AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2004

Images of War   

This year the American news media have displayed pictures of burned bodies in Fallujah, flag-draped coffins coming home from Iraq and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But were they too squeamish when it came to showing the carnage of war during the invasion last year?

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

In April 2003, Time magazine published a number of photographs from the Iraq war, each dramatically spread across two full pages. Among them, the image of a dead Iraqi lying in the desert. The photograph was powerful--the man's mouth slightly open, his face fully visible, his body lying on the dry, cracked red earth, a column of U.S. military vehicles in the distance. It was a tragic image of war, but more poetic than graphic.

On the last page of the same issue, Joe Klein showed readers a 1943 Life magazine photo of American soldiers, dead on the shores of Papua New Guinea. Where, he wondered in the essay, in this war of embeds and digitally transmitted images, were photos as unsettling as this black-and-white taken by George Strock in World War II? "We are closer to war than ever before--hardly half an hour goes by without some embedded ace breathlessly reporting, in real time, from the front," Klein wrote. "But the war we are seeing is bowdlerized, PG-rated... At a moment like this, the media should be an irritant--shocking us, shaking us, making sure that we're as alert and uncomfortable as possible in the comfort of our living rooms."

Klein was among friends with such comments--many chastised the media for presenting a sanitized version of events. Where were the shocking photographs? Where were the bodies? It was a war in which hardly anyone seemed to die.

A year later, few--besides Michael Moore--were still criticizing the press for holding back. In April 2004 the public saw the mutilated, burned and beaten bodies of four American contractors in Fallujah; the rows of flag-draped coffins coming home from Iraq; and the unfathomable images of the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. "It is as though, rather suddenly, the gloves have come off, and the war seems less sanitized, more personally intrusive," wrote Michael Getler, ombudsman at the Washington Post.

In retrospect, was the press, in the beginning, reluctant to show graphic images from Iraq? Were editors passing over pictures of the war's human toll in favor of those depicting military might? Was there a fear that showcasing bloody images would be deemed critical of the war effort?

Some argue news executives still are worrying a bit too much about what the public's reaction might be to blood and gore. But most of the journalists interviewed for this article reject the notion that the media shied away from using images of civilian casualties and the like. The images changed as the nature of the conflict changed, they say--though many believe the U.S. press has crept toward the conservative over the years in its handling of graphic images.

"I don't believe there was in my experience, and in my newsroom, a conscious effort to sanitize the war, to make it look cleaner than obviously war is," says Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Miami Herald. "But early on, I think the pictures that our own photographers were getting or those we were relying on were pictures that probably reflected more the successes the American military was having." Fiedler doesn't remember an instance in which editors decided they couldn't run a photo because of the casualties depicted.

Others think the media were tentative. Early on in the war, says Michel duCille, picture editor at the Washington Post, "I think all the media, including the Washington Post, we went with the wave of trying to tell the story, but we weren't going against the American authorities." (In August, the paper acknowledged in a front-page story that it didn't give enough weight to stories critical of the administration's claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.) DuCille says he doesn't think the media were consciously censoring themselves, but there was a reluctance to "come out of the gates criticizing or even seeming to criticize the Americans." He echoes Getler's comments: "Finally when that coffin situation erupted..that really made the bough break, and that I was waiting for."

Barbie Zelizer, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and a former journalist, points out some of the images that broke the bough, though, came from nonjournalists--both Abu Ghraib and the coffin photos. "There were a lot of independent forces moving the question of what is a good war image of this particular war in directions that journalism had not necessarily taken us," she says.

It's difficult to get a consensus on such subjective issues: What's too graphic? What's too conservative? How much does the public's sensitivity play into editorial decisions? If anything's a given in photojournalism, it's that there are restrictions and limitations--both in what journalists can capture with a camera and what editors will show to the public.

And there are no limitations when it comes to the criticism. "Newspapers take so much flak from being too liberal and showing too [many] graphic images," says Cheryl Diaz Meyer, senior staff photographer at the Dallas Morning News, who, along with colleague David Leeson, won a Pulitzer for work in Iraq. Readers say, "'How am I supposed to have breakfast and read my paper and see blood and gore?'" she says. At the same time, others are asking if the media are playing it safe. "It's difficult to win."

One of the best-known images from the first Persian Gulf War was a photograph that wasn't published in the United States at the time. Ken Jarecke's shot of a dead Iraqi soldier, charred and ashen, still at the wheel of his vehicle, is a startling image. The Associated Press didn't even transmit the photo, and the London Observer was the only publication to print it--that is, until Jarecke wrote about the controversial image in American Photo magazine's July/August 1991 issue.

