Image problems in Iraq

By: Barbara Bedway

In May, the Los Angeles Times released a survey revealing how few photographs of wounded or dead American service members in Iraq were appearing in U.S. publications. Newspaper editors seemed to agree that one primary obstacle was logistical: Given the sporadic nature of the violence occurring in a country the size of California, getting to the news is a dangerous challenge in itself. But when photographers are indeed able to capture such scenes, what happens to those images?

The Times’ survey of six months of coverage found almost no pictures of Americans killed in action at a time when 559 Americans and Western allies died; the same publications ran just 44 photos from Iraq to represent the thousands of Westerners wounded during the same period. But according to photo services, pictures are sometimes transmitted and left unused.

Santiago Lyon, director of photography for The Associated Press, says the wire service primarily gets such images from embedded photographers, who are bound by military ground rules to hold back photos in which the dead or wounded might be recognized until the families are notified. “If the faces are not recognizable, in theory you can send them,” he says. “But it’s rare that we’re in a situation where we’re able to [obtain] those pictures. Even with the foreign photographers working there, it’s still a lot of hit and miss.”

One notable exception: Last year, AP photographer John B. Moore ? one of a team of AP photographers in Iraq who won a Pulitzer in the breaking news category this year ? got exclusive access to a U.S. military hospital in Baghdad and was able to photograph the dead and wounded. One striking image that he captured showed medics attempting to resuscitate a dying soldier.

“We made an effort not to show the faces,” says Lyon, “but when we sent them out, in the U.S. a lot of major papers chose not to run them. Those papers and other media subscribe to our feed. They’re paying a flat rate, and can run as many or as few as they choose. In this case, they chose not to.”

For Philadelphia Inquirer photographer David Swanson, who spent a month with Second Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment in April 2004, the dearth of photos of the dead and wounded smacks of “situational” ethics: “There’s less chance of publishing a mortally wounded American on the cover than that of an Afghani or Iraqi,” he relates in an e-mail. “Papers ran the photos of the dead from the tsunami, but would we have done that if it had happened in Florida?”

The very timeliness of photographs taken in Mosul on election day last January by Moises Saman, a longtime photographer for Newsday, raised problems for both the military and the newspaper. In an e-mail from his post in Afghanistan, Saman describes being embedded with a unit from the 82nd Airborne when a grenade attack severely injured seven American soldiers: “It was a bloody scene, with medics frantically assisting the wounded soldiers. The commander of the unit politely asked me to not file the images until the families of the wounded were notified. This in itself jeopardized the chances of the photographs being seen,” due to loss of timeliness.

Newsday, however, chose to run two of Saman’s photos. The first, published on the night of the election, showed a soldier being carried away on a stretcher, photographed from the side to obscure his identity. The second, published four days later, showed another soldier being evacuated on a stretcher.

Saman believes so few pictures are appearing in American papers because of a double standard that he says reflects the nature of our society. “Americans understand we are at war ? but not many people want to see the real consequences, especially when they involve one of your own,” he says. “I think some publications cater to this sentiment by trying not to anger subscribers and advertisers with harsh ‘in-your-face’ coverage of the true nature of war.”

Newsday’s photography editor, Jeff Schamberry, says the paper used the best photos from the five or six Saman transmitted that day. “There was a sense of urgency in the pictures,” he recalls. “In that respect they were good, because he was there and recorded an actual hostile event. That day went better than had been expected, and we were glad to get some kind of an action shot out of it.”

But he points out that even when the photographer is present to capture such an event, further confirmation is often needed: “I hate to eat a good picture, but if you don’t have facts, it’s hard to pop a picture in the paper with no explanation. It’s not that you don’t trust the photographer, it’s just that they only have part of the story. You try to get the story as the Army reported it.”

He cites the memorable photos taken at a Tal Afar checkpoint last January, showing bloodstained children who’d been riding in their family’s car when soldiers on a patrol at dusk fired on them. Their father, the car’s driver, had failed to slow down despite warning shots, the military said, and both parents were killed. “The photographer had tremendous pictures, and sent them through with very sketchy information,” Schamberry says. “We wondered how to run it. We try to present a balanced picture, and not just sensational photos.”

It was Chris Hondros, a photographer for Getty Images, who took the photos of the Tal Afar checkpoint shooting while embedded with a unit of the 25th Infantry Division. He encountered some anger from the military last January after Getty chose not to agree to the military’s request to delay sending them out. “They never asked me to censor,” Hondros emphasizes, “they asked me to delay.” But delay can sometimes mean the photos arrive too late to ever be used.

Though he had not violated any ground rules, he chose to leave the next day. “Even if I had not sent those photos, I would have left that embed,” he says. “The incident had been a high stress one, and it didn’t start me out on a good footing with these particular soldiers. It’s impossible to be operating under hostility in an embedded situation.”

His photographs of the blood-spattered, traumatized children were widely distributed to U.S. papers ? but few ran more than a single photo. By contrast, Hondros says, those photographs “seemingly dominated the discourse in Europe, where they were run in full over multiple pages by many important papers there. “

AP’s Lyon agrees that internationally there’s more an appetite for those types of pictures. He feels the reluctance of U.S. newspapers to publish those images is not an issue on which AP should comment. “We’re providing photos and text to our subscribers, and it’s up to them to use pictures as they see fit,” he observes. “We’ve covered our mission. Of course, as a journalist, I think the truth needs to be told.”

For Swanson, who captured a particularly vivid truth while embedded with Echo Company, which lost 12 of its Marines in a two-week period, the poverty of images has removed death from the war: “It’s war, whether you agree to it or not … death needs to be shown. You have to know what you might lose before you commit so many lives. A country needs to be reminded that an 18-year-old has just died, and that Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day are not just days for picnics at the beach.”

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