May 8, 2011

Some brief comments about war photography in the news

1. One of the reasons that the New York Times gives for a noticeable lack of iconic Iraq war photographs -- that "the country was the country was too dangerous for photographers to move around freely" -- is the kind of reason a military spokesperson would give, but which wouldn't likely come from a war photographer. It was a reason given, actually, to not allow war photographers to do what they do.

They're making it sound like there was a calculated decision on the part of the photographers. Actually it was calculated by the government to control of the images coming out of the war zone. There was a pretty thorough cleaning-up and scrubbing of the conflict.

2. Americans believe they're more calloused against graphic images of gore than they are.

Pictures of people shot in the head are different than images from prime time crime TV, contra Jon Stewart, who I'm guessing from his comments hasn't spent any time looking at war photography, much less any uncensored war photography such as the "trophy photos" some soldiers took.

I have a photo of an Iraqi man shot in the head about where Osama bin Laden was reportedly shot. It's part of the major project I did on soldiers' war photography. In black and white, the photo provokes involuntary revulsion. In color, its worse, as you can actually see the color of the brains, blood, etc., coming from the goopy hole.

I support releasing the photos of bin Laden dead (for moral reasons, not practical/political ones). But this argument, that it wouldn't affect us or deeply disturb us, is just wrong.

3. It would be helpful if people remembered that most everything they see about war has been censored. Perhaps not by the government, but certainly by taste.

4. Images of war are not just images, not just documents and documentation. They are, in and of themselves, morally fraught. E.g. "porn for gore," "www.nowthatsfuckedup.com," and trophy photos.

5. I am uncomfortable with how willing I am, in my own heart, to romanticize dead war photographers. To make them straight heroes, and nothing but heroic. I am trying to remind myself of what Chris Hedges and others have said about the PTSD involved in the compulsion to go, again and again, into the violence with a camera, how death is addictive, and how there's something deeply unhealthy about how it becomes a need to take pictures of soldiers and war and violence and gory head shots of former enemies.