The feeling that the media had suppressed the photo drew a lot of attention to it. MaryAnne Golon, picture editor at Time magazine, calls it one of the iconic images from the first gulf war--one her magazine deemed too graphic. Jarecke was under contract for Time, but his photos were also available to the wires because of the pool system set up by the Pentagon during that war.

Photographer Peter Turnley took similar photos along the "mile of death," a stretch of highway where Iraqi soldiers were hit by American bombs. The day after the war ended, the U.S. military was burying the incinerated bodies in large graves. In December 2002, Turnley wrote of his experience on the Web site The Digital Journalist and posted many images of this scene and another on a different road in Iraq, images he didn't see published in the media. Some of the black-and-white photos show bodies that were beheaded and soldiers bulldozing the dead into a grave. Turnley wrote that he wanted to prompt a discussion of these images as a second war in Iraq loomed. His photographs do not represent a political point of view, he wrote. "What they do represent is a part of a more accurate picture of what really does happen in war. I feel it is important and that citizens have the right to see these images."

The knowledge that such gruesome photos existed in the first gulf war, and the much greater access given to journalists in this conflict, contributed to the expectation that the public would truly see graphic images this time. But, by and large, when the shock and awe began, they didn't.

James Hill, a contract photographer for the New York Times, was in Iraq for about the first seven weeks of the war. He was not embedded with a military unit, but he joined U.S. Marines three days into the conflict. "It's hard to say the media is at fault itself," he says of the lack of graphic images. Not military restrictions but simple logistics meant Hill couldn't always photograph what he saw on the road to Baghdad. "You're driving where they're driving," he says. "I was in my own Jeep... But if you're in a convoy, you're not saying, 'Hey, that's a good picture. Let's stop and take it.'"

Hill took the Time magazine photo of the dead Iraqi in the desert; a shot of the same scene ran in the New York Times. "That was a very rare occasion," he says. "Very few people got to see things like that... I was surprised how important that image turned out to be, because I assumed people were photographing similar things."

The unilaterals in Baghdad faced different restrictions. Mostly being led around by Iraqi officials (before the city fell to coalition troops), journalists didn't always know the circumstances behind the carnage they were shown. Colin Crawford, assistant managing editor, photography, at the Los Angeles Times, remembers one photo taken by Carolyn Cole of two dead children in a morgue. It was a "very powerful, moving photo," he says. But Iraqis had taken journalists to the morgue, and the paper didn't know how the children had been killed. Had a journalist been able to confirm that U.S. bombs had killed them, or perhaps if Cole hadn't been led to the scene in a parade of journalists, the Times would have run the photo, Crawford says. But in this case, "we were being used," he says. "We felt manipulated, and we didn't run it."

Crawford disagrees with the notion that the media held back in their early coverage of the conflict. "I was stunned by the volume and quality of really great photography that came out of the war," he says. "We ran a lot of dead bodies." The Times won't show a "blown-to-bits body on page one for no good reason," Crawford says, but the paper ran images of a busload of civilians that was accidentally shot up and grieving families whose loved ones had been killed.

Time's MaryAnne Golon stresses that the embeds weren't as restricted as many people thought and the unilaterals weren't as free. "Are we censoring?" she asks. "I don't think so... In the early part of the war, I think we were braver" than other media. "We" meaning Time magazine, which was the first to publish in April 2003 a photo of Ali Ismail Abbas, a 12-year-old boy who lost both his arms and was badly burned during a firefight in his neighborhood. Photographer Yuri Kozyrev took the photo when he went to visit a doctor he knew. Golon says it was questionable how the boy's home was bombed, but the fact that Kozyrev wasn't led to Abbas by an Iraqi official contributed to the decision to publish. Abbas became a poster child for all wounded Iraqi children, and, Golon says, he was flown to Kuwait and later London for treatment. The picture quite possibly saved his life.

Only later did Time find out that the Iraqi army had put antiaircraft artillery in the civilian neighborhood and that installation had been bombed. The boy's house was a half a block away.

Media images became more graphic, many say, as the conflict changed--from air war to urban combat. Plus, some news organizations now employ local Iraqi or Arab staffers who can move through volatile situations more easily than Westerners.

"The stuff from the embedded guys was pretty bland," says John Long, staff photographer at the Hartford Courant, where he has worked for 33 years. "It got graphic when it seemed to have to. All of a sudden, pictures started coming in."

