The Digital Journalist
Amateur Hour
June 2004

by Peter Howe

Over the weekend, I heard a young marine who had returned from Iraq interviewed on NPR about the Abu Ghraib photographs. "Sure they're obscene," he said, "Everything else about war's obscene; why wouldn't they be?" While his casual and uncritical acceptance of the effects of war shocked me, I also found it moving. Here was a young man who had come home from battle to continue his college education, and who will probably become a normal and useful citizen in the same way that his father did after Vietnam, or his grandfather after World War II. But he understood what the rest of America seems to be having such a hard time dealing with - that war has a brutalizing effect on all whose lives it touches. Anyone with even a passing experience or knowledge of war should not be surprised that seemingly normal, ordinary young American men and women can perform such acts. Every army in every war has similar secrets, many of which make Iraqi prisoner abuse seem almost benign. We like to think it's always the other side that commits atrocities, but war defiles with an even hand. It is much easier to understand why the incidents in the Iraqi prison occurred than why they were photographed. (If you want to understand prisoner abuse of the greatest magnitude read James Bradley's excellent book Flyboys, which, as well as describing unimaginable Japanese brutality, also recounts some very uncomfortable American acts as well.)

The word "obscene" that the young marine chose to describe the photographs is one that has been frequently used in this context, and indeed they do have an almost pornographic quality. The frat house/spring break joviality of the US military personnel contrasts obscenely with the terror and humiliation of their prisoners, making them suitable material for some of the more esoteric porn websites, some of which actually did run the tape showing the beheading of Nick Berg. What makes the Abu Ghraib images particularly disturbing is the fact that we weren't supposed to see them. Why they were taken has still to be determined, but whether it was as some form of bizarre souvenir, or a more sinister and orchestrated aspect of official terror and intimidation, you can be sure they weren't meant for general display. When we look at photography taken by a professional journalist we understand his or her role as a witness, and to some extent we share it. Photographers like James Nachtwey or Tyler Hicks took pictures in Iraq specifically to be seen by as many people as possible. Because of this we feel comfortable in sharing their witness; with the Abu Ghraib pictures we feel like co-conspirators. These photographs are not the work of observers, but participants, and as a result we have a whole different and much more uncomfortable relationship to them, a kind of voyeurism without pleasure.

If the Abu Ghraib photographs become the iconic images of this war, it will be the first time to my knowledge that such icons are the work of amateurs, and this is yet another indication of the depth and breadth of the communication revolution that is unfolding around us. While we in the professional community have been consumed with our own issues around digital technology and the effect that it is having on our working lives, amateurs have been happily embracing it and taking, printing and sharing photographs with an unbridled enthusiasm. As the technology develops - and I've been told that there are already 7 megapixel phone cameras in the works - the effect that it will have upon news imagery will be dramatic. If a cell phone can take a reproduction quality image then virtually nothing that happens in anywhere but the most remote parts of the world will go unrecorded. This will have consequences both good and bad. On the plus side it will give a greater transparency to actions by governments, corporations and any other organization engaging in activities they would prefer were not public knowledge. It's ironic that the U.S. military may have an easier time controlling professional journalists than the personnel and contractors that work for them. The questions of what the Secretary of Defense authorized, and when he authorized it are not being asked as the result of the work done by the embedded photographers, but of his own people.

But there are also negative aspects to this flood of easily disseminated and unfiltered information, and they call into question the very foundation of what we in the west consider responsible journalism, with its insistence on accuracy and balance. Much of what you see on the Internet that purports to be news has not been fact checked or triangulated, or even, if it's in the form of words, copy edited. Yet because it's on the web it seems to automatically gain authority and veracity that is often far beyond its actual value. While this isn't a problem with the more looney sites whose agenda hangs out for everyone to see, it could be a problem with those that appear to be more middle-of-the-road - like the Digital Journalist, for instance. Not because of any devious intent, but from a mere lack of funds, none of the words you're reading right now have been copy edited (which probably answers many of your questions about my grammar), and neither have they been fact checked. Remarkably I don't think that we make many egregious mistakes, and if we do, you point them out pretty quickly. The fact is that we operate in a manner that would be unacceptable to the New York Times, and yet hopefully what you read here you give as much credence.

This unsupervised approach may be even more of a problem with photography, because the meaning of an image can be manipulated through use in a false context, or no context at all. In the looting that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime there were photographs of US soldiers with arms full of money taken off the looters they had arrested, and which they were returning to an appropriate location. The same photographs could represent responsible people attempting to restore law and order, or ruthless invaders plundering the country that was their victim, your choice, depending on who you are and where you are. With technology enabling even the most unskilled amateur to take good quality photographs such misrepresentations are likely to occur more frequently. Not only will there be a greater number of images of any given event, but once they're on the Internet they will be readily available to anyone with an agenda. Furthermore, amateur photographers don't have the same training as professional photojournalists, nor have they acquired the same experience and instincts.

The war in Iraq has been a war of images, and some of the most important have not come from the cameras of professional shooters. As well as the prisoner abuse photographs, there were the shots of the flag draped coffins taken by a Defense Department contractor working at Kuwait International airport, and the mortuary photographs of the corpses of Saddam's sons. These gruesome images were released by the U.S. military to prove to the Iraqi people they really had been killed in a firefight with American troops. It seems that seeing is believing. Shortly after the invasion, the Red Cross and other agencies reported cases of prisoner abuse in several U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, but it wasn't until the photographs appeared that anyone took them seriously. Then there's the infamous case of the British troops and the Daily Mirror in London. Three soldiers from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment approached the newspaper with a story of British prisoner abuse with accompanying pictures to back up their claims. The tabloid published the photographs extensively without fully checking their authenticity. Unfortunately for them, and especially for the editor, Piers Morgan, the pictures were crude, easily proven fakes. Morgan lost his job and the story was compromised, which is ironic since there is good anecdotal evidence that such abuse did occur, including a payment of $3,000 to an Iraqi man whose son was killed while in British detention. The British authorities have acknowledged payment of the sum.

The incidents and importance of amateur photography in the reporting of news events will undoubtedly increase. For one thing they're more likely to be on the immediate scene than a professional; their work will be cheaper until some clever entrepreneur finds a way to form a network to license it; like the airport worker, who also was fired, they will have better access. So my advice to all you picture editors reading this - make yourself a big sign for your desk with the words "Caveat Emptor" emblazoned upon it. For those of you without the benefit of a classical education it means "Buyer Beware", to which I would add "Caveat Lector", which, according to my rusty classical education, means "Reader Beware". In the world of the new journalism a healthy dose of wariness will serve us all well.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor