War Photos as Cultural Phenomena

Susan Sontag wrote, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.” (On Photography, p. 2) To what use is that power put? That is the question Torie Rose DeGhett makes in the current issue of The Atlantic. In her article “The War Photo No One Would Publish,” DeGhett focuses on a single photo taken by Kenneth Jarecke during 1991’s Operation Desert Storm. They describe the photo:

“The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.“

It is a truly gruesome shot, and for those for whom visuals are necessary, I’ve included it at the end of this post. The photo never made it into any American publications, though it was published in a British and a French newspaper (not on the front page). DeGhett writes that Jarecke “assumed the media would be only too happy to challenge the popular narrative of a clean, uncomplicated war. ‘When you have an image that disproves that myth,’ he is quoted as saying, ‘then you think it’s going to be widely published.’”

In terms of media coverage, Operation Desert Storm was carefully orchestrated by a military that had learned a lesson from Vietnam – the support of the public is malleable, and images of brutality will shape that support. It would not be surprising were it the military authorities deciding to not publish the photo. But this was a decision of editors, specifically TIME, LIFE, and the Associated Press, which pulled the photo “from its wire services, keeping the photo off the desks of virtually all of America’s editors.” As one person said, “The media took it upon themselves to do what the military censorship did not do.”

What would have been the point of publishing the photo, given that it was taken just hours before a ceasefire brought Operation Desert Storm to a close? Certainly no opinions on the war effort were going to be changed at that late date. And it is hard to imagine any Americans who did not already know that war is a brutal undertaking. Even with the officially sanctioned live shots from the perspective of smart bombs slamming into specific targets – real war as a video game – surely there was an understanding that lives were being extinguished in those blasts. What would the image of another dead, burned victim tell us?

We still struggle with the answer. Currently American news is filling the air with live shots of the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. We’ve seen battered children in bombed out schools, hospitals filling with victims young and old, and distant shots of smoking ruins framed by cheering Israelis. Would not a little sanitizing the images be a relief? It’s certainly what the public seems to prefer. Conor Friedersdorf, in The Atlantic last year wrote, “The retreat from graphic photography seems partly the result of increased timidity about offending the audience: Overall, Americans say that they disapprove of the dissemination of graphic war images. And because consumers do not want grisly images, neither do advertisers…In an R-rated world, American news remains solidly PG,” he adds.

Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others argues that graphic imagery may lead to a “bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” (p. 13) Does this bemusement, this reinforcement that “stuff happens,” ultimately lead to complacency? Sontag worries this might be the case: “An ample reservoir of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry. And the pity and disgust [these] pictures…inspire should not distract you from asking what pictures, whose cruelties, whose deaths are not being shown” (Regarding, p. 13). That is to say, there exists a moral imperative to exposing oneself to war images that at the very least cause discomfort, and at worst may sicken us. War is not sanitary, and many will argue the public should be fully aware of what is transpiring in their name.

Unfortunately it does not always work out the way it should. While hoping that greater awareness will lead to demands for more accountability, even cessation of actions, this is not always the case. For every Nick Ut photograph of children fleeing napalm in Vietnam, and its power to change approval of war, a thousand corpses lay strewn across Afghanistan with little more than a collective, cultural yawn in response. What has happened? Surely war images have always had the power to sway the public and appeal to the nations emotions. One need only conjure the Arizona bursting into flames in Pearl Harbor, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, and the explicit execution of a Viet Cong fighter on a Saigon street. Sontag suggests an answer: “In these last decades, “concerned” photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it…most photographs do not keep their emotional charge [for very long]” (On Photography, pp 15-16).

Have we grown complacent because of, among other factors, media sanitization? Or is it just that dreaded catchphrase “compassion fatigue” setting in? Are we exempt from getting blood on our hands as we watch war transpire, sitting ensconced in “the bravery of being out range,” as Roger Waters so aptly put it? Seeing the burnt and battered bodies of American contractors hanging from a railroad bridge in Fallujah shocks, but it seems as if it does so only for the moment. While the iconic photo by Khalid Mohammed embarrassed the White House, and brought about a large military response to “pacify” the city, the fact remains that within a month these horrible images were replaced by ones that proved even more embarrassing to the White House – those depicting the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. Public moral outrage is specious at best in the age of information overload. Indeed, in discussing the accidental napalm photograph that stands as a stark reminder of the horrors of the Vietnam War, Hariman and Lucaites write: “An image of suffering can be highly persuasive, but not because of the realism ascribed to the photo or its relationship to a single set of moral precepts. A structure of public moral response has to be constructed, it has to be one that is adapted to the deep problems in the culture at the time…” In 1972 weariness with the war was already widely realized in the general public; actions so devastating to children immortalized on film could be argued as inevitably detrimental to the war effort. In 2004, a nation still reeling from 9-11 perceived the scene on that railroad bridge as one more example of an enemy seeking our destruction; an enemy that must ultimately be defeated.

This brings us to wondering why the images of child victims in the Gaza Strip do not stir the same outrage in roughly half the American population. There is a meme floating around the internet: against a backdrop of child-filled stretchers queued in an Emergency Room it says “I don’t have to be Pro-Palestine or Pro-Israel to be want peace. I am Pro-Human.” It is not that simple. Unlike in the Vietnam photo, the current images do not trump the politics of the conflict. Accusations of Israeli brutality are met with the same fierceness by those accusing Hamas of using human shields. And in this conflict, as is the case often in Middle East conflicts, observers find it difficult to separate the people from their respective governments; criticism of the Israeli government is labeled anti-Semitic, just as the same of Hamas is labeled anti-Palestinian. With this muddled political landscape and entrenched perspectives it becomes nearly impossible for one among many images that emerge with increasing regularity to achieve the kind of iconic status that may define this particular conflict. And maybe that is exactly how it should be. Sontag, discussing Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas believes the latter is dismissing politics. Sontag writes, “The case against war does not rely on information about who and when and where; the arbitrariness of the relentless slaughter is evidence enough. To those who are sure that right is on one side, oppression and injustice on the other, and that the fighting must go on, what matters is precisely who is killed and by whom” (Regarding, pp 10-11). A Palestinian will see the child on the stretcher not merely as a child victim, but as a Palestinian child victim. The politics cannot be separated from the emotional reaction. And so long as the politics remain divided the images will fail to capture the heart of the population as a whole.

Returning then to the original premise, what would have been the point of publishing Jarecke’s photograph once its power to influence outcomes has waned? Because in the end the rational basis of American-styled democracy is an informed public, even if after the fact. DeGhett writes, “But never showing these images in the first place guarantees that such an understanding will never develop. ‘Try to imagine, if only for a moment, what your intellectual, political, and ethical world would be like if you had never seen a photograph,’ author Susie Linfield asks in The Cruel Radiance, her book on photography and political violence. Photos like Jarecke’s not only show that bombs drop on real people; they also make the public feel accountable. As David Carr wrote in The New York Times in 2003, war photography has ‘an ability not just to offend the viewer, but to implicate him or her as well.’”

And there is always Jarecke’s own reason, stated in 1991 after his photo failed to be seen by an American audience, “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.”

Jareke The original Jarecke photograph.

nick ut 1Nick Ut’s iconic photo Accidental Napalm

fallujah-0403031-1Fallujah, 03/2004 by Khalid Mohammed

lynndie_englandLynndie England at Abu Ghraib

gaza thrus4Child at a Gaza Strip hospital


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