Prison photos a devastating hit in the war of images
By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV/Media Critic
The scenes from Baghdad are a deep wound to America. But will they become the final icons of the war?
Published May 9, 2004
A hooded Iraqi prisoner standing on a box with wires connected to his hands.
The statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad teetering as it is pulled over by an American armored vehicle.
Which will serve as the lasting image of the war in Iraq and how the United States has conducted it?
The stakes are high: Photos of grinning American soldiers humiliating their Iraqi prisoners have inspired moral outrage all over the world. Even the U.S. official some hold most responsible - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - now says he understands the seismic impact of the pictures.
"It is the photographs that give one the vivid realization of what actually took place," Rumsfeld told an angry Senate subcommittee Friday. "Words don't do it. The words that there were abuses, that it was cruel, that it was inhumane ... you read that and it's one thing. You see the photographs and you get a sense of it, and you cannot help but be outraged."
The pictures have confounded the Bush administration's efforts to control which images of war the public sees. As the fighting continues and the death toll climbs, the power of photographs to define the conflict will only increase.
"To use the hackneyed phrase, there is an ongoing battle for hearts and minds, both inside and outside our borders," said Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington think tank. "Our hearts are tugged by these images. And every decision made about images (becomes) in some way political."
The furor over Iraqi prisoners held in Abu Gharib prison was sparked by an expose April 28 on the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes II and fueled by constant display of the images in the international media.
Seen everywhere from morning TV news programs to America Online's welcome screen, the first wave of pictures showed nude Iraqis stacked in a pyramid as smiling soldiers gave the thumbs-up sign.
Later came pictures showing a naked prisoner held on a leash, another handcuffed with panties placed on his head, and a group of naked men handcuffed together on the prison floor.
News stories about the prison were published and broadcast in January, but only the amateur snapshots made clear the humiliation involved.
"We're functioning ... in the information age where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off against the law to the media, to our surprise," Rumsfeld said Friday. "They had not even arrived at the Pentagon."
The Christ-like image of the hooded prisoner, who had been told he would be electrocuted if he fell off the box, caught the scandal in a searing visual suggesting that the United States may be using torture methods like those of the dictator it overthrew.
These are not the kind of war images Americans who grew up during the world wars or Vietnam are accustomed to seeing.
"Up until (recent) decades, war photographs were viewed more as historical documents," said Donald Winslow, editor of News Photographer magazine and publications editor for the National Press Photographer's Association.
"After Vietnam, war photographs became evidence. Images speak truth. An image is not an allegation."
On the Iraqi prison photos, Winslow's assessment was blunt.
"It has a porn quality ... humiliation captured on a personal camera," he said. "My fear is that these pictures will become motivational training posters in terrorist camps for years to come."
The worldwide reaction has surprised even the journalists who broke the story.
"It's amazing - we knew we were onto a big story, but this reaction ... it's only gathering and getting stronger," said 60 Minutes II producer Jeffrey Fager.
Bill McLaughlin, an associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and a retired broadcaster, sees "a kind of degenerate decadence" in the photos.
"We've lost the moral high ground, and I don't think we're ever going to recover from it," said McLaughlin, who covered the Vietnam War for CBS.
"In the war of images, I don't know what we're going to do to get over this one," he said. "I'm very much afraid this moronic image may come to signify the folly of our adventure into Iraq."
In years past, the iconic images of war came from professional photographers and journalists: the triumphant flag raising at Iwo Jima in World War II; the horrific execution of a Viet Cong officer by a South Vietnamese police officer in 1968; the dead U.S. soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993.
But technology has changed that, allowing anyone with a digital camera access to a worldwide audience. The prison photos were snapped by servicemen and handed around to other soldiers on compact discs or sent on mobile phones.
Some photos of flag-draped coffins holding U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq appeared in newspapers last month because a Kuwait-based cargo worker snapped them, circumventing the military's 1991 ban on such images.
These latest images have arrived at a time when American media outlets, reacting to post-9/11 concerns about patriotism and graphic content, have been reluctant to display explicit war images, McLaughlin said.
"I think there is a conscious or unconscious attempt by television and print media to do their best to sanitize the war, to protect the American people from images that are too unpleasant," he said. "I know what happens in a battle. ... Heroes scream when they lose their limbs; there is no movie pleasantness to war. They're trying to protect the news consumer from the awful truths of war, and I think they're doing the country a disservice."
But Fager of 60 Minutes II said that's not why CBS delayed broadcasting the story for two weeks at the request of military officials.
"They were concerned about American hostages that were being held (by insurgents) ... and that seemed like a pretty reasonable concern," he said. Once CBS realized other journalists were onto the story, it went ahead with the broadcast. "We don't not tell a story because we think it's going to affect government policy."
The prison photos' reception in the Middle East is another story entirely.
"The audience in the Arab world is more concerned about the civilians. ... How many people are killed on the Iraqi side?" said Mohammed El-Nawawy, an assistant professor of communication at Stonehill College near Boston and author of Al Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East.
"Here, some American media talked to relatives or attorneys for the soldiers that did the torturing. The Arab media talked to people connected to those who were tortured. So the images each media presents are the same, but the way they are humanized and put into context is different.
"The context of how the image is placed may be more important than the image itself."
And because the Internet ensures controversial photos will circle the world instantly, official apologies delivered days later can be difficult to swallow.
"I'm afraid Bush's words will fall on deaf ears (in the Arab world)," Nawawy said. "This was not released on an Arab network ... so the issue of how genuine these pictures are is not on the table. These images have been very effective in undermining the credibility of the U.S."
But with other images, the impact is harder to define.
For example, U.S. military officials have defended the coffin photo ban as an effort to respect grieving families.
But author Russ Kick, who made worldwide headlines by posting 300 of the coffin images on his Web site TheMemoryHole last month, said the government has misjudged how the photos would be received by the American people.
"Obviously, the reason the curtain was drawn (on the flag photos) was that politicians are scared this will turn people against the war," said Kick, who obtained the images through a routine Freedom of Information Act request. "But ... what I've been hearing is that a lot of people were happy to see these photos, because these soldiers gave their lives for this country and were being swept under the rug."
Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center, sees it the other way.
"These images can send a message: This war is too costly. We need to quit," he said. "The media has a Vietnam quagmire mentality ... always seeking to hold our forces accountable, in a real imbalance of outrage."
For those who support the Iraq conflict, recent images - from the flag-draped coffins to the roll-call of the nation's war dead on ABC's Nightline to the prison photos - form a suspiciously unending stream of bad news.
"When you keep seeing these images, can America, as a peace-loving society, can we sustain the losses required in a war? That's the big question out there," said Jim Valentine, executive director of the Conservative Media Fund, which is paying for media campaigns against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
"I question the timing and confluence of all these outlets featuring images like this," Valentine added. "I know the answer: Good news doesn't sell. But I still think there is a conspiracy to report bad news."
Dramatic as the latest prison photos are, the signature image probably won't emerge until the fighting has long ended.
"We like our iconic pictures to summarize what the final verdict was," said Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "And you don't know which athlete's slam dunk to put on the front page until you know who's won the game."
[Last modified May 9, 2004, 01:41:11]
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