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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.