Frontline access: Online gallery boasts soldiers' wartime photos

They’re trained as fighters, not photojournalists. But soldiers positioned on the frontlines in the war in Iraq use digital cameras to produce images that can trump access granted to even the most experienced embeds. Photos that might have been taken to scrapbook for soldiers’ friends and family can now expose the world to an unprecedented, intimate view of the war.

An online collection, “Digital Warriors,” aims to present the culmination of the work produced by these soldiers. The project is supervised by Kim Newton, a veteran photojournalist who has edited coverage of the wars in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia for Reuters and also served as Knight Ridder’s senior photo editor for international news.

Online Journalism Review questioned Newton, who currently teaches photojournalism at the Brooks Institute of Photography, about these “Digital Warriors,” the double-edged sword of embedded journalism, and the ways that emerging technology challenges and expands the industry’s steadfast ethical standards.

Online Journalism Review: How has this war differed from previous U.S. wars in terms of access?

Kim Newton: It’s better than the Gulf War where nobody had access, but it’s still not as good as Vietnam, where there was pretty much complete access. I think for the most part, the embedding situation in Iraq has been a good thing.

However, I don’t think that embedding allows for complete story or a balanced view. I think [the media] are restricted to a certain degree to the relationships that they’ve developed to the units that they’re with. I think that even though they’re told they have complete access, if something was published they really didn’t like, the [embeds]would be moved out. Unfortunately, the danger of this war is such that having complete access is probably unrealistic.

OJR: How has the fact that so many soldiers have digital cameras changed the practice of photojournalism?

Newton: Since the Civil War when photography really became an influence in war time, soldiers have been writing stories or taking pictures of the war. The difference is now they can publish instantaneously on the Internet by sending it to their family members who post on web sites, or they post themselves. So, I can do Internet searches for photography from the Iraq war, and I’ll come up with thousands of images and hundreds of web sites that have been created by soldiers and soldiers’ families.

Granted, it’s not like being published in The New York Times or The Washington Post or your local paper or a magazine where it has a national audience. But if you do take the time to seek it out, I think there are opportunities out there to find a more personalized view of the war than we’ve ever seen before.

OJR: Describe your current project, Digital Warriors.

Newton: While I was thinking about all these soldiers having digitial cameras and trying to figure out a way to collect images and set up a web site, the Los Angeles Times came out with a story that basically discussed the Iraq war and the uncensored view of the front lines. I wanted to go beyond the Abu Ghraib prison photos and not just find sensational pictures that would cause a national uproar of some kind. I wanted to find images that were of a journalistic level and that told a personal side of this war that I felt we weren’t seeing from traditional media. The intent is to edit a large body of work from these soldiers that will produce a personal view that I don’t think we’ve seen from this war.

My expectations were high in the beginning and they’re lower now, but I haven’t given up. I will continue to plug away, and I hope that I can maybe find a connection within the military where I can get the word out and find a way to collect the images. I think maybe my original method might have failed because I just wasn’t reaching the core group that I needed. And also it may be that it’s too early, and that a lot of the images I’m thinking are out there, maybe people haven’t posted or they’re afraid to post.

OJR: How has the U.S. administration’s attempt to censor wartime images affected the flow of images from Iraq?

Newton: This is the first time in my memory where it’s been so blatant and obvious. The best example of that is the picture The Seattle Times published of coffins coming back flag-draped. The administration and the U.S. Department of Defense were furious because they had established a policy that there would be no pictures of dead soldiers coming home. But I really can’t speak to how culpable the media is in participating with the administration’s censoring.

I know that when I worked for wire services like Reuters and Knight Ridder, we pretty much published everything that came across. I remember covering a lot of the Middle East conflict, and I would get pictures every day of blown apart bodies of suicide bombers and heads of people, and I would publish those [photos] on the wire. Rarely would they ever be published in U.S. publications.

Having worked in both American publications and foreign media, I found that the foreign media, especially in Britain, and most of Europe and the Middle East, are more likely to publish what we would call sensational images in this country. But, I think they’re images that tell the truth and the reality of what’s going on in those places. I think there is a censorship among American publications when it comes to controversial images or images that are going to make people squirm a little bit, and I don’t think they get published in this country maybe as often as they should.

OJR: How do you find that an online audience responds to images produced in the current war? Is this audience more adaptable or accepting of a wider range of images?

Newton: It’s not like Life magazine, which would come out every week and you pretty much knew who your audience and demographic were. And politicians or people would react to stories in those magazines. If it was a political issue, it would get to your congressman or senator.

