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Defining images

International Military InterventionsWars and InterventionsPrisoners and DetaineesPhotographyArtIraq

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

Perhaps the most famous picture of World War II was taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal as Marines fought their way up Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in 1945. After Marines reached the summit, an admiral thought an American flag atop the mountain would raise the morale of soldiers still fighting on its slopes. The first flag was too small, so he sent a larger one from his ship.

Rosenthal made several pictures of the raising of both flags, Moeller says, and shipped off his film undeveloped. Days later, when he received congratulations for his picture, he did not know which one it was.

The image immediately assumed iconic status and the military exploited that. The three soldiers in the photograph who survived the battle were brought home and sent on a nationwide war bond tour.

The power of the image is evident. Just as the war was not yet over, the flag was not fully raised. But, due to our hard-working soldiers, it was on its way up, and victory seemed just as inevitable.

A few weeks later in Germany, American troops began the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. Again recognizing the power of images, the military ordered photographers to report to Buchenwald to take pictures of the emaciated prisoners and the piles of corpses. Margaret Bourke-White famously photographed the reaction of local Germans who were forced to tour the camp.

Those images - which were reproduced in magazines and special newspaper sections, and sent on a tour of the country - added a retrospective power to the morality of the Allied fight against Germany.

'People needed to see'

"The government said that people needed to see this," Zelizer says.

The reason was clear. Though there had been written reports of Nazi atrocities, nothing could match the impact of these photographs.

"They were undeniable," says C. Zoe Smith of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. "When you see bodies stacked liked cordwood, when you see human skeletons staring out at you, how can you say this was made up?"

The pictures emerging from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have an analogous power. There had been reports of prisoner abuse in Iraq, but they received almost no attention in the United States until these pictures made them undeniable. That power was recognized by military authorities who confiscated the images and locked them in a safe.

The pictures have the same power as the iconic images of the war in Vietnam, where, freed of military censorship, photographers produced pictures that were at odds with the official narrative.

Though Permutter points out that it is the toll of American troops that most affects U.S. public opinion, pictures of the suffering of South Vietnamese undermined the rationale for the war - that the United States was there to help these people. Thus they undermined the reason for American deaths. Increasingly after 1968, photographs of American troops in combat were not seen as images of selfless sacrifice, but as evidence of meaningless suffering.

Similarly, the prisoner-abuse photographs from Iraq derive their power because they undermine the United States' position that it is there to liberate Iraqis from such treatment.

Control 'impossible now'

Control of images is impossible now. Though the military kept fairly tight reins on the press in the first Persian Gulf war, the spread of digital technology means that an image can be distributed worldwide within seconds of being captured.

These images may lack context, they may capture an instant that distorts the narrative, but they retain the same power of Brady's Antietam photographs.

"Photographs tell a story that is different than words, ... able to bypass the intellect and work directly on the emotions," says Zelizer. "Locked up in that is this faith we tend to have in Western civilization that seeing is the equivalent of believing."

"But we don't have the capability to position an image inside of a chronological context," she says. "That is what an image does, it takes the sequencing out of context; it frames one moment and makes it stand for the larger story. And that is problematic when one is looking at an image as the end-all and be-all of evidence."

Without that chronological context, the viewer provides the context, chooses the iconic image to represent the larger story, even if it doesn't actually tell that story. The Iwo Jima picture was of soldiers doing a fairly simple job; it was the viewers of 1944 who put them in the midst of combat, part of the larger narrative of the American war effort.

"The sense now is that the war [in Iraq] is going badly," says Perlmutter. "So there is open season on any photograph that plugs into that narrative."

The fight for the iconic images will probably intensify.

"Images matter particularly now," says Mueller. "With no clear statistics for understanding the success or failure of the American effort - we are not moving flags across the map as we were in the first three weeks of the war - right now images are the battleground."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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