Before they started snapping pictures, the amateur photographers of the 82nd Airborne Division whose work was recently made famous by the Los Angeles Times had official business to transact: bombings to investigate, corpses to identify, biometric information to collect. Their assignments were expressly visual: inspect, scan, document. It seems that they performed those duties. They got into trouble, however, when they started doing unauthorized visual work, posing for photos with the corpses to which they had been dispatched. Their transgression, according to George Wright, the Army spokesman quoted in the accompanying article, was "to pose with corpses for photographs outside of officially sanctioned purposes."
The implied distinction between officially sanctioned (and thus acceptable) photography of enemy dead and unofficial (and thus unacceptable) portraiture is crucial. But in a conflict where soldiers have to do so much work at the interface of death and the visual, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that they might occasionally find it difficult to discern or tempting to ignore these distinctions in the field. Consider last year's scandal about the photographic exploits of the 'Kill Team' in Afghanistan. One of the pictures in that oeuvre shows the soldiers ostensibly following standard visual procedure, crouching over a boy's corpse to obtain scans of his iris and fingerprints. No doubt, countless soldiers have performed this analysis countless times on countless bodies. This particular action was recast as criminal by its inclusion in their grisly montage of displayed corpses and carefully composed shots of severed limbs. The event became extraordinary because someone documented it. The photograph, in which we see the dead boy's body refracted on the digital screen of the device that the soldier positions over him, made visible that which is usually invisible, the officially sanctioned visual work of the war.
Sanctioned and unsanctioned visual practices coexist, bleed together. We see it in this recent pair of photos, too. In the first, one soldier leans intently over the insurgent body, ignoring the camera, while the other soldier, with the dead man's hand resting limply on his shoulder, turns his sweaty face away from it and smiles. In the second photo, some of the Americans are occupied with something beyond our view, while a few of their comrades insert themselves awkwardly into the frame behind the legs of a corpse, which the Afghan police suspend by its ankles, one looking impassively at the camera, the other gazing downward and intent at the remains. For all the clarity with which the pictures depict the viscera of the dead and the faces of the men sent to sort them out, they also testify to the murkiness of the boundary between visual practices that are sanctioned and those that are not. They document the ease with which a visual mission can devolve.
They also place us, as spectators, in an ambiguous position. We readily intuit that posing corpses for cheerful snapshots was extraneous to the mission, and hence gratuitous, objectionable, even criminal. But the military discourse of an officially sanctioned purpose implies an officially sanctioned spectator, who needs access to the photos for some kind of officially sanctioned purpose. Accordingly, even officially sanctioned photos of the dead are rarely made public, and for the most part, no one objects to this limited access; most of us don't have the time, interest, or inclination to look, and we trust in officially sanctioned people to be officially sanctioned spectators on our behalf. In the moments, however, when we learn of unsanctioned visual work, we often presume that we have a new visual obligation: to inspect the evidence and belatedly oversee what transpired.
When the Pentagon asked the L.A. Times not to reproduce the photos, citing concerns for troop safety, the editor crafted a compromise, republishing two of the 18 images and asserting that this "small but representative selection" would satisfy the papers' obligations to its readers and to the cause of public information while taking the Pentagon's concerns seriously. The selected number is arbitrary, and critics will surely fault the Times for publishing either too much or too little. The Times editors presumably acted in accordance with their standards and duties as they understood them. But no matter how well or carefully they carried out the paper's mission, they could not fully resolve the ethical problems created when the soldier-photographers strayed so wantonly from theirs.
For those of us who watch from home, with no institutional or legal guidelines to govern our visual practice, it is hard to know what our duties are. We have not been officially sanctioned to do any kind of visual work; indeed, military officials sought to prohibit us from seeing the photos at all. But we license ourselves, driven by an insatiable hunger for pictures, aided by mass media and inspired by a vague First Amendment sense of entitlement. Certainly, there are laudable reasons for looking, for wanting to look. But in order to keep our spectatorship from becoming exploitative, from replicating in even a small way the harm to which we seek to bear witness, we need to ask why we want to look, what we believe ourselves to be doing when we are, and what purpose we think it will serve. Moreover, we need to recognize that our consumption of such images is ethically complicated by the circumstances in which the photos were taken, by the fact of the deaths recorded within them, and by their vexed status as both evidence and implements of a peculiarly visual kind of violence.
Rebecca A. Adelman is an assistant professor of media and communication studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her email is email@example.com.