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Introduction by Peter Howe

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The Hazards of the Job

by Peter Howe

The Internet is a great boon to writers. Not only is it an invaluable resource for research, giving access to information that would have been previously unavailable, but it is also an ideal activity to occupy the time when you prevaricate before putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. I don’t know what it is about the act of writing that is so intimidating that most of its practitioners will do anything to put off the inevitable moment when the first word appears on that blank screen. Actually of course it’s not the first word that’s usually the problem; it’s all the other ones that follow it. However it is true that most of us who make what is laughingly called a living out of writing regard the craft with the same degree of enthusiasm that we would bestow on an open-air pool in Maine in February.

I was actually putting off writing the piece that you’re reading now when I came across something that proved to be of value to it. This is particularly dangerous because it justifies future time-wasting by providing a precedent that validates the activity, or rather lack of activity. I was looking through the site of the Independent newspaper in the UK when an article by Thomas Sutcliffe that was headlined: “The conflict on camera: The photographs that have defined the war in Iraq” caught my attention. It was accompanied by a gallery of photographs chosen by picture editors from three of Britain’s national newspapers. They had taken on the daunting task of trying to choose at the beginning of the war those images that will define it in the years to come. John Edwards of The Sun selected a photograph of Royal Marine Commandoes fighting around Al Faw taken on March 23rd by Terry Richards. The Independent’s own Lynn Cullen chose a photograph by Jerome Delay of an injured child in an Iraqi hospital taken on April2nd and Bob Bodman of The Daily Telegraph opted for a picture of the US 7th Infantry in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces on April 7th from a photographer of the British Press Association.

Of course as it turns out none of them have proved to be the lasting iconic images that most wars seem to produce, and I assumed that the reason for this was that the picture editors had been asked to select them before the conflict ended. However when you recall those photographs that have defined the wars that they portray it is interesting that they captured the public imagination instantly. Joe Rosenthal’s depiction of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima was famous before he even saw it, because he had shipped his film and moved on to cover other battles when the photograph hit the wires. The same can be said of ’ street execution in Saigon, or Nick Ut’s napalmed children. In fact the one image from the Iraqi war that has achieved similar status is the photograph of the child without arms that has mobilized public opinion in the form of the Shriners to at least do something to provide medical help for him and other child victims of the war.

The fact that we haven’t seen photographs that burn themselves into our collective memory doesn’t mean that they haven’t been taken, just that they haven’t been seen. This was made clear to me when Amy Bowers first showed me the photograph of the mortally wounded soldier by Rob Curtis that appears in Dispatches this month. This is the kind of photograph that won’t let you go. Like many great war photographs it’s the expression of the victim’s face that haunts you long after you turn away from it. Whether or not it’s an image that will join the ranks of the ones mentioned above time will tell, but I doubt it. It was shot for Army Times Publishing, and it seems that another quality an iconographic photograph needs is wide distribution. All of the examples that I mentioned were taken for the wire services in a time when the AP more resembled CNN as a news source. The other strike against it is a result of the disconnect between the photographers and the publishers that I discussed in last month’s column. A photograph of a dying American fighter simply will not get as much play as that of a dead Iraqi combatant or an armless child. I think that the reason for this goes back to the trauma of the Vietnam War. As a nation we still carry so much guilt about the shameful way that we treated returning veterans then that we are determined never to let this happen again to the men and women of our armed services. Obviously this is a good thing, but because America is often a country of extremes we have embraced the opposite position whereby our fighting forces can do no wrong, are invulnerable, and, to use that much devalued word, all heroes. Because this is as far from reality as blaming draftees for a flawed foreign policy it is equally dangerous.

One of the things that I love about working for the Digital Journalist is that we are not a part of a large publishing organization. It’s also the reason, of course, that we don’t get paid, but it does give us the freedom publish work that doesn’t get space anywhere else, and to take positions that are contrary to the prevailing trend. If we’ve used that freedom responsibly this issue should give you a view that more accurately reflects the experiences of those involved in the three-week wonder in Iraq.

One of the picture editors that the Independent chose to review the images of war, Bob Bodman, made a comment about his selection that caught my attention. He said that the photograph of the soldiers in Saddam’s palace “sums up what this war has been about for the US soldiers” and “captures perfectly their sense of arrogant achievement.” When I looked at it all I saw was a bunch of battle weary guys taking a well-earned rest in bizarre surroundings, and the difference in both of our reactions highlights another of the hazards of war photography, or maybe of any other kind of photography. While this shot represents a true situation (the soldiers were there and it was Saddam’s place) it can also be interpreted in entirely different ways, depending on who the viewer is or the culture he or she comes from. When you get right down to it, what with censorship, misinterpretation, and complex ethical decisions that have to be made under the most difficult conditions, it begins to look as if bombs, land mines, Kalashnikovs and RPGs are just a few of the hazards that a war photographer has to face.

2003 Peter Howe

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