Casualties of War: Do You Move It? Do You Run It?

The Associated Press has come under a lot of fire this past week for moving an image of a mortally wounded American soldier in Afghanistan. The soldier was hit by a rocket propelled grenade in August and the wire service held the image until this past week. They were not being censored – it was their decision to hold it.

The New York Times‘ Lens blog has a good summation of the situation. I’ve been thinking about his image since first seeing it on Friday and have gone back and forth on it. My thinking, after all that ruminating, is that the AP has a responsibility to its members to provide whatever images it can – and then the member publications have a responsibility to decide what to run and what to hold back based on their individual communities.

Which is a heck of a non-decision decision on my part, isn’t it? So, had I been the photo editor at a small to mid size daily, perhaps where this soldier was from or where his unit (or others) were based, I don’t think I would run it. My decision has nothing to do with the graphic quality of the image, nor the technical problems – it’s that it isn’t a very strong photo. (That is not to say the photojournalist made any errors or mistakes here – she did everything she should have.) It does not tell me anything that happened, it does not illuminate me in some new way or give me a greater understanding of what war does to human beings. There is no context to the image – there is no cause and effect, there is only effect. And is that journalism?

And, if it is, is it a strong enough piece of journalism to overcome the quite probably negative reaction to the publication of the image? I, personally, don’t think so. And I argued for the running of images of jumpers from the World Trade Center towers in 2001 – vehemently, persistently and passionately – because I believed those images told an intensely personal story that helped shaped an incredibly impersonal series of events.

I am not taking the photojournalist, Julie Jacobson, to task here – I think she did a remarkable thing in making those (and many other) images. She should have made those photos as she did. The AP should have moved them on the wire. But I would not have lobbied for their publication in my organization. It’s not a corn flakes test for me – it’s a journalism test for me, and that image doesn’t pass it in my mind.

Mark E. Johnson

1 Response

  1. Mark,

    I wouldn’t have run it either for the exact same reason. It wasn’t strong enough.

    Now i’m not going to second-guess anyone who’s photographing in the middle of a firefight and i think she did a good job, I just wouldn’t put in the the caliber of ‘the bang bang club’ type shots.

    Given the horrific context of the photograph, i would want to see something stronger.

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