"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

04 March, 2009

Can one photograph really change the world? Yes it can! Or can it? Obama, Secretary Gates and the sorry saga of the flag-draped caskets

This image copyright USAF

I admit: it is impressive. Obama and his team continue to pull stunt after stunt in such an artfully casual way, we barely notice how brazenly we are being manipulated. This week alone, we have had glam, yet reassuringly mumsy, Michelle on the cover of Vogue and now, the shocking juxtaposition of the vital, groomed & grinning Obama with the bowed, dishevelled & grumpy Gordon - (eight out of 10 Washingtonians reportedly identified the British PM thus: ‘Is he like maybe a news anchor for one of the cable TV channels?’)

We wait to see whether the potent currency of Candidate Obama can be converted into presidential success, yet there are signs that the new administration is chipping away at some problematic vestiges of the Bush era. It started with a vow to close Guantanamo Bay. There is also welcome news on the environment with the granting, to 14 states, of waivers from the Federal Clean Air Act, allowing them to impose even stiffer standards on emissions.

Last week, Defence Secretary Robert Gates (whose appointment raised influential eyebrows) announced that media images of the flag-draped coffins of America’s war dead will now be allowed – with the express permission of the families of the fallen. This decision is a dramatic reversal of the blanket ban imposed in 1991 by then President George H.W. Bush and the scrapping of the ban has sharply divided the miliblogosphere.

It is, however, a victory for a Freedom of Information campaign, led by veteran CNN correspondent Ralph Begleiter. Begleiter, now professor of Journalism in Delaware, home state of Dover Air Base, where the caskets are repatriated, sued the Pentagon in 2005, in a bid to release images of regular honour guard ceremonies which continue to be documented by military photographers.

"I never considered the release of images a political issue," Begleiter has said, "But, seeing the cost of war can have strong political consequences. Hiding these images from the public....hinders policymakers and historians of the future from making informed judgments about public opinion and war.”

The defence establishment has had a vexed relationship with the media since William Russell first got to the Crimea in the 1850s. Since then, myriad weighty tomes & conflicting theses have been produced on the influence of war reporting and of specific photographic images. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that the dissemination of so many gruesome scenes from Vietnam was instrumental in the shift of U.S. public opinion against the war.

In the pre-digital era, every conflict threw up its own iconic image. We can all instantly conjure those seared on our memories, such as the one below taken by Nick Ut in 1972.

This image copyright 1972: Associated Press/(Nick) Ut Cong Huynh

Since Vietnam, technological watersheds and the increasing speed of global media networks have made it far more difficult to single out the sole and specific iconic image; yet somehow, one or two always seem to insinuate themselves into the public consciousness. The images from Abu Ghraib prison, featuring Lynndie England and her U.S. army colleagues, which encapsulate a key Iraq War narrative so eloquently, seem set to become the first such photographs to be taken by amateurs rather than by professionals.

In Britain, the MOD exerts equally strict access limits on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq but is less draconian on the use of photographs of the fallen or, indeed, of their Union flag-draped coffins. They are, however, rigid on issues of copyright & I struggled to find images to safely & legally reproduce. British services photographers continue to document both conflicts; many thoughtful and accomplished images can be seen here:

So, in Britain we have no real restrictions on showing images to illustrate the human cost of these wars, yet why do they now appear so infrequently in our newspapers – both quality and tabloid? I live close to a huge Royal Air Force base and the Hercules transport planes bearing the remains of services victims fly overhead on a depressingly regular basis.

This image: Crown copyright/Sgt Ian Houlding

Yet the next day, when I scour the papers for any mention of these tragic shipments, I am usually disappointed. The fate of these men & women is now usually consigned to a downpage paragraph or two, accompanied by a blurred profile picture of an absurdly youthful face, smiling broadly into the camera. Then again, this slight dignity is rather more than that afforded to the many thousands of Iraqi and Afghan victims who have died since Britain and the U.S. went so boldly and unthinkingly into their respective countries.

I am rarely at one with the Mail’s columnist & pundit Peter Hitchens but I was easily persuaded by his cogent arguments in a recent piece linking the most recent military deaths in Afghanistan to the sadly premature death of six-year-old Ivan, the disabled son of David and Samantha Cameron.

At last count, the Pentagon says that 4,253 U.S. service members have died as a result of the war in Iraq since March 2003 while another 584 have been killed in Afghanistan

According to the Ministry of Defence, 149 British service personnel have been killed on active service in Afghanistan while the toll since 2003 in Iraq is 176 fatalities.