Photos real and faux

August 22, 2006

Some images of wars, like the wars themselves, are more indelible than others.

Joe Rosenthal's dramatic World War II photograph of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising an American flag atop Mount Suribachi, overlooking the killing sands of Iwo Jima, ran above the fold on the front page of The Sun on Sunday, Feb. 25, 1945. Mr. Rosenthal, who died Sunday, had turned over his undeveloped film to a courier and did not see the image he captured on that tiny South Pacific island until well after millions of readers back home found it in their newspapers. The Associated Press picture became an immediate icon of American military courage, resolve and sacrifice and later served as the basis for Horace W. Peaslee's design of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va.

Mr. Rosenthal said that he almost chose not to climb Mount Suribachi for the flag raising because he heard that a flag had already been put in place. A smaller flag had been raised and was quickly taken down and sent back to the beach as a souvenir. What Mr. Rosenthal saw through his viewfinder - and the image we now associate with the war in the Pacific - was the second flag raising. Mr. Rosenthal went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for the picture, but there must have been times when he wished he had stayed on the beach. For decades, he was plagued by charges that the flag raising and the photo had been staged, that the picture was just too good to have been shot on the fly.

Fortunately, the accusations against Mr. Rosenthal never stuck. The image is too much a part of our national psyche, as much today as it was 61 years ago, to have been invented by someone seeking to manipulate not only the camera subject but the viewers' emotions. That's apparently what a photographer for Reuters tried to do with shots he took of recent fighting in Lebanon. One image was doctored to show more and darker smoke rising from Beirut after an Israeli airstrike. Another photo showed three flares falling from an Israeli jet fighter when only one was dropped.

War is bad enough without tinkering with pictures to make it seem worse. It may be easier to doctor photos using today's digital cameras and post-processing software. But the same false effects were possible in the darkrooms of Mr. Rosenthal's era. The difference in photos, like the difference in some wars, is not in technology but in character.

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