The Digital Journalist
The Next Revolution Will Be Digital
May 2004

by Dennis Dunleavy

The "shock and awe" of recent photographs from Iraq showing U.S. military torturing and humiliating prisoners is a strong indication of the power images continue to hold in the court of public opinion.

The images made by amateurs with digital technology, show naked, beaten and tortured human beings. The immediacy of these images and their dissemination through the Internet circumvents the formidable "food chain" of communication channels imposed by government and carried out through conventional mainstream mass media. As the natural proclivities of soldiers snapping scrapbook trophies to show the grandchildren someday, these images add a grainy and unaesthetic reality to an often-sanitized portrayal of our foreign exploits.

Fortunately, there are some individuals who still believe in democratic civics.

The digital camera represents an important tool in keeping those in power honest about their actions. In this case, citizen soldiers disgusted by the barbarity of others turned to the media to report what they believed to be unconscionable behavior. Like the photograph taken by a government contractor showing America war dead being loaded onto cargo planes last month, the latest public embarrassment to U.S. policy in Iraq comes to light as a result of individuals who value the integrity of human life.

The next revolution may not be televised by embedded journalists, but rather by an army of citizen soldiers carrying inexpensive digital "happy snap" cameras. The images, which show U.S. military guards posing over the naked bodies of prisoners like freshman at a college frat party, signify a small victory for the institution of democracy and the right of dissent. No doubt our leaders, especially those faceless and nameless experts hidden within the fortified walls of the Pentagon, have already started to circulate new protocols regulating the use of personal cameras in times of war, especially if the images have the potential of threatening the powers of government.

The next revolution will be digital and is being pinged across the email right now.

Despite the "clear and present" danger for altering digital images for political or economic gain, the sheer number and variety of sources of photographs coming out of Iraq suggests the potential of the digital camera's capacity for carrying a burden of truth. Digital imagery is changing the way we see the world, in all of its splendor as well as all of its horror. The irony of the Iraqi prisoner abuse photos illustrates that democratic values and civics are alive and well, despite efforts to sanitize the truth. The immediacy of digital imagery from Iraq haunts us with a terrible truth - a truth that reveals the hubris of the most powerful or so-called "greatest" nation on earth and our inconceivable inhumanity toward fellow human beings, be they be combatants or civilians.

© Dennis Dunleavy

Dennis Dunleavy is an Assistant Professor and Photojournalism Program Coordinator in School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University. Professor Dunleavy's current research examines the influence of the digital camera on human visual behavior.