Hill, the New York Times contract photographer, says he doesn't think the media were conspiring to present a candy-coated version of war. "Another thing I thought at the time, our own visual conceptions of war are still guided by images that we carry over from World War II and Korea and Vietnam," he says. "These were much more bloody conflicts" with more equal forces. "People still expect war to look like Vietnam," Hill says. "And it doesn't."

At the beginning of the war, the coalition forces bombed and Iraqis mainly ran away, Hill says. "Only now that the technical advantage that the Americans had is leveled out..it's a war with bodies."

Iraqis, unlike Americans, are very willing to point out injuries to a photographer, to say "'Look at my amputated leg,'" says Pauline Lubens, staff photojournalist at the San Jose Mercury News. "I find myself thinking, I could shoot this; they'll never run it." But she'd prefer to photograph "the agony on someone's face rather than the gaping wound in someone's stomach."

"I may edit myself a little bit," says Lubens, not sure if she's grown wiser or more cautious after nearly 24 years working for newspapers. "I think wiser."

Lubens captured the impact of the war on civilians as a unilateral photographer, traveling in southern Iraq on assignment for Knight Ridder. She was in the country for the first six weeks of war and again this year from late May until the end of July. Her paper played her photos well, Lubens says, but she didn't send a lot of graphic images. She got a different view, however, than the embedded journalists--no cheering Iraqis but unhappy people, complaining about the lack of electricity, water and safety. "I think my experience gave me a more realistic assessment of what the postwar was going to be like," she says.

U.S. media aren't likely to pick the most gruesome images to illustrate a story. "I know many a photograph will not probably run if it's too gory," says Cheryl Diaz Meyer of the Dallas Morning News, "so I try to give my editors options... I don't want a theme to be overlooked..just because, you know, there's one bloody leg sticking out."

Diaz Meyer says she was surprised, though, by what the paper did run. "Some of the photos I took I thought were fairly graphic, and I thought were going to not pass the queasy test."

Her photo of children, dead in a minibus that didn't stop for a U.S. checkpoint, ran on an inside page in black and white. "There was actually a more graphic image taken from the side of the little boy," Diaz Meyer says, where you can "clearly see a hole in the side of his head." But both photos, she says, tell the same story.

Would it have been better to run the more shocking photo? Or insensitive and unnecessary? Editors and producers make such judgment calls, frequently labeling images "too much."

Crawford and Golon talk about what took courage to run and what didn't make the cut. Crawford: A David Leeson photo of the back of an American soldier, an M16 on her shoulder and two dead Iraqis on either side of her on the ground. It ran across six columns on an inside page. The photo said "people are dying out there. This is not a video game," Crawford says. "I thought it really gave the reader a lot of information, not at all in a sensational or grotesque way."

The L.A. Times ran the photo of the contractors killed in Fallujah, strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River, on an inside page--Crawford thought it should have run on page one--but more disturbing images than that one were transmitted over the wire. "The ones we didn't run, especially, were really horrific," he says. "Most of them went over the top."

Golon lists a number of photos she was proud that Time published: Hill's photo of the dead Iraqi, Kozyrev's photo of the wounded boy and another shot of a coffin with a bloodstain in the bottom of it, a Robert Nickelsberg image of an American soldier carrying a wounded comrade on his back. What didn't readers see? Photos by Christopher Morris of a "road-clearing mission"--soldiers literally clearing the road of body parts of dead Iraqis. "It was gross," Golon says. One image from that take, two soldiers dragging a civilian by his legs into a ditch, ran not in the magazine, but in a book Time published, "21 Days to Baghdad," and on its Web site.

Why was it OK for the book but not for the magazine? Time Managing Editor Jim Kelly says that besides being disrespectful to the families of the Iraqis that were killed, he didn't think the pictures were appropriate for the magazine. "I had stuff that I thought was more germane to what was going on that week," Kelly also says. But "to use one of those images in a book that's more than 100 pages long, I don't have a problem with that."

Kenneth F. Irby, visual journalism group leader at the Poynter Institute, says he knows the wires moved some difficult photos that a lot of U.S. news organizations chose not to publish. Picture editors called him during the war, asking, "Would you publish this picture?" "What strategy can I use to get this photo in?" Irby recommends editors consider placement, size and the option of using black and white. "Those are all editing choices and alternatives that I think too often don't get discussed, because it's either publish it or don't."

Golon says some of the most horrifying pictures she's ever seen came from Haiti this year: bodies stacked up at a morgue. "There was just this mound of dead people, and I made sure that everyone saw it," she says. "But I knew we'd never run that picture... I was haunted by it, and I mean, I'm 20 years as a picture editor." Time chose to run a picture of bodies in front of the U.S. embassy--that one, says Golon, also had more news value.

