The Digital Journalist
A Pair of Eyes
January 2005

by Spencer Platt

"For I understand that a man is born into the world with his own pair of eyes, and he is not at all responsible for his vision -- he is merely responsible for his quality of personal honesty," said Stephen Crane in the late 1890's. While Crane's world of horse carriages and glass plate cameras shares little resemblance to our modern times, this bold decree has never sounded more pertinent than it does on the eve of 2005.

As the flame of 2004 slowly begins to fade, its power and dynamism is overwhelming: Iraq, the U.S. presidential elections, Regan's death, Arafat's passing, Darfur, Beslan the chilling images from Abu Ghraib and then the Tsunami that hit the Asian coast on Christmas day. These were just some of the stories photojournalist pursued with unprecedented vigor in 2004. Maybe the attacks of September 11, 2001 changed the news cycle so significantly that I forgot what it was like to have a slow news year. Whatever the cause, the times we are living through and documenting are surely some of the most heartwrenching.

October 30, 2004, John Kerry in Warren, Ohio.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The presidential election, one of the nation's most contentious, offered rich fodder for photographers. While Bush and Kerry rose from similar elite east coast backgrounds, they were entirely different animals. Covering the Kerry campaign, while at times frustrating, was ultimately an exhilarating ride that offered few moments for rest. The candidate was shrewd and experienced with the media, letting his guard down seldom and building an opaque moat between him and the press pack. But, as in any candidacy, there were revealing moments that offered the camera an opportunity to view a man in a battle for the soul of America.

For me this moment arrived on an unseasonably warm evening in the town of Warren, Ohio. It was the last week of the campaign and Kerry and Bush were in a dead heat. As was customary, we were on a sixth stop of the day during a whirlwind tour of key swing states. While the crowds, flags and stages had long ago begun to appear the same, Warren had an intensity that evaded some of the other towns. It seemed every member of the community, from the town drunk to the fire chief, was in attendance and on the edge of his seat. While the introductions were read, the intensity of the crowd seemed to build to a breaking point. By the time Kerry approached the stage, slowed by the thousands of hands reaching for a piece of the man, Warren had been transformed from a sleepy, working class mid-western town to center ring in America.

April 10, 2004, Baghdad, Iraq.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Kerry used the platform to give an uncharacteristically rousing speech. The lighting was stark and the crowds, holding up American flags and red and blue Kerry/Edwards signs, drifted endlessly into the warm evening. It was at this point, putting my camera down for a moment, that the historical significance of the night weighed on me. The faces, smells and sounds could have been taken from a Kennedy whistle stop tour in 1960. It is at moments such as this that you realize the privilege of your occupation. To have a front row seat as history is slowly etched into reality, into the past.

But 2004 delivered much more than campaign stops and the independent voter; it saw the continuation and escalation of a most pernicious war. As photographers, 2004 confirmed that the Vietnam era combat photographs of Larry Burrows and Don McCulan are not simply a reminder of histories past, but harbingers of a foreign policy that is fated to endlessly repeat.

Journalists were killed, maimed and kidnapped in unprecedented numbers in Iraq. The story has now become so hideous and dodgy that many prominent news organizations have opted to pull out altogether. We now receive much of our news from Iraq, both text and images, from local stringers and amateurs willing to take the risks while reporting from the region.

April 13, 2004, Baghdad, Iraq. An Iraqi police officer viewed through a blood covered windshield after an IED attack.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Arguably, the most controversial and disturbing set of images to emerge from 2004 came from just such an amateur source. Taken by low ranking service men and women, the images from the U.S. controlled Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib shocked the world. The most famous image from this series, a series that still evolves as I write, is of a man in a Christ like pose standing on a box, hooded and with wires haphazardly hanging from his arms. It is an image that has become an icon for wanton torture, hubris and a foreign policy gone dangerously wrong. If ever there was doubt about the supremacy of the still image, the reportage from Abu Ghraib confirmed that pictures still retain the clout to radically shape policy and to fuel the fires of dissent around the globe.

And now The Tsunami in South East Asia, where the numbers of dead are in biblical proportions. I am packing for this story. I do hope 2005 is a year of compassion.

© Spencer Platt

Spencer Platt is a staff photographer at Getty Images. After filing this dispatch, he left for the Tsunami area.

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