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Death of a marine

Associated Press and the ethics of war photography

The Associated Press has triggered a furious debate in the US by publishing a photo of a marine moments before his death. The furore over the photo of the 21-year-old marine, Joshua Bernard, who died after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, reminds us that depicting military deaths remains taboo in many parts of the US.

It was only this year that the Pentagon finally allowed the US media to photograph military caskets, reversing a ban introduced by President Bush at the time of the Gulf War.

The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, is said to have "begged" the news agency to withhold the image and has accused AP of showing a "lack of compassion" to Bernard's family.

In a fiercely worded letter to the AP president, Tom Curley, he said:

Why your organisation would purposefully defy the family's wishes, knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish, is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling.

AP has countered Gates's charges here, with Santiago Lyon, its director of photography, arguing: "AP journalists document world events every day. Afghanistan is no exception. We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is."

In this instance, my sympathies lie with AP and the photographer, Julie Jacobson. There is no evidence that the agency is exploiting the image in the manner of a grubby tabloid and the US political and military Establishment has long taken a self-interested approach to the use of graphic battlefield images.

Gates would do well to remember the grief and anguish that photographers can experience in such situations.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the case of Kevin Carter, the South African photographer whose most famous image showed an emaciated Sudanese child stalked by a vulture. Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo but was haunted by claims that he should have intervened to help the girl earlier than he did (one journalist remarked that Carter "might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene"). His grief led him to take his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning a few months later.

Carter, who was also a member of the famed Bang-Bang Club and the first person to photograph a public execution by "necklacing'" in South Africa, once described the dilemma faced by photojournalists:

I am zooming in on a tight shot of the dead guy and a splash of red. Going into his khaki uniform in a pool of blood in the sand. The dead man's face is slightly grey. You are making a visual here. But inside something is screaming, "My God." But it is time to work. Deal with the rest later. If you can't do it, get out of the game.

It is a dilemma that Gates and other critics should reflect on.