"There are many, many pictures that come over that are just too gruesome to show," says the Washington Post's Michel duCille. He, too, saw the Haiti photos and says the Post would never run them. "Here's the clincher," he says of such decisions. "If the situation is so huge that you want to tell the true story of how bad the situation was, that picture probably should be run." Pictures of bodies from World War II and the Nazi genocide, for instance, "that should be run. I mean, there's no question." The more intense the situation, the less reservation newspapers should have, he says. "As bad as Haiti is, and I'm not saying that Haiti wasn't bad, but it also wasn't the same as the Nazi genocide."

A Miami Herald photographer took some of those startling images from Haiti, including one in which the person in charge of the morgue was holding a baby's corpse by the leg, carrying it as if it were an inanimate object. Executive Editor Tom Fiedler says there was a long discussion about that image, and he ultimately decided it was an important truth that had to be told. The photo ran inside. On the front was a shot of a person walking through a landfill in which bodies had been thrown, and an editor's note, warning readers of the more disturbing photo inside and explaining why the Herald published it. The public reaction? "Surprisingly supportive and apolitical," Fiedler says.

With the restrictions of sensitivity, access, even what's transmitted and then run--is it possible to get an accurate view of war from the media? Some of those interviewed for this piece say yes, but most say there's no way to understand what war is like unless you've been there. "Nobody here [in the U.S.] will ever feel the angst, the tension, the fear, the horror, you just won't," says Diaz Meyer. "You'll never smell the blood, you'll never smell the corpses."

Frustrated that his pictures couldn't always communicate the intensity of war, the Los Angeles Times' Rick Loomis started recording sound. He and other Times photographers have created picture-and-audio pieces for the paper's Web site. Viewers can hear the gunfire and the tone of soldiers' voices. After being in the middle of a tense firefight in Fallujah in April, Loomis even turned to the written word to try to convey what it was like to be there.

He wrote in the Los Angeles Times Magazine of envisioning what his reaction would be if insurgents rushed into the house the Marines were defending, and he realized a photo of a firefight couldn't tell the whole story. "The pictures of the men shooting out of the window in the next room conveyed little of the life-and-death intensity of the moment, the sound of gunfire, the smell, the gulping sense of mortality," Loomis wrote. "They could have just as well have been shooting at tin cans in the alleyway."

In retrospect, says Vincent J. Alabiso, former Associated Press executive photo editor, Ken Jarecke's haunting gulf war image should have gone out over the wire. Alabiso was involved in the debate about that photo at the time, and he says the discussion it later prompted, about how the AP approaches such pictures, was important. "That picture today would go out," he says.

The question is, would anyone run it? And do we--both media and public--really want to see it?

Many believe there is a creeping conservatism among the U.S. media--that they're less likely to show graphic images today than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago.

David Gelber, a producer for CBS' "60 Minutes," senses a change since the 1993 conflict in Somalia, when pictures were aired and published of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. "There was something about [that situation] and the reaction that it provoked that got the media to be more careful and more cautious," Gelber says. That's "not necessarily a good thing."

At a panel discussion in New York City in April sponsored by the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, Gelber and other speakers, including Golon, agreed that there is now more reluctance to show images like those from Somalia.

"One of the things that people in this country have not understood," says Gelber, who has traveled to Iraq, "is how angry Iraqis are at us, and if 200 Iraqis go crazy and start killing Americans and..hanging them from bridges, I think it's incredibly awful stuff to look at." But, he continues, "If we don't let people know that that impulse is there, then we're depriving our audience of a full sense of the intensity of the feelings there."

Golon says her perception that the media are shying away from disturbing images goes back further than Somalia. "If you look at the coverage of the Vietnam War in Life magazine.... It was graphic, of very injured, very wounded, people dead, stacks of dead, executions happening in front of you... I see this sort of visual conservatism being exhibited more and more as the years go by."

Not everyone agrees. William Hammond, author of "Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War," contradicts the collective remembrance of Vietnam. Famous photos aside, he says, there wasn't much gore in newspapers and on television. The photos "weren't violent... That is a myth," he says. "Media coverage of Vietnam was highly censored, self-censored... No dead American face appeared on television until after the parents [had] been notified." By the time the parents were notified, it was old news, he says. "So it never happens."

The American people, says Hammond, don't want to see that sort of thing. "There's a sensitivity in the culture, and the media reflect that culture, you know." Television doesn't show everything, he says, "because they don't want people to be so turned off they'll turn the program off."

