Front Page Horror

Should newspapers show us violent images from Iraq?

(To see some of the graphic photos that occasioned this article—which argues against the use of such images—click here.)

Horror in Fallujah

I spent a few weeks last summer in the Ituri region of the eastern Congo, writing about the civil war there. One morning I set out with a French wire-service reporter and a photographer for a place called Nizi in the hills outside Bunia, where we had heard there had been a massacre. When we arrived a few hours later, we found a mud hut village that some Lendu tribesmen had attacked the day before. Everyone who had lived in the village had fled, and the attackers, too, were gone. On the ground there were piles of bodies, mostly women and children who hadn’t run quickly enough. There were 22 of them in all, and they had been butchered with machetes; in some cases they bore patches of bloody red and fatty orange, where their genitalia had been hacked off or their internal organs cut out. I had heard that Ituri was the worst place in the world. Faced with evidence of just that, and with no one left alive to interview, I walked to the edge of the village and back, I wrote down some notes, and after that I stood around helplessly for a little while. And then, in a daze, I took a lot of pictures.

When I came home I had the pictures developed, but then I couldn’t figure out what to do with them. I showed them to my editor, and I showed them to a few friends, some of whom looked at them carefully, and some of whom immediately turned away. I looked at them myself, often, and I wanted very badly for other people to see them, for a number of reasons, not all of which I’m proud of. But part of it was simply to try to convey to people what it was like: This is what happened, and there they were, lying just like that. As it turned out, I had to explain what was happening in Ituri anyway; and in time the pictures just seemed to get in the way, as indeed they would if I linked to them here. I still have them, and I still look at them from time to time, but I rarely try to show them to anyone else.

A few months before I went to the Congo, I’d had a discussion here on Slate with Luc Sante, during which I argued that American news venues had not just the right but the duty to publish photographs of atrocities. At the time I had, of course, seen those sorts of pictures, but I’d never taken them. Now that I have, I’m not so sure. It’s not that the public deserves to be spared such things, because they don’t. It’s just that I no longer think that what happens when horrifying pictures are published has anything to do with journalism.

The subject of photography in wartime bears revisiting because last week, for the first time, truly terrible pictures from the Iraq war were published in the American press. To be sure, we’ve seen many images of bloodshed and grief, but the pictures of the burned and mutilated bodies of American military contractors hanging from the bridge in Fallujah crossed a boundary. I don’t remember seeing anything quite so shocking in a newspaper in my lifetime, with the exception of one or two 9/11 photographs, printed almost by accident in the days immediately following the attacks.

Now, presumably, the news media have had thousands of photographs of the war in Iraq that were equally graphic, if not more so, and they have forsworn publishing them. So why did editors choose to use these? The answer, I think, is quite simple: It was convenient, and it was time. A newspaper could not have published similar pictures of American soldiers, because there remains a taboo on showing explicit images of our own military dead. And it would not have published similar pictures of dead Iraqis, because there remains a disinclination to show detailed images of the effects of our own military campaign. But these victims were American civilians working in the private sector and therefore unprotected by such sanctions. What’s more, support for the war is waning, and we’re approaching a moment of transition, so it’s more in keeping with the public mood, and more revealing of the problems that lie ahead, to show evidence that things aren’t going well.

In general, the argument in favor of publishing raw and grisly photographs of war—and as I say, I once endorsed it myself—is that they’re necessary to bring home to people what’s at stake, the real and ferocious damage that combat does to cultures and to human bodies. Photographs, according to this position, are more immediate and convincing than words. But what, really, did these pictures show? That the people of Fallujah don’t want Americans occupying their city? We knew that. That Iraqis are capable of appalling savagery? We knew that, too. And besides, so are the members of any nation, given the right circumstances. In fact, the Fallujah pictures looked to me very much like old pictures of white Americans lynching blacks: in the background, the bodies mutilated and hung; in the foreground, the ecstatic crowd.

But what happened last week in Iraq was not, of course, a lynching. History, context, and culture all make the events in Fallujah very different, but history, context, and culture are precisely what a picture can’t show, at least not one picture alone. So what the photographs tell us, most clearly, is what the press thinks its audience can stand, and hence, how, in general, the war is going. On a literal level they show almost nothing of any value whatsoever, except perhaps that something gruesome happened; and any reporter could tell you that, as indeed many of them have. The pictures may seem to make the death of those Americans more vivid, but in the end, they make it a little harder to see.

By coincidence, the same day that the New York Times ran the Fallujah pictures on the front page and above the fold, it also ran a story about a Bronx man who had shot himself in the head in the lobby of an apartment building. A police security camera caught the suicide on video, and somehow the footage ended up on a Web site that specializes in “free video clips that include shocking moments, brutal stupidity, and a healthy dose of hardcore sex.” The man’s foster mother was trying to find out how this had happened: how the death of someone she loved had been turned into a kind of pornography.

That’s a good question. The answer, I think, or part of it, is that pictures of extreme violence are always a kind of pornography: There is an outrageous event. There is the fact that someone was present with a camera to record it. There is the fact that someone had the means and the will to publish it. And there is the fact that you and I are looking at it. The more surprising it is that these four things should come to pass, the less the event we’re looking at retains any of its original meaning. So pictures of horror, at a certain point, no longer function as news; they become, themselves, the news. The papers that have run the photographs from Fallujah have been getting scores of letters from readers, some appreciative, some not. But that’s just the problem: It’s a fine thing when readers think about what their local papers do, but on the whole, one would rather they were thinking about Iraq.

There’s a certain kind of vaguely puritanical humanism that suspects pictures of being inherently sensationalistic and manipulative—the idiom of the rabble, which must be kept subordinate to the natural calm reason of words. I don’t believe that. But shocking photographs become horror-porn very quickly and very easily, more quickly and easily than language does. A picture can do many things that a paragraph can’t, but enlightening us about the horrors of war isn’t one of them.

Last month I was working with a photographer in Pakistan, and one night I asked him over dinner if he’d ever taken a picture that no one would run. Yes, he said: It was of two soldiers walking down the road, one of them carrying the top half of a child who had been severed in two by a bomb, while the other carried the bottom half. He told me which conflict of the many he had covered had produced this image, but I don’t remember where it was, and I suspect that the fact that I don’t remember goes some way toward explaining why no one would publish it—and why, with all due respect to this man, who is deeply ethical, professional, and skilled, I don’t think I would publish it either. Because shock overwhelms information every time. I realized as much when I came back from the Congo and discovered that I couldn’t get my own photographs to show what, in the end, I wanted them to show: nothing more or less than the fact that these poor people had died.