If there was a golden age for American media, it was long ago and it was short.
Over at The Atlantic, Torie Rose DeGhett has an excellent, utterly unsurprising article about a photograph taken in the last hours in the first Gulf War.
The work of the the then 28 year old photographer Kenneth Jarecke, the image captures a fact of war hopelessly obscured by the shots that angered Jarecke enough to postpone a planned hiatus from combat photography. “’It was one picture after another of a sunset with camels and a tank.” — or, once combat actually began, gaudy displays of gee whiz toys, the disembodied beauty of missile exhausts, or bloodless shots of tires and twisted metal. War as video game, or a spectacle for the folks back home.
Here’s DeGhett’s description of Jarecke’s riposte:
The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.
Go to the link. Look at the shot.
It’s a great photograph — great technically, and better as a work of art, in that it tells a story and commands empathy, all in a single frame. Most of all, though, it is essential journalism. It said, clearly, what war costs. It reframed — really, it guttted — the narrative of violence without pain that was so much the preferred description of the Gulf War in Washington DC. Its viewers got to see what was done in their names.*
Or rather, it didn’t and they didn’t. DeGhett documents the photograph’s journey from the battlefield to it’s near complete obscuration. The in-theater Time photo editor sent it back to New York; Time passed and so did Life. The AP in New York pulled the shot from the wire. No one would touch it in the US, and in Europe, only the British Sunday paper The Observer, and the French daily Libération ran the image.
The key here, as DeGhett writes, is that there was no military pressure not to publish Jarecke’s photograph. The war was over by the time his film got back to the facility in Saudi Arabia where the press pools operated. The decision to withhold the shot from the American public was made by the American press, by editors at the major magazines, at The New York Times, at the wire service. The chokehold on information at the top of the mainstream media was tight enough back then that most newspaper editors, DeGhett reports, never saw the image, never got to make their choice to publish or hide.
You can guess the excuses. “Think of the children!” For the more sophisticated, a jaded response:
Aidan Sullivan, the pictures editor for the British Sunday Times, told the British Journal of Photography on March 14 that he had opted instead for a wide shot of the carnage: a desert highway littered with rubble. He challenged the Observer: “We would have thought our readers could work out that a lot of people had died in those vehicles. Do you have to show it to them?”
Why yes, Mr. Sullivan, you do.
This is an old story, and as DeGhett notes, it’s not one that would likely play out the same way today. It’s not as if, what with Twitter and ‘net journalism and the camera phones and all that, horrible images of value and images that are violence porn are not hard to find. (As always, for each of us, YMMV in drawing the line.) But her piece is still a very useful piece of journalism, for two reasons. For one — the picture is really extraordinary, and it has a minatory value that exceeds the tale of the moment it was not allowed to tell. When John McCain and Lindsay Graham and their merry band of bombers call for war here, war there, war everywhere — and even or especially when a situation like the rise of ISIS seems to a broader slice of our country to merit the attention of the US military — we should remember what such attention looks like on the ground.
For the other: this reminds us what it looks like when the media — national press in particular — conforms its narratives to the needs of its sources, or even just to the wisdom that prevails among a handful of fallible, comfortable, Village elders. They’re doing it still, as best they can — and their best is still pretty effective. This shot is a reminder of that power, and the amoral disdain for the reader, the viewer, the citizenry with which that power is too often wielded.
Let me (as DeGhett does) give Jarecke the last word:
As an angry 28-year-old Jarecke wrote in American Photo in 1991: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.”
*You’ll note the obvious. Unusually for me, there is no image accompanying this post. Jarecke’s photograph is under copyright and can be seen at the link. No allusive work of fine art really works against that shot, I think, so, none is offered.