The Digital Journalist
Shock Treatment
April 2004

by Peter Howe

It seems that powerful images often have a way of repeating themselves over time. The flag raising in Iwo Jima reappeared as the firefighters at the World Trade Center, and the recent pictures of the four American civilians mutilated in Fallujah is a gruesome reminder of the body being dragged behind the truck in Mogadishu a decade ago. The effect of such brutal imagery on the reading or viewing public is something that should give pause for thought to all of us in the position to make decisions as to whether or not they are to be seen. How graphic can you be as editors and publishers when you decide which images you will use to illustrate a particularly distressing news event? You want to give the reader an accurate representation of what happened without repelling them and turning them away from the story. Or are our lives of such narrow complacency that only images that are as shocking as these will alert us to the fact that the world is not one endless episode of "Friends"?

I had an interesting experience recently when I curated a show of work by the agency VII at the International Center of Photography. Readers of the Digital Journalist are familiar with VII, a group that includes some of the finest combat photographers in the world, and the theme of the exhibition was the war in Iraq and the events leading up to it, including post 9/11 New York, and the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. With an exhibition you can afford to be bolder in your selections than you would be for a newspaper or magazine. There are no casual viewers who will inadvertently see the images; they make a conscious decision to come into the gallery, and are likely to be prepared for what confronts them. The show contains several photographs of corpses including American servicemen. The universal reaction that I got from the visitors who contacted me was that everyone should see these pictures, and that the exhibition would change the way that people felt about the war.

But another issue relating to the photographs of the mutilated American civilians is whether or not this will change the attitudes of the American public not only toward the situation in Iraq, but also towards a broader perception as to what part international involvement should play in our government's foreign policy. The shocking thing to me was not so much the sight of the bodies, but the jubilation of the people performing their mutilation and display. This was so clearly not a demonstration organized by Islamic fundamentalists, either Al Qaeda or others, but of frustrated and angry civilians of a country that we have supposedly liberated. I think that the biggest adjustment that we as citizens of this country have to make is to come to terms with how genuinely we are disliked, even hated, in other parts of the world, and how at odds this is with our perception of ourselves as a nation that only wants the best for others.

What effect this will have on the election and the foreign policy of whichever administration is in power as the result of it has yet to be seen, but my fear is that as a nation that tends towards extremes we will swing from imperial grandeur to locked down isolationism without finding the balanced approach that can be a truly beneficial use of our power and influence. And yet I think that extreme reactions are often not the result of showing brutal imagery, but of the fantasies of optimism that are pulled out of hats by the imagineers in the government, the armed forces, and any other institution that feels its survival depends upon not rocking our emotional boat. When generals talk bout "upticks in local engagements" and really mean the mutilation of human bodies, and not just of Americans, then how can we possibly not be shocked by these photographs. They are not only intrinsically brutal as any representation of a brutal act will be, but they brutally challenge our assumption that everything is under control. How many times does this country have to be shocked to realize that a complete and realistic knowledge of the rest of the planet is vital to our interests? We were shocked by Pearl Harbor, shocked by Vietnam, shocked by 9/11, shocked by so many events large and small that there has to be something wrong with a system that leaves its citizens so unprepared for the world as it really is today.

The day after the New York Times printed one of the photographs of this incident on the front page they received and published a letter from Martha Bradt, a reader in Rye, New York in which she concluded that from now on she would have to hide the newspaper from her 7- and 9-year-old children, instead of using it to educate them on world events. Apart from the dubious wisdom of editing the paper of record so that it's acceptable to 7- and 9-year-olds, if the editors of the Times are going to be accused of sensationalism, as she went on to do, every time that they reproduce an unsettling and distressing image of an important world event, then the hope of this country having a balanced and effective foreign policy that is supported by its citizens is pretty much a pipe dream. In fact Ms. Bradt's attitude as to what's acceptable for her children is not dissimilar to, although much more understandable than, the government's attitude as to how much bad news the American public can tolerate before they vote them out of office. This paternalistic attitude (and apart from Condoleezza Rice it is men speaking with forked tongues) in which the news is blended into a pablum deemed suitable for our consumption is not only condescending but, because of the damage that it does to our nation, considerably more unpatriotic than those who question whether we should be fighting such wars in the first place.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor