Give us a true picture

March 29, 2009|By Elizabeth Lazar

Do Americans want to see the truth?

Yes - but it is not available to them for viewing, according to my photojournalist friend. The mainstream American outlet that ran his piece on the rising death toll in the streets of Guatemala City left out photos of the dead. The editors appreciated the work but were held to a policy against running pictures of corpses. How, he wondered, can you hope to visually convey the gravity of a story on the systemic murder of civilians and not include depictions of the carnage?

The question applies closer to home, as well. The recent reversal of the Bush-era ban on photographing the coffins of fallen U.S. soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base from Iraq and Afghanistan was a welcome development. It took us a critical step closer to restoring democratic access and keeping a human face on war that the Bush ban kept at a distance.

But pictures of coffins won't get us close enough. Seeing returning fallen troops may help the public understand war for what it is. However, unless this new awareness comes to bear on mainstream media editorial standards, where the "breakfast test" still applies, then we're still not getting the picture.

For a country that is addicted to video games like the Resident Evil series, where you might find a woman pinned up on a wall by a pitchfork through her face in the opening minutes of the game, such squeamishness - particularly in wartime - is bizarre.

The American gaze is not protected from violence, just from real violence. We're used to hearing the sound of heavy artillery in action films, and most of us won't flinch when a cadaver flashes on a movie screen. Yet in the news, such images seem strangely out of place, almost an erroneous inversion: life imitating art.

Many of my friend's photos of the dead are worlds closer to depicting the brutal reality of war than the photos of flag-draped coffins emerging clinically out of Dover. Not that his photos were gratuitously grisly. With rare exceptions, the faces of the slaughtered Guatemalans were not shown. For the most part, these were long shots of the bodies. Still, the human form was recognizable (as it is in the example on this page), making palpable the damage in a way pictures of coffins cannot.

To block out images of war's casualties is not a neutral position. The public cannot grasp the reality of a war that is mostly presented as a series of dollar amounts, diplomatic initiatives and military briefings. Bloodless coverage is the privilege of a country removed from the battlefield and is at odds with notions of transparency and personal responsibility.

The films and still pictures from Vietnam, the living-room war, were more responsible for shaping public intolerance toward that conflict than anything else. I'm not suggesting that CNN emulate Al-Jazeera. The idea is not to take sides but to show images that acknowledge human suffering - and in doing so, foment indignation not against any enemy but against war itself.

My friend's photos tend to fare better with European publications. Are the French just more ready for the truth than Americans? As much as the American people have had to stomach the past several years, I would argue: Au contraire.

We Americans lost our loved ones in a terrorist attack, only to have that tragedy used opportunistically against our better interests by our elected officials. Indeed, when we were most vulnerable, these same asked us to fight a war predicated on a false premise. Once drained of blood and treasure, we were hit with a severe economic recession. On top of that, we were swindled a little more with a few billion-dollar Ponzi schemes.

Given all that, I'd say that if Americans haven't tossed their breakfast yet, we're not going to any time soon. We have never been more ready for the truth.

Elizabeth Lazar is a research consultant in International Program Development at Northwestern University. Her e-mail is

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