickens me to the core.

  • NS Webster says:

    I agree with Bill Ardolino that if the parents didn’t want the picture published, that should have been enough. “Do no harm” is the professional standard, especially when dealing with those out of the public eye.
    The picture of Cpl. Bernard’s death doesn’t tell a larger story by itself. Pictures of him on that last patrol, followed by his memorial service, would have made the same point, more poignantly.
    Last year, I wrote a post for LWJ that included a postscript about a soldier I briefly met who was killed in action after I left:
    //www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2008/08/sons_of_iraq_payday.php
    My first version of the short note was written in first-person and was overly melodramatic – in other words, it put the focus on the writer, and not where it should be – the soldier. Bill Roggio wisely had me rewrite it much more objectively, to return the focus back to Sgt. Gibson.
    By presenting the photo of Cpl. Bernard in a big package full of journals and justifications, all it’s doing is drawing attention to the AP’s process, which is not relevant to the events they are reporting. They are making themselves the story, and courting this controversey for their own ends.
    If a journalist has to write pages and pages to justify a photo, or explain what the viewer should be seeing or why they should be seeing it, then it’s a false argument. I think a photo that needs more than minimal written context and commentary isn’t telling any kind of story.

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