With the Internet, it’s much more fragmented and you have to do a lot more searching. There is a lot of room for error, and I think it’s too early to tell where it’s all going. I have a lot of hope that it’s going to be a good place for visual journalists and for photography.

OJR: How does the time you spent covering wars in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia compare with the current coverage of the war in Iraq?

Newton: In Bosnia and Kosovo, I think that for the most part the coverage was one-sided and we weren’t really seeing the other side. In many ways that’s similar to the coverage we’re getting now. Although, I think then, the photographers weren’t embedded with any group of soldiers, so they had more access to developing relationships with rebel units or what would be the enemy to the Western side of the conflict.

It’s very rare that photographers from Western news agencies will develop a relationship with a side that is fighting what we would call the friendly side. In the Iraq war, there are very few images coming out from the insurgent side. It’s all coverage of the Americans or British fighting the insurgents.

That happens pretty regularly in war time. It wasn’t until years later that you get to see both sides in the Second World War. The Germans took a lot of still pictures of the concentration camps and their side of the war, so now we can go back and look at those images and get their point of view.

OJR: How did digital photography evolve during your tenure at Reuters in terms of new ethical issues?

Newton: When I started at Reuters, they were transitioning to digitial imaging and that’s what excited me. There has always been a strong ethical foundation at the places that I’ve worked and that foundation never changed. We adapted to the new technologies, in a lot of ways at the edge of our seats. As things happened, we would create new rules, but the basic foundation of not manipulating photographs remained.

I remember one day, being on the desk when some photographer sent in a picture that he had put all these jet planes in. We all saw right away that it was manipulated image, and even in the caption it said that it was a manipulated image, but right away it became a “fireable” offence because if you even sent in a joke it wasn’t to be tolerated.

OJR: What new ethical standards are involved in teaching photojournalism at the Brooks Institute of Photography?

Newton: That’s an ongoing issue and an ongoing question. We are continually having discussions and students are raising ethical questions concerning technology, Photoshop or approaching people to be photographed. I think it’s really important for students to be aware of the problems in the industry.

Brian Walski at the L.A. Times is an obvious example that we can use to visually show how one person used the technology to manipulate a situation. I think our personal accounts also add to the ethical question and how to deal with issues students encounter as a photojournalist on a daily basis, and it’s at the forefront of our education here.

OJR: In an age where anyone with a computer program can crop or transpose photos easily, how have ethics adapted in photojournalism?

Newton: I think that for the most part, most large news organizations understand the issue, but not all of them have policies, which sort of amazes me. I think every organization has to sit down with their staff and draw out how to deal with ethical issues before they come up.

I think the technology in Photoshop is pretty amazing and things can be done that can’t be noticed by the average eye. Yet, new technologies are coming online that can tell if images have been manipulated, and I think that’s one area that editors will probably utilize in the future.

OJR: Who or what have been your greatest influences?

Newton: One of my greatest influences is a photographer named Dan Budnik, who was a photographer for Life Magazine and Time/Life. He photographed the Civil Rights movement and he also photographed a lot of the abstract expressionist artists during the 50s and 60s in New York. I was an assistant to him for a lot of the 70s.

W. Eugene Smith was one of the photojournalists who had a great influence on me in terms of photographing something that would lead to a positive change in society. His essay on Minamata in Japan was a major influence when I moved to Japan in the early 1980s.

OJR: Any advice you’d like to share with aspiring photojournalists?

Newton: I think you’ve got to have a real passion for what you’re doing and a real stick-with-it ness and a real ability to communicate visually. It’s harder now than it’s ever been because the publications just aren’t there, so you really have to have a lot of passion to follow through and do this job. But I think there is still a much needed place for photojournalism in the world and in our society.

OJR: What about citizen or amateur journalists using digital cameras? Any ground rules they can follow to adhere to journalistic standards?

Newton: If they’re trying to get their images published in the mainstream media or anywhere, I think they have to stick to the same ethical standards that we’ve all abided by, which is to give an honest representation of what they’re looking at and not manipulating the scene beyond its natural viewpoint. By that I mean adding or removing elements of an image to change the content and its point of view.

OJR: Do you have any other final thoughts or comments?

Newton: Technology has allowed us to view things that we might not have been able to see in the past. The average soldier has access to this instantaneous technology, even though the quality may not be up to that of a professional photojournalist. And I think that’s a unique point of view that we’ve never had before, not just in war, but in society.

Where it’s going to end up is sort of anybody’s guess right now, but it fascinates me that it’s out there, and I’ll continue to be fascinated by it and try to do research on it or just be a part of viewing it like everybody else.