Crisis In Iraq

Defining Images

How a picture becomes an icon of war

May 09, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The images are engraved onto the memory, pictures that become powerful summations of the nation acting in extremis - going to war.

Conjure them up: the battleship Arizona exploding at Pearl Harbor, Marines raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, the naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack, the South Vietnamese official shooting a man in the head on a Saigon street.

A deluge of images of the war in Iraq compete for that iconic status: an American soldier carrying a wounded Iraqi enemy, a statue of Saddam Hussein tumbling down, a triumphant President Bush in a fighter pilot's uniform, a despondent Hussein undergoing a dental exam, burned bodies hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, rows of flag-draped coffins in a military transport plane, a hooded Iraqi prisoner standing on a stool, his body apparently wired for electricity.

Which pictures attain that status will depend on how the nation chooses to remember this war - as an altruistic attempt to liberate an oppressed people, a well-meaning but misguided incursion into a complicated culture, or a blatant abuse of American power.

"The meaning of a picture comes from what is inside our heads, not from what's in the picture," says David Perlmutter of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. "We have pre-existing biases, prejudices and opinions and we look for pictures to confirm them."

Consider the photographs of 12-year-old Ali Ismael Abbas, who lost both his arms in the early days of the Iraq war, apparently in a U.S. missile attack. Those images quickly assumed iconic status in anti-war Europe while they remained virtually unnoticed in America.

"We cannot say what will be the iconic photograph of this war, because we cannot say how we will make sense of this war," says Barbie Zelizer of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Perlmutter says that while many remember certain pictures as having a profound effect on their view of the war in Vietnam, the public opinion polls do not back that up. It is only in retrospect that we give those images the power to have fixed our views, he says.

The power of photography in wartime has been recognized since 1862 when Matthew Brady put on display in New York his photographs of the dead of the Battle of Antietam, the deadliest day in American history. Contemporary reviews of the show record that Brady's photos brought home the horror of war in a way never before experienced.

Previous images of war had come from engravings, drawings and paintings. Photography seemed to remove the interpretive mediation of the artist and bring a stark truth to the viewer.

So powerful was the new medium that, according to Susan Moeller of the University of Maryland, College Park, governments immediately put strict controls on it. That is one reason no iconic images of World War I immediately spring to mind.

World wars censored

"In World War I and World War II, there was pretty stringent censorship on photography," says Moeller, who has written on the history of combat photography. "During World War I, it was a capital offense to be caught in a military area with a camera without an official escort."

Those rules remained in effect during World War II. Moeller says that the famous photograph of the Arizona blowing up at Pearl Harbor was not released until a year after the Japanese attack. One rule, she says, prohibited showing any dead American soldiers.

"That was changed in September 1943, precisely because the war was not going very well," Moeller says, explaining that the whitewashed accounts of a triumphal war effort were at odds with the genuine sacrifices being made by the home-front population.

The first batch of uncensored pictures showed an amputation on a hospital ship, dead paratroopers and the bodies of three Americans on a beach in New Guinea being washed by the tide.

"Life magazine ran it," Moeller says of the bodies on the beach. "They ran an editorial with it, about why they were showing something this gruesome. The reason, it said, is that words are not enough. ... They said that dead men have indeed died in vain if live men refuse to look at them."

The debate over pictures of the carnage of war endures. Most newspapers will not run identifiable pictures of dead American soldiers in Iraq. Those papers that used photographs of the burned bodies in Fallujah were deluged with complaints.

"What gives the entry to official policymakers, politicians and the public, all voicing demands, wants and desires about these images - people saying they don't want to throw up over breakfast - is that journalism has not figured out for itself exactly how to use these images," Zelizer says.

Iwo Jima an icon

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