Time magazine's Jim Kelly doesn't think there's been a growing reluctance to show gory photos. "There are pictures we're running now in the last three years that we would not have run, I feel, 20 years ago," he says, "but we do not run the most graphic images that are available today."

You can find those images, though--of beheadings and executions--if you so desire. "The reader is in much more control of what he or she sees because of availability of photographs on the Web," Kelly says. "In some respects, we're not the gatekeepers of violent images that we might have been" in decades past.

Some journalists worry the public is gaining too much control--becoming the real gatekeeper over which images make the news.

"I think in the past, we were regulated less by what our readers said, and now we're much more governed by what our readers want and need," says Diaz Meyer. "Is that a good thing? Perhaps. On the one hand, we should be educating people whether they like it or not... But at the same time, I think wisdom is correct in that people will only absorb what it is they can absorb, and if you shove it down their throats, they won't accept the information or the message anyway."

But Diaz Meyer says it's irritating to get complaints from parents who find it acceptable to have their kids watch violent movies or play video games, but when it's real life? "They're just horrified that their kid should be exposed to any real, honest-to-God violence in the world," she says.

Both Hill and Lubens are equally frustrated by this head-in-the-sand attitude. "There's a desire to ignore reality," Hill says. There's a feeling in the general public "that you don't want to know what it really looks like. Because it's just too painful to deal with."

After hours-long discussions, media outlets ran various images from the gruesome attack on contractors in Fallujah. Many were lauded--and criticized--for their audacity to put the pictures out there.

But Lubens calls publishing pictures of such a highly newsworthy event "a no-brainer." What about the day-to-day? she asks. Did we see photos of Iraqis injured? Of American soldiers injured? "If most people don't walk away saying, 'Oh my God, it's really violent,' then we're not showing the graphic images."

It's clear to Penn's Zelizer that the media aren't showing the public everything they should--just look at the foreign press, for instance. And during World War II, she says, pictures from the concentration camps were everywhere in America, in sidewalk exhibits, on newsreels in theaters. "Why can we see it then and not see it now?" she asks.

The question of "appropriateness" is not one journalists should be wrestling with, she says. "I think it should be automatic that we show, and if there's really some degree of egregiousness, then we back off. But I think the back off is coming way too early." The public, Zelizer says, shouldn't be deciding what pictures appear in the news. "Is the public deciding what news stories go into the newspaper?"

Many agree that foreign media are willing to show more graphic images than U.S. outlets--think Al Jazeera. Why the skittishness? Some journalists speculate that Americans are simply more squeamish and don't know what it's like to live through war. Fiedler says that it's easier for some foreign press to show casualties if it's not their troops being killed or doing the killing. During the genocide in Rwanda, for instance, it may not have been as difficult for U.S. papers to show the carnage. "This is horrible," Fiedler says, "but we didn't have a stake in the sense that these weren't Americans involved in one side or the other."

Even Al Jazeera, it seems, can be affected by public opinion. Whereas many Americans expect the media to be sensitive, Al Jazeera says its audience expects to see blood during a war (see Drop Cap, October/November 2004). But the Qatar-based network didn't show the burnt corpses hanging from the bridge in Fallujah. At the Dart Center panel discussion, Al Jazeera United Nations correspondent Abderrahim Foukara responded to questions about that decision, saying that his organization had been "shying away from showing the real gore" in Iraq. Why? Foukara suggested Al Jazeera was reacting to the controversy that erupted in the United States last year when it showed images of dead American soldiers.

In retrospect, U.S. journalists often say the media should have shown more. Robert Pope, managing editor of the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois, who started his career as a photographer, says, "There was a fair bit of apprehension in the whole journalism community about being careful with these images" from Fallujah. His paper didn't run the "bridge" photos, opting for something less graphic. But now he believes the paper should have used a more powerful photo of the charred remains, framed by the chanting mob. "I think that's one that people could look at and not become so outraged," he says, plus it shows some context. "Perhaps we should have done that."

It's a decision made easier once everyone sees what other outlets did. James H. Kenney, photojournalism program coordinator at Western Kentucky University, isn't sure the media have become more conservative, but he's worried that no one's willing to take chances, to break away from the pack. Kenney couldn't name any U.S. media organization, television or print, that showed material particularly more graphic than what the public saw elsewhere.

"We're a bit like sheep," he says. "If they show it, we'll show it. Something out of fear of losing advertising revenue or points or whatever." It becomes more of a focus, he adds, on what's the competition doing? "We'll do the same."