In August, The Atlantic published as piece titled: The War Photo No One Would Publish. The story looks at the fate of a single photograph taken by Kenneth Jarecke back in 1991. At the time, Jarecke was on assignment with TIME, corralled (as most journalists and photographers were) in the “pool” system, established by the Public Affairs Office of the US military. These protective outfits were designed to provide members of the media a “front-row seat” to Operation Desert Storm.
In late February, as the Iraqi military signaled retreat, hightailing it across the Kuwaiti desert for the border, US air forces struck one of these Iraqi convoys leaving a mess of mechanical and human remains strewn across the wind-blown sands. This was the landscape Jarecke stumbled upon on February 28, 1991.
That afternoon, Jarecke did what any photographer would do: he worked the scene, documenting a discrete moment in time — archiving, visually, an event that owed its arrangement to war’s consequence. One photograph was particularly striking. Jarecke captured the charred upper body, arms and head of an Iraqi soldier, trapped inside a bombed out truck. While Jarecke filed his images soon after, American audiences wouldn’t see the photograph for nearly a month — a delay owed, among other things, to editorial disputes and myriad interpretations of decency or suitability.
While many of the sources interviewed in the piece believed censorship was a mistake, the article’s main meditation on civic education, media and our relationship to war draws out important debates on the public’s need for information, and the consequence of getting that equation wrong.
Time and technology play a role, of course. Towards the end of piece, the author discusses how the gatekeepers of yesteryear are not as capable of keeping an image (jarring or not) from the wider public. But the question of censorship — from the battlefield to the photo desk — should not be shirked too quickly. Today, censorship has a younger but worrying sibling — content overload. Because of the wealth of visual content, images that ought to matter might be missed entirely if not highlighted by major outlets. This suggests, at its core, that the “mainstream media” retains responsibility to prioritize in service of truth, to inform in proportion to importance, and — in the case of war photography — to render the full color and cost of conflict.
Our current media landscape (that sleepless circle of revolving “information”) creates space for pundits to fire away with half truths and misconceptions. “Analysis”, broadly defined, has become so varied as to render meaningful debate nearly impossible. But this is where photographs, and the intrinsic value of what I’ll call “the moment presented”, can break the cycle.
This doesn’t mean that photographs cannot be wielded in service of specific interests — even the photographer, in selecting one of endless scenes around him/her, has edited the world of experience. But photographs provide the basic foundation upon which debate (and engaged conversation) might occur.¹
War, especially today, is murky enough. But how we come to see it — to experience it — ought to be informed by actual events, made public and debated. Jarecke knows this better than most. In The Atlantic piece, his 1991 interview with American Photo provides the final quote: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.”
¹For example: Bag News Notes, run by Michael Shaw, tackles the “visual politics” of photographs, providing both a critical reading of context, which frames discussion of the image’s content.
Adam McCauley is a freelance writer currently based in Hong Kong. His work can be found here.