Obliged to look

May 02, 2004|By Susie Linfield

NEW YORK - "I believe that there is no person in the world that must be protected from pictures," the Brazilian photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado, who has photographed the most immiserated people on Earth, once said. "Everything that happens in the world must be shown."

This is a noble sentiment, but also a silly, or at least impossible, one.

"Everything" that happens in the world can never be photographed, if only for practical reasons. And, clearly, there are areas of private life in which vast numbers of people would object to being photographed.

Further, even after photographs are taken, choices as to what is actually shown - by newspaper editors and television producers, museum curators and gallery owners, book publishers and, in the case of war, governments - must always be made. Even Mr. Salgado does not show "everything that happens": Faced with the whole wide world, he chooses what to photograph and then which photographs he wants to show.

The question raised by the recent release of the photographs of flag-draped coffins from Iraq is not, then, whether the photographs should or shouldn't be shown in some abstract sense. The more interesting question is: How do we understand the meaning of those images that we see?

According to a White House spokesman, the ban on coffin photographs protects the privacy of those families whose sons and daughters have been killed in battle. On the surface, this makes little sense, since the coffins are anonymous: No family could conceivably tell which one was "theirs." But it's the assumption that underlies the explanation that is more perplexing.

For war is the least private of activities; indeed, it is one of society's defining collective acts. Men and women go to war not as individuals but as members of a group - that is, as citizens of a nation. It is precisely the social, shared nature of this act that separates the soldier from the mercenary, and it is the social, shared nature of the decision to wage war that separates the democracy from the dictatorship.

Of course, families and friends of slain soldiers will grieve in their own ways, in their own time (which is probably forever). But to privatize - which in this case means hide - a death in battle is not an act of respect but rather of denial. It negates the very logic - the collective, democratic logic - that underlies, and can possibly justify, the soldier's death. Asking young people to go to war is a solemn and terrifying demand, though sometimes a necessary one, but the demand becomes an indefensible one when each is then sentenced to die a private death, and their families required to grieve in isolation.

Surprising, at least to me, is the Bush administration's apparent lack of faith in the American public's maturity, which this incident has shown.

Is it possible that Americans do not know that war means, first and foremost, killing? Is it possible that Americans believe that all deaths in war are incurred on "their" side, never on "ours"? (This is the political equivalent of the stork theory, according to which babies suddenly appear like nice clean packages rather than being conceived in passion and delivered in pain.) Such fairy tales can only ensure that we are less, not more, able to make intelligent decisions about the war and the astonishingly hard choices its aftermath will present.

The coffins controversy has become a partisan issue, with those opposed to the war presumably celebrating the photos' publication and those who support it ostensibly in favor of the ban.

But I write as one who both welcomed the publication of those photos and, though troubled and tormented by the lead-up to the war, ultimately supported the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Baath Party. This is not because I believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; actually, I had no idea if he did or didn't, and from what I could tell no one else did, either.

It is because I had become convinced that Mr. Hussein's regime of sadistic terror was both unique and so impregnable that - unlike, say, in Zimbabwe, China, Iran or most other dictatorships - there was no possibility for an organic, democratic opposition to emerge. (The opposition could be found only in torture jails, graves or exile.)

Anyone who supported the war, even if reluctantly, has more of an obligation to look at the photographs of coffins than those who opposed it. We are also more obliged to look at the photographs, many unbearable but all undeniable, of the many Iraqi civilians who have been mutilated and killed.

It is not always unconscionable to wage war. But it is always unconscionable to wage war while refusing to be aware of, or take responsibility for, its consequences.

And that first consequence isn't truth, as is so often stated, but the agony of loss, which sometimes presents itself in flag-draped coffins.

Susie Linfield is the acting director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program at New York University.

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