"Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see." — Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Barthes and Howard.
"Writing is nature's way of letting you know how sloppy your thinking is." — Richard Guindon
Since last weekend (in Sept 2009), I've read a great deal about a photograph of U.S. Marine Lance Corporal (LCpl) Joshua Bernard that was distributed by the Associated Press (AP) and about the AP photographer, Ms. Julie Jacobson. The basic facts are these: Jacobson, who is a professional civilian combat photographer, took a picture of mortally wounded LCpl Bernard. She chose to submit that picture for publication along with a number of others taken during and after the battle. The father of the wounded Marine (himself a retired Marine) asked that the photograph in question not be published, claiming that it would be "disrespectful to his son's memory." The Associated Press distributed the image for publication anyway, doing so, according to senior managing editor John Daniszewski, because it believes "this image is part of the history of this war." and that "the story and photos are in themselves a respectful treatment and recognition of sacrifice."
Almost all of what I've read about the AP's publication decision has been negative, not because most people believe the photo shouldn't have been published, but because I assiduously avoid reading the slobbering, mal-formed notions of the kinds of people who are most likely to think it must
be published. In other words, most of what I've read has been written by conservatives or by right-biased centrists like myself. It was not pleasant reading.
Unfortunately, as is often the case when a topic is both emotionally charged and distorted by the heat of righteous indignation, people on both sides of this argument have tended to conflate and confuse the issues while damning without qualification everyone who feels differently than they. Because of this, a good deal of what I've read has been pejorative, mean, libelous, or slanderous (in the wider sense of the word), or even worse, arrantly stupid. The rest misses the point by varying degrees, insomuch as almost all of it focuses on and magnifies the obvious and the easily seen, while glibly discounting or simply avoiding the more unpleasant and complex elements of the matter. In almost every forum, people lined up to declare themselves for or against the publication of the photograph, but in no place did I find anyone who took a stance somewhere in the middle, or even better, above it all, which is where I find myself. Frankly, this is not nearly as simple a point of argument as it appears to be, and everyone, including the otherwise to-be-admired Secretary Gates, should have taken a deep breath before reacting so viscerally to what was nowhere near as vile a deed as they felt
This is not only, nor even most importantly
, about parents' feelings, nor is it only about dignity, rights, honor, ambition, money, or awards. This issue is larger than any one of those things, and should be considered and discussed in much larger contexts, including the rights of individuals versus the rights of society; the relationship between the government, the military, the public, the press, and lately the blogosphere (the so-called Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth
Estates); the nature and ethics of modern photography and journalism; and Americans' aversion to images, honest reporting, and even reasoned conversation about violence, war, evil, death, and other unpleasant or disagreeable truths. I haven't the time to write intelligently in this one essay about each of the larger contexts, but I can offer some reasonable opinions, especially about the nature and ethics of modern photography and about the consequences of Americans' increasingly manic avoidance of grim realities.
First though, I want to make it clear for anyone who isn't yet sure where I stand on this issue that I don't have a problem with the AP's decision to publish the photograph. Personally, I probably wouldn't have published it, at least not for a while, given the family's request, but that's just me. It's not that I believe the family somehow 'owns' the photo, or that the family has the slightest right to control such things—I do not and neither do they. I do, however, consider myself a generally decent person and I would likely honor the request just because I believe that's the right thing to do. That is not
to say I believe Mr. Bernard's request was reasonable or logical, and I absolutely do not agree that the photograph (or the article that accompanied it) is in any way "disrespectful to his son's memory." Quite the contrary, in fact.
The photograph was moving and inspiring even though it made me bitterly sad, knowing how things turned out. It also made me very proud to see two other Americans moving to their fellow Marine's aid even in the midst of a battle, bringing to mind a number of similar inspiring photographs from America's past wars and disasters. I absolutely understand that this is a painful image for a parent, but I saw no disrespect in that image, only honor and duty, matched by the decency and courage of a photographer who didn't run away or cower in the shadows. I would like to believe that I would be at least as courageous and as cool headed as each of them in the midst of something like that (especially the unarmed photographer), but I've never been in combat so I can't say with any certainty how I would act. As to the pain, I've seen a picture of my own dead child so I know how that feels, and I can say without qualification that I would much rather see my child in a picture like Jacobson's than in any number of other mortal circumstances I can imagine, including, for example the scores of pictures taken in Beslan Russia in September 2004
, or the most famous one from Oklahoma City in 1995
. Hundreds of other examples come to mind.
I realize, of course, that my feelings are not those of the Bernards and that this is their grief, not mine, but that doesn't automatically entitle them to a parental right of first refusal when it comes to publication of images of their son, regardless of the context or the content of the photograph. If it did, then by virtue of the same logic, surely hundreds of thousands and possibly even millions of photographs would never have been published, and the world would be a far poorer place for it.
