War Images as Eyewitness

It is true that a picture can be worth 1,000 words. And it's also true that some pictures are worth 1,000 pictures. Especially in times of war, certain pictures have a unique way of changing the course of history.

Photos from Iraq released in the past few weeks -- especially the images of prisoner abuse shown again and again recently -- could be in that category: pictures that inform and influence the public in profound ways.

The decision to publish dramatic and tragic photographs that depict the horrors of war is never easy. Perhaps even the cave dwellers of ancient times felt unsettled as they drew detailed battle images on their walls. We do know that throughout the modern era of warfare and photography, journalists have struggled with achieving a balance between maximizing truthful reporting and minimizing unnecessary harm, and the graphic images from Iraq have ignited that struggle anew. 

Newspapers across the country have made different decisions about whether to publish the new images that show abuse and even death, and they are likely to face more difficult decisions if new photographs and videotapes of even worse brutality become public, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned Friday.

Yet by and large the U.S. media's principle is this: Citizens can make their own best choices when armed with honest information.

Consider the impact of certain iconic photos of past conflicts. There was the 1968 photo of South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong officer with a single pistol shot to the head in Saigon, as reported by Eddie Adams. There was also the photo of the napalm-seared 9-year-old Kim Phuc seeking help, documented in 1972 by Nick Ut.

More recently, recall the countless "Highway of Death'' photographs from the 1991 Operation Desert Storm, especially one that showed an incinerated Iraqi soldier at the wheel of his vehicle. And lest we forget a U.S. soldier's limp body being dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, by angry anti-American protesters, recorded in 1993 by Paul Watson.

These photos earned journalistic recognition. Yet the greatest prize was informing the public on matters of world interest. All expanded public consciousness or in some way impacted policy: The Vietnam photos helped galvanize the anti-war effort and also encouraged other citizens to support the troops. The Somalia photo influenced President Clinton's decision to withdraw troops from the African nation. The Highway of Death photos sullied the image of a quick, clean war. 

Fast-forward to the war in Iraq. We've seen photos showing the murders of four contractors, the burning of their bodies, and the repugnant dismembering and hanging of torsos on a bridge in Al-Fallujah. And the photos of the melancholy garden of coffins draped in red, white, and blue in a plane's cargo area (linked photo by Tami Silicio, courtesy of The Seattle Times).

And now the disgusting treatment of Iraqi prisoners of war by a few of America's soldiers. Over the past 10 days, the images of brutality have been broadcast and published around the world: Iraqi prisoners piled naked in a pyramid, a wired and hooded Iraqi, an inmate pinned under a stretcher, a female soldier holding a leash tied to the neck of a naked prisoner. 
Such images are articles of visual information that convey messages of truth and report authentic facts in immeasurable ways. Journalists know that, citizens understand this, the American government tries to control this (the Pentagon acknowledged it had asked CBS to delay initial broadcasting of the prison images), and terrorists seek to abuse this. 

Thus, decisions about compelling and often disturbing photographs will never satisfy all of the people all of the time, and that is not the role of the messenger. 

Newsroom leaders and decision-makers agonize over "doing the right thing'' when trying to decide whether to show visual truths -- and not just write about those truths -- because the visual images are more searing.  

"We are not taking a particular side'' by publishing photos, said Michel duCille, picture editor of The Washington Post, after making the decision to publish prison photographs last week. As Marcia Prouse, director of photography at the Orange County Register, put it, "Does the news value of the photograph outweigh the taste factor?''

How is "taste'' defined? A dictionary definition might describe it as a form, style, or manner showing propriety. Newsrooms use less abstract tests, such as:

  • How would a person react to this image over a bowl of Cheerios or a glass of orange juice?

  • Does the photo show dead bodies?

  • Does the photo show blood?

  • Does the photo show people naked?

What if my child saw this?

In many newsrooms around the country, some of the recent Iraq photos failed the litmus test. Many journalists argued against running the photos, just as many argued it was important to run them, but in the end certain images were not published. Indeed, many editors -- reflecting the generally stricter litmus tests of the past 10-to-15 years -- argue that viewers and readers don't want to see such pictures.

On the other hand, some observers might say that newsroom leaders are too concerned with being besieged by calls, letters, and e-mails, or with facing subscription cancellations or channel changing. 

The primary role of photojournalism is to visually document and report on the significant events of the day and on the varied viewpoints in our common world.Whatever their decision on the new photos, many news organizations disagree with the Bush administration's ban on taking photos of dead soldiers' homecomings, a policy intended to show
respect for the soldiers' families. "I believe there should be a free flow of information between the government and the media,'' said Jeff Cohen, editor of the Houston Chronicle.

Complicating decisions these days are technological innovations and the ubiquitous digital cameras. Everywhere you look there are citizens with cameras challenging historic notions of who is a journalist. 

In recent weeks we have seen a former Maytag Aircraft cargo worker -- not a journalist -- take photos of soldiers' coffins being loaded onto aircraft bound for the United States. She said she wanted to shed illumination on the care and integrity being rendered to America's fallen soldiers. 

It was a citizen with a cause and a website (www.thememoryhole.org) -- not a journalist -- who filed a Freedom of Information Act request that led the Department of Defense to release several hundred photographs of dead soldiers' caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base. 
And it is ostensibly a U.S. soldier -- not a journalist -- who documented the interrogation tactics and objectionable actions in the Abu Ghurayb prison near Baghdad. Prouse of the Orange County Register notes that "there are fewer embedded photographers in the region and that the activities now are so spread out that the violence is more random,'' thus leading to more dependence for images on freelancers and civilians. She also is concerned that throughout this war there have been "a lot more images of the conflict'' and thus the powerful iconic images are fewer and farther between.

Whether it is with powerful still or video images, the primary role of photojournalism is to visually document and report on the significant events of the day and on the varied viewpoints in our common world. 

As Americans sift through lots of images from Iraq, they ought to be able to trust that photographers and editors have thought enough about their choices to give them ones that, while they may be upsetting, will illuminate what they need to know about the impact of war on the people involved.

A slightly different version of this article appeared in Sunday's Perspective section of the San Jose Mercury News. (See PDFs of the front page and the jump page)

  • Kenneth Irby

    Kenny founded Poynter's photojournalism program in 1995. He teaches in seminars and consults in areas of photojournalism, leadership, ethics and diversity.


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