Imagine that you are a photojournalist covering a US marine patrol in Afghanistan. Everything is going great and the pictures are rolling in… that is until the patrol is attacked and a marine is mortally wounded. You are then faced with a dilemma. Do you continue to take images of the dying marine? Associated Press Photojournalist Julie Jacobsen did and has been on the receiving end of criticism ever since, along with AP and others for publishing the photo.
In theory, a photojournalist should capture every aspect of warfare, but some areas still remain taboo. War dead have always been fierce topic of debate since Matthew Brady’s photographers photographed the dead on the battlefields during the American Civil War. Since then, photographers have often tried to capture the sense of sacrifice on the battlefield, usually under huge scrutiny and censorship from the military and political powers. During world war II, images from the battlefields were closely controlled, and only on a number of occasions were US and British war dead photographs ever published. The Soviets, however, published lots of photographs of Soviet dead to motivate and inflame the Red Army/Soviet people as it fought against the onslaught of the German army’s assault on Russia.
A photograph is an immensely powerful thing. Even in the 21st century, the right photograph at the right time can cause havoc with public perception and opinion. The lessons learned after the Vietnam war are still being enforced. Don McCullin was barred from photographing the Falklands war in 1982 due to political pressure – the powers that be didn’t want any true images of war i.e war dead, by a seasoned war photographer, to influence public opinion back home. The result was that the Falklands conflict remains one of the most poorly documented conflicts that the United Kingdom has ever fought.The strangest element to photographs from a war is the nature of subjectivity. Display a photograph of dead Afghans/Iraqis and there may be few complaints, but show a dying British or American soldier and all hell breaks loose. Maybe it should.
The recent image of Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard dying, published by various news agencies, has brought the old arguments to the surface again. Just when do you stop taking pictures? Is there anything you don’t shoot? Do you publish the photographs? Even if you do take the photograph of the dying soldier, there is a good chance that it will never be published. On the other hand this is the reality of the situation on the ground. Young men and women risk their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq – sometimes the price can be high. Shouldn’t we acknowledge that, and show that risk and sacrifice? In the end this topic will continue to divide opinion as long as there are wars and photographers photographing those wars.
Some of the most thought provoking photographs taken of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq have been taken back home among the families of dead servicemen, where the impact of the loss is so keenly felt. Todd Heisler’s superb photo-story Final Salute is an excellent example of a photographer looking closer to home for the true visible cost of war. For me, Heisler’s images are far more emotionally powerful and poinant than any taken on the battlefield. Maybe it’s away from the battlefield that the real stories lie.