Even more than press-printed words, photography changed us. It made history more real and historians more accountable. It made people more aware of their connections to other people, to our planet, and even to the universe. It enables us to see things that could never be seen with the naked eye, things like a hummingbird's wings frozen in flight
, the splash of a drop of milk
into a bowl, the moment a balloon
pops, the farthest ends of the universe. It allows all of us to see things that might only ever be seen by a select and very lucky few, like a live giant squid
, the jungle homes of Africa's Pygmys
vast plains, a baby in the womb
sucking its thumb, or a snow leopard
hunting in the Himalayas. It also lets us share what would otherwise be only dimly remembered or unremarked moments in time, like Brady's picture of the first Japanese delegation to visit the U.S.
in 1860, or his image of the battle of Antietam
as it was being fought on Sep 17, 1862, or Dorothea Lange's photograph of Oakie Florence Thompson
and her children, or Luis Sinco's photo of Marine LCpl James Miller
having a smoke after a battle in Fallujah. And of course, photography preserves the moments that matter, that our nation is ultimately better for being able to see and share, even long after the photo was taken: the Japanese surrender
aboard the USS Missouri, the first human footprint on the moon
, an American killed by a sniper
in April 1945, Robert Kennedy
lying on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel, the Challenger disintegration
, soldiers from the 101st Airborne escorting nine black children into school
in 1957, the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11
There is an inarguable difference between images from 9/11 and Jacobson's photo of LCpl Bernard, but the difference is a matter of degree, not substance, and I defy anyone to explain in any meaningful way how the photograph of Bernard is disrespectful or otherwise denigrates and demeans his life, his service, or his sacrifice. Yes, it is surely painful for Bernard's family and friends to see him in such dire circumstances, but I believe keeping that image from the public eye only because it hurts some people to look at it does more to belittle and trivialize LCpl Bernard's death than it does to protect his dignity or show respect.
Without question some soulless, contemptible people might make political hay of that image, using it to support arguments that belie everything Bernard believed in; but my sense is that most people—especially most Americans, regardless of their politics—will see what I saw, what matters: American fighting men doing what they have always done, fighting and sometimes dying, and always looking out for one another. Even more important, they will feel what I felt: pride, sadness, anger at the enemy, sympathy for the family of the fallen, fear for the people we know who are still there, and more than anything else, a desperate longing for less troubled times. And therein lies the reason I disagree with people who say the image should not have been published, and that doing so was wrong. It's not that I believe it had to be published, only that it would have been a mistake not to.
A photograph is nothing more than a tiny sliver of stopped time, pressed onto a flat surface, utterly devoid of context or soul. An unretouched photograph is visual truth. It is not a perception, representation, or interpretation of something else, but that is not to say a photograph is a powerless cipher. A photograph can be more powerful than words, and a photograph that shows raw life as it is being lived or death as it is happening can engender change in individuals and even societies as much as or more than whole volumes. For all of that, a photo is naught but a lifeless thing until it is looked at by a person whose reaction gives it meaning and infuses it with life. Almost every photograph will resonate with someone, and some images will affect everyone in some way, but only a few very special images will affect most people the same way, and deeply.
Unfortunately, Ms. Jacobson's photograph of LCpl Bernard is not one of the latter, at least not in my opinion. It is simply not strong enough, not focused enough, and it lacks that certain something, the essence of greatness, that would put it the same class as the photographs that have earned Pulitzer prizes every year but one (1946) since 1942. It isn't even really in the class of great non-award winners, like Michael Yon's photograph of Army Major Mark Bieger
holding the Iraqi girl, Farah (though a case could be made that Yon's photo should
have won a Pulitzer prize). All of which begs the question, if it's not a truly 'great' photograph why did it need to be published?
It didn't have to be published, but it was Jacobson's right to do so, and given that she was as much a participant in that battle as the three Marines, I say her story is at least as important as theirs if honestly told. Moreover, I believe the article accompanying the photo revealed exactly why she felt it was important. She wrote:
"That's when I realized there was a casualty and saw the injured Marine, about 10 yards from where I'd stood...for the second time in my life, I watched a Marine lose his.
Who can watch another person die and not be affected, or have in his or her possession something like that photograph and not feel the need to show other people what is in your mind and your memory, what you experienced? Who can spend time with soldiers and marines, and go to war with them, and not be affected when one of them is wounded or killed? More important, why was it automatically assumed by most people that Jacobson is a vile wretch whose sole motivation is nothing more than an award or money? Is it not possible that she was deeply affected by being within 30 feet of where an RPG round exploded and tore off another human's leg, or by having to lie in the dirt while all of that was happening, with nothing more than a camera in hand? And why is it assumed that just because she gets paid for taking pictures that she is less honorable or more mercenary than the 'heroes' who get paid to fight America's wars?
Yes, I know that's not why soldiers serve, but how many people would join up or continue to serve if they weren't getting paid—and before you answer that, consider that several years ago DoD had to increase SEAL bonuses by a great deal of money to keep a lot of them from leaving the Navy and going to work for companies like Blackwater. Sure, most Americans will fight to defend America, but most of us would not do it for free, at least not for any longer than absolutely necessary, and certainly not in places like Iraq, the invasion of which many people still believe was a mistake.
Which brings me back to Jacobson and the photograph of LCpl Bernard. He was a professional military man, she is a professional photographer, and both got paid for their work. He was doing his job, and she was doing hers, and just as I know that America's military people are not mercenaries, I strongly suspect that she is not just a mainstream media whore whose choice of career and assignment can only be attributed to greed, lust for fame, or monetary award. I could be wrong, but until I see evidence that proves me so, I choose to believe otherwise.
In the end, I'm sure that what I think won't matter much to anyone, but all things considered, I believe Jacobson is owed an apology by everyone who assumed—and wrote about it—that just because she did something they did not like that she did so solely for the benefit she might derive from exploiting the death of another human being. Whether or not the image should have been published is one thing, excoriating Jacobson and wishing her ill for doing so, without knowing why
she did it, is something else—and is in my opinion as offensive and wrong as anything she did.
By The Way . . . .
I did not discuss in this essay the AP's decision to distribute the photograph because that is a separate and even larger issue. Suffice to say, however, I see nothing wrong with that decision, but I see a whole lot wrong with the reactions and reasoning of both those who disagreed with it and those who claimed it was the only right decision.
Minor changes were made to this essay on 7 Nov 10; photo link updated 9 Jan 10; links updated 11 Oct 20.