USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

Which Words Is a War Photo Worth?
Journalists Must Set the Standard


Gruesome images stemming from the invasion of Iraq -- and now of shipments of flag-draped coffins back to the United States -- fuel debate over the purposes of photography in wartime. The Pentagon has controlled the agenda.

We have long heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, but no one has ever figured out which words an image stands for in the news of war.

Perhaps nowhere has this been as problematic as during the latest war in Iraq, when images of war have been traveling as fast and as furiously as at any earlier time in history. Unlike the words at their side, the images of the war in Iraq have drawn a sustained degree of public attention, as pundits, military and government officials, journalists and members of the public have debated the very issue of image display -- whether to show an image, where to show an image, and how to show an image.

We hear those speaking for and against the display of images and the debates have been both predictable and constant. Early official admonitions about the effect of showing the footage of captured U.S. POWs or later discussions over the value of displaying the gruesome shots of the mutilated corpses of four U.S. contractors in Falluja have given way most recently to a conversation about the value, or lack thereof, of showing the draped caskets of the military dead. In each case, images of the war in Iraq seem to be fueling an ongoing conversation about what images are for in wartime.

But the conversation is stymied by its own nearsightedness. This nearsightedness has three points of origin -- historical, cultural and technological.

The historical point of origin suggests that publics have rarely been in agreement about what is an appropriate, manageable or discernable image of war. The images of World War II were thought too explicit to be shown until the liberation of the concentration camps at the war's end forced the most gruesome display to date of images of atrocity. Images continually rise to the forefront of a war's documentation, despite the broad attempts of governments and other official circles to prohibit their display. Even wars that were prohibited from being seen at the time of their prosecution in later years received a place in visual memory -- the Falklands War and the First Gulf War are two that come to mind.

Last week, the Pentagon's renewed attention to a 1991 policy allowing it to exercise control over images of coffins returning from war received a double challenge -- a cargo worker in Kuwait who took photos of flag-draped caskets in an aircraft that were published in the Seattle Times, and the spread through the Internet of some 350 photos also of flag-draped caskets, released under a Freedom of Information Act request by Russ Kick, editor and publisher of The Memory Hole Web site.

Both cases served to remind the U.S. public of the unevenness with which images of the caskets of military dead have been shown over time. They were widely regarded as facilitators of the growing anti-war sentiment during the Vietnam War, absent during the First Gulf War, unevenly present during the war in the Balkans and then reemerged over the past few days.

In none of these cases, however, did the debates about images of the caskets of military dead signal any kind of agreement by the public and Defense Department  over display of the images. As early as December, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 62 percent of Americans were said to be in favor of seeing pictures of the coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq, a number rumored to have gone up over time. Yet the federal government persists in prohibiting their display, arguing that the images are intrusive to bereaved families.

The cultural point of origin reminds us that publics do not regard images of war evenly across populations. The gruesome footage of the four U.S. contractors in Falluja has had many antecedents -- photos of the dead of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or the brutalizing that occurred during the genocide in Rwanda are two of the more publicized. But what is newsworthy is not necessarily consonant. A full 71 percent of the American public were said to have felt the display of the Falluja images was either just right or excessive; only 7 percent felt it was not enough.

And yet, in the words of the Toronto Star, the incident "resulted in more mainstream media self-examination in one day than the entire attack on Iraq had in a year." Less than one-third of the leading major circulation newspapers led with the more gruesome images on their front pages, and professional journalistic organizations raised questions in the aftermath of Falluja about what to consider in an image's display -- whether the duty to publish changed if the bodies were military rather than civilian, if they were Iraqi rather than American, if they were visible as distinctive human beings rather than charred corpses, if they were women or children rather than men. But the larger question of whether the sensitivity over the display of brutal death differed according to who was being brutalized remained largely unaddressed in both official and popular discourses.

The technological point of origin highlights that the world is much more in touch than the ongoing conversations about images would have us believe. The so-called "cereal test" -- by which people are expected to keep their breakfast intact upon reading the morning newspaper -- or the so-called "Dover test" -- by which the U.S. public is expected to gauge its continued support for the war effort through the military ceremonies of transshipment of remains through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware -- are rendered moot points in an age of online journalism.

Individuals with online capability can access whatever image they want at the click of a computer. Online journalism provides a counterbalance to the futility of controlling images in wartime, made all the more limited by the ready availability of camera phones and digital cameras. The public may be more knowledgeable about the ways in which images can be distorted -- through blurring, blocking with black bars or text, cropping, digitally removing an offending part of a picture, and in TV's case pixillating. Images can be marginalized  -- through decisions over placement, size, color or downright substitution. They can be contextualized -- through captions or by offering textual information about what is being depicted.

But the public also accesses images all the time and from a wide array of digital sources. To suggest that the military might clamp down on the display of such images is na?ve at best. Moreover, when those not aligned with U.S. interests see the same images not available here, both the public and government lose a strategic advantage in being able to argue the U.S. case on the basis of available documentation.

These historical, cultural, and technological points of origin of national nearsightedness remind us that the debates about images -- both familiar and over-used -- have not gone far enough. Moreover, they do not address sufficiently a fourth point of origin underlying the public?s reasoning over an image's display -- the political mandates at hand for deciding either for or against an image being shown.

As we have seen over numerous wars when political mandates deem an image's display relevant or irrelevant, appropriate or inappropriate, actions follow in accordance with those sentiments. When asked recently on the on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer whether there was a political gain to be had in not showing the images of the Dover caskets, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said it was unfair to suggest that the government was trying to soften the impact of the pictures. Unfair to whom? His comment should have raised eyebrows about whom pictures of war ultimately are for.

When assessing the appropriateness of an image or the relevance of its display, we should ask which words an image stands for in times of war. For it may be that only those words that are big enough, bold enough, and direct enough can correct the nearsightedness with which images of war are displayed and consumed. But great rhetoric doesn't make the nearsightedness go away.

The capacity for making nearsightedness a condition of the past depends on the development and establishment of clear and elaborated standards for using images in war. Until journalists -- and here might be a range of practitioners, including photographers,  photo editors, page editors, Web site editors and broadcast journalists, among others -- clarify what are the appropriate standards for using images during wartime, each case will continue to be considered on its already tried merits and failings.

Journalism needs to do better in creating a ground for using images that is shaped by journalists. Until that happens, it is no surprise that the Pentagon and other similarly interested parties would try and shape their vision of how images should look during war.

Related Links
'Cereal Test'
'Dover Test'
Dover Air Force Base
Editor & Publisher: 'Editorials Back Release of Soldier Coffin Photos'
NewsHour Transcript: 'Images of War'
PoynterOnline: 'Readers Respond to Fallujah Photos'
San Jose Mercury News: Dan Gillmor on Ubiquitous Cell Phones
Seattle Times: April 18, 2004 front page (PDF)
The Memory Hole
The New York Times: 'Pentagon Ban on Pictures of Dead Troops Is Broken'
Toronto Star: 'Humanity is first casualty of war'
Wired News: Russ Kick travels 'Down the Memory Hole'