5 June 2006
New York Times, June 5, 2006
Published: June 5, 2006
FOR war photography, Vietnam remains the bloody yardstick. During the Tet offensive, on Feb. 9, 1968, Time magazine ran a story that was accompanied by photos showing dozens of dead American soldiers stacked like cordwood. The images remind that the dead are both the most patient and affecting of all subjects.
The Iraq war is a very different war, especially as rendered at home. While pictures of Iraqi dead are ubiquitous on television and in print, there are very few images of dead American soldiers. (We are offered pictures of the grievously wounded, but those are depictions of hope and sacrifice in equal measure.) A comprehensive survey done last year by James Rainey of The Los Angeles Times found that in a six-month period in which 559 Americans and Western allies died, almost no pictures were published of the American dead in the mainstream print media.
Not much has changed since then, even though soldiers from all branches continue to perish (although not at same deadly rate as in Vietnam, where more than 1,000 soldiers died in some months in 1968). Is there a taboo, political or otherwise, on the publication of photos of women and men who paid the ultimate price in Iraq?
There is a very real public appetite for unalloyed images of the Iraq war. "The War Tapes," a documentary filmed by National Guardsmen from New Hampshire on convoy security in the deadly Sunni Triangle, won the Tribeca Film Festival's documentary award and has picked up enthusiastic reviews. "Baghdad ER," HBO's gory look inside battlefield medicine, has been seen by 3.5 million viewers and is the cable network's most-watched news documentary in two years.
EVEN the tabloids are looking to the war to sell magazines through what now seem like forbidden images. Shock, a new photo tabloid magazine from Hachette Filipacchi, ran a blood-red battlefield image on its cover and eight pages inside drawing parallels between Iraq and Vietnam. The photos were gruesome, but nothing that was not manifest in the pages of Life, Newsweek and Time during the Vietnam War.
In part because the current administration restricted access to returning coffins from Iraq, conspiracy theorists suggest that a sanitized visual narrative is being constructed for an increasingly unpopular war. But the hardy few Western journalists who are still finding a way to shoot pictures in Iraq say that it is practical, not political, realities that dictate what we see.
A study of 200 American and international journalists covering the Iraq war, done by American University School of Communication in 2004, found that 17 percent of them worked for organizations that would not publish pictures of the dead, and 42 percent had rules discouraging the practice. Absent government censorship, there are a variety of taste issues and commercial considerations a dead body is never a good adjacency for ads and a squeamish public aesthetic that can lead to germane but grisly photographs being left on the darkroom floor.
In November 2004, Stefan Zaklin, a photographer for the European Photopress Agency, was embedded with a United States Army company whose captain was shot and killed entering a house in Fallujah. He took a gritty, horrific portrait of the fallen soldier that ran in several European publications, but has only shown up in United States publications in stories about photos that went unpublished.
"There's really no way to know why this image wasn't published at all in the United States," he wrote in the blog Fabrica Forma Fotografia. "Every editor whether a photo editor or their superior who made the decision not to publish this picture had a reason. They might all sound different after one listen. But listen again, and you will hear the grinding wheels of the free market turning American journalism into dust."
An odd bifurcation in cultural sensibilities is at work as well: Americans are rabid fans of "reality" programming, save for the real McCoy. Exploded heads and bloody entrails land easily on audiences when rendered in computer animation on the big screen, but the same images in newsprint or on a newscast are seen as vile and somewhat pornographic. "Supporting our troops" who doesn't, by the way? apparently means averting our eyes when they end up on the wrong end of a firefight.
But it isn't just journalism or public taste that has changed; so has the kind of war American troops are fighting. Iraq is a vast place where conflict erupts and hides of its own accord and where photographers are embedded with specific military units. Vietnam was a much smaller country where correspondents and photographers were free to roam to wherever they could hitch a ride. Soldiers who came of age at a time when the war at home was lost on the strength of public revulsion are now the ones running the show. They will not make the same mistake.
"No war was ever covered like the Vietnam War, and no war ever will be covered like it again," said Hal Buell, the former head of the Associated Press photo agency, who saw plenty of images of dead Americans in the Vietnam years. "That war lasted 10 years, and there was no censorship. The violence was captured in excruciating detail."
Sitting in the Getty Images' offices in downtown New York, Chris Hondros, a veteran war photographer, thinks that practical factors are limiting pictures of American battlefield dead.
"Unless it happens right in front of you, you can't make a picture of it," said Mr. Hondros, who has been to Iraq seven times and is currently in the United States working on a story about returning soldiers. Other than waiting 72 hours for families to be notified, he said, there are no restrictions on putting images of American dead on the wire. (Whether they get used or not is another matter.)
But Mr. Hondros also notes that fewer and fewer journalists are covering the war as it drags on, in part because no one can figure out how to stay safe. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that 71 journalists have been killed in Iraq including two CBS journalists last week more than were killed in either World War II or Vietnam.
"It is getting horrendously bad," he said, pointing out that the CBS crew members were killed just down the street from the hotel where he had stayed. "You can't work the way you want because of the security concerns."
Ashley Gilbertson is a freelance photographer who has spent much of the last four years in Iraq and is working on a book about his time there.
"There are so many troops and so few press. You have a very small chance of witnessing a death," he said by phone from Vienna. He added that pictures he had taken of wounded soldiers had run in The New York Times and elsewhere. "Some people don't have access to the major papers, but I think that if Americans are serious about wanting to know what is going on there, they can find out."
It is worth noting that Mr. Rainey, who wrote about the paucity of images from Iraq, is currently working on stories there. Mr. Hondros remains interested in going back into Iraq to Ramadi in particular, which at the moment has been closed off by the Marines but he is not looking forward to it.
"I don't like working in Iraq. The terrain is flat and uninteresting, the food is terrible, the weather is ridiculous, and to be honest, the people are not that charming or interesting. And yes, it's very dangerous, even compared to other wars," he said. "But I don't feel that I have the ability to write off the Iraq war just because it isn't fun anymore."