Nuts & Bolts
Covering Combat
October 2009

by Bill Pierce

There are two important Web sites that deal with photojournalism – and only one of them is The Digital Journalist.

The other is the "Lens" blog of The New York Times.

On Sept. 23, the Lens blog issued, "From the Archive: Not New, Never Easy" by David W. Dunlap and James Estrin, a story on the responsibilities involved in the publishing of photographs of dead and dying soldiers, a piece centered on a decision by The Associated Press to release a picture taken by Julie Jacobson of a mortally wounded Marine in Afghanistan.

It is an exceptionally important article. If you have not read and viewed it already, do so now, right now.

I am honored in having worked with and/or in knowing five of the six people quoted in the article: Dirck Halstead, Don McCullin, Dave Kennerly, John Morris and Michael Kamber. (I did meet Russell Burrows briefly at an Eddie Adams Workshop, but our discussion centered on the virtue of large, goofy dogs.) Outside of Ms. Jacobson, I cannot think of anyone else who could add to the photojournalist's perspective in this article.

My regret is that the article will, for the most part, be read by photographers. I wish that it would be read by editors, because they are the people who make the decision whether or not to publish a picture.

More than once, editors have had the courtesy to hold the presses to look at pictures I sent in just as the magazine was closing. This costs a lot of money; you have to respect the magazine that does this. But the pictures were not published. It was never directly stated, but you got hints that the pictures were just a little bit too ugly. That, of course, was exactly why I said they might want to hold for them. War is ugly.

Within my experience, do soldiers object to you photographing the wounded and dying? No. (1) They are too busy trying to save the wounded and dying. Just don't get in their way. Actually do something helpful if you can. (2) There is actually a certain respect for journalists. As one Marine said to me, "You don't have to be here." (3) On more than one occasion, someone near me has muttered, "Show them ... ." And that is the reason we are there.

In this column, I previously published a picture of a wounded PLA soldier being carried into a hospital. It's a very ugly picture. A short time later, the soldier died. But, before he died, he signaled me that he wanted his picture taken. I cannot tell you specifically what he thought the picture would accomplish. But I am sure that he knew he was dying and he wanted his picture taken.

Sometimes when there was nothing specific to do in Lebanon, I would go to one of the graveyards where the soldiers were buried. There were usually two or three people mourning at separate grave sites. Once when I came to the graveyard, there was an entire family mourning at a freshly dug grave site. There was a picture of a young soldier on the grave marker. The family was crying. I felt badly, but I took a picture, then took another. I stayed there, thinking that the father would eventually come over and slap me, hit me or spit in my face – and that in some small degree would make up for my intrusion.

In due time the father turned from the grave and walked toward me. He was very close to me before he stopped. He said, "Thank you; thank you," and offered me some candies.  

My experiences may or may not be typical. For sure, others have had experiences that are quite different. But we are minor league annoyances in the real world of grief.

"Show them; show them ... ." It's complicated. Any fixed set of rules or guidelines is inadequate. But, would you publish a picture of a dying soldier knowing it would add to the pain his friends and family are feeling? I would – if it were respectful, appropriate and honored this soldier and the many, many, many others that all of us should honor and mourn.

As to this month's "picture that has nothing to do with the column," it's a torn poster on a temporary wall surrounding a Manhattan construction site.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer

Bill Pierce's pictures have appeared in Time, Life, People, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times and many other publications and books here and abroad. He is a winner of the Leica Medal of Excellence, the World Press Budapest Award and the Overseas Press Olivier Rebbot Award for best photoreporting from abroad. His pictures are in the collections of major universities, museums and private collectors. More of his pictures can be seen at

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