War Photography and Control: Vietnam to the War on Terror
media technology developed through the last half of the twentieth century,
governments found it increasingly difficult to control the public narrative of
the wars they were engaged with. One of the legacies of the United States
engagement in Vietnam was a paradigm shift in the relationship between the
state and the media. The received wisdom about Vietnam was that the war was
lost in the living rooms of America rather than in the battlefield. Subsequent
military campaigns would be typified by control or even exclusion of the media,
for example, despite being a respected and famous photojournalist, Don McCullin
was refused press credentials by the British government to cover the Falklands
conflict. By the time of the first Gulf War, the only way media agencies could
report what was happening was through embedding and willing acceptance of the
constraints that went along with this. Conventional media outlets became
propaganda arms for western governments with 24-hour news coverage and the
ability to transmit globally in an instant putting an emphasis on content
rather than substance. Despite this, the emergence of digital photography and
the internet meant that by the early twenty-first century it would become
impossible to completely control the narrative that Western forces had become
the social workers of the free world, leading the previously oppressed citizens
of dictators towards the ideal of democracy.
Vietnam – the war the media lost:
Nick Ut: The Terror of War (1973)
Eddie Adams: Saigon Execution (1968)
There is a common belief that the war in Vietnam was lost because of media coverage that was critical and which galvanised the anti-war movement. This period could be regarded as a ‘golden age’ of photojournalism which resulted in images that have since become iconic and the epitome of Robert Capa’s maxim ‘if you’re pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.’ For example, Nick Ut’s ‘The Terror of War’ and Eddie Adams ‘Saigon Execution’ show the visceral power of the photograph, the notion of the decisive moment and of bearing witness.
Campbell (2013) makes this analysis about the idea the Vietnam War was lost by the media:
“What is striking about these claims is that they are shared by both the military and it’s critics. The military think the coverage of Vietnam was unpatriotic and contributed to America’s defeat, while their critics endorse half the view and promote the idea that making the cost of war visible was the necessary step in ending it.”
He continues that this myth about Vietnam is not corroborated by the fact that overall journalists and media outlets supported the government narrative of the war despite a growing peace movement:
“the photographs of Larry Burrows, Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullin and others – were either rejected by the American media, published after the event, or were simply unrepresentative of the majority of coverage.”
the truth of the situation, the legacy of Vietnam was a fundamental change in
how governments approached the imaging of war. As Badger (2001: 101) notes,
photography’s perceived role in undermining American nerve in Vietnam meant
that any later wars in which the West were involved would be much more tightly
The Gulf War did not take place:
Smart bomb footage – Gulf War 1991
Kenneth Jarecke: The body of an incinerated Iraqi soldier who met his death in his truck (1991)
The first Gulf war was highly controlled, even choreographed with pictures coming from weapon systems which demonstrated the allied forces technical superiority:
“It was a war apparently without death, a high tech, video game war, fought out of range of the ground on-the-ground press and their cameras.” (Badger, 2001: 101)
Baudrillard posited that the war did not take place, his provocative stance
referred to the fact that the was lack of images of fighting meant that from
the public’s point of view the war as well not have happened. (Bull, 2010:
116-7) Horrific images of the human cost of the war, such as Kenneth Jarecke’s
image of the charred remains of an Iraqi soldier, do exist, but could be termed
‘aftermath photography’. These images show the effects of the war rather than
documenting the fighting as it happened, there is a lack of the immediacy which
typifies the black and white photojournalism from Vietnam. Friedersdorf (2013)
asserts that the media was complicit in the Gulf war, becoming little more than
a propaganda arm for government and military by preserving the narrative of a
“good, clean war” on the grounds of protecting readers. This view is
backed up by the fact that Jarecke’s image was not printed in any U.S. media
outlets. The economic reality for traditional news in an increasingly
competitive marketplace is another strong reason that the media could be averse
to publishing graphic images that have the potential to offend leading to lost
readership and advertising revenue.
The assassination of Osama bin Laden:
Pete Souza: The Situation Room (2011)
Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon on September 11th 2001, the so called ‘war on terror’ took conflict to new and uncharted territories. This war was no longer fought on traditional lines, or even on battle fronts that we would recognise. The immediate response by allied forces was to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, purported to be central terrorist training grounds. This attempt to pin down an enemy in conventional ways ended in disaster. The fall of Saddam in Iraq led to the country descending into chaos – the scandal of torture techniques being used by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison appeared to demonstrate that Western forces were as brutal as the regimes they intended to replace. The war in Afghanistan ended without fanfare with allied forces retreating from the country and little sign of victory.
During this time, it was the search for Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, that continued to frustrate. After 10 years of searching, the news that bin Laden had been captured and killed came suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere. No pictures were released of bin Laden’s body, a decision that President Obama rationalised in moral terms:
“It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool…You know, that’s not who we are.” (O’Hagan, 2011)
In the absence of a photograph of bin Laden’s body, it is the picture of the assembled political and military leaders watching the operation in the White House incident room that demands our attention. By preventing images of the capture to be released, the US government was able to control the reporting of the events. It is a complex and fascinating image, as O’Hagan (2011) notes its power lies in the ability to suggest rather than shock. It is a candid moment carefully choreographed to present a particular narrative and with the undoubted intention of being an aid to the political standing of all featured.
Conclusion – conflict photography now:
Simon Norfolk: The North Gate of Baghdad, the scene of fierce fighting. Baghdad 19-27 April 2003.
Starting with Vietnam and reaching its zenith with the first Gulf War, the way war has been reported has transitioned into something that is completely unrecognisable from traditional black and white photojournalism. The ubiquity of digital cameras and smartphones has led news organisations to embrace citizen journalism. Social media has also meant that anyone can publish their thoughts and images without the need of a media organisation. The downside to this however has been the increased questioning of the truth value of what is presented, ‘fake news’ has become a widely used term that has brought into question everything including the traditional media. While scepticism about what we are presented with is healthy, this appears to have tipped the balance toward a distrust of everything we are presented with and a mistrust that is worrying. This proves the need for information about the world to come from sources which are seen as legitimate and trusted. Andy Grunberg subscribes to this view and laments the disappearance of “the old disciplines of photojournalism” which he describes as relics:
“In their place is a swirling mass of information, written as well as visual, journalistic as well as vernacular, competing to be taken as fact.” (Wells, 2009: 91)
Franklin (2016) makes a more positive analysis of the history and importance of war photography. He argues that moving images tend to be didactic while photographs float: “They remain untethered to anything solid unless placed with a text explaining their context.” (Franklin, 2016: 83) This lack of “narrative connectivity” is balanced by the ability of a photograph to engage and move. The example he uses where photography has “made a difference where words have failed” are the images of the holocaust. He concludes, in an idealist but persuasive way, that the drive to record stories in places such as war zones that many may not want to be told is driven by a “documentary impulse to put history on the record.” (Franklin, 2016: 107) In many ways the emergence of the citizen photojournalist, someone who is likely to be from the area they are documenting and familiar with what is happening on a personal level, is a preference to an outsider descending on a place for a brief period of time at a time of crisis. The difficulty emerges in how contextual information accompanies the images – on their own these may be powerful on a visceral level but will be difficult to understand unless underpinned with coherent, and accurate, text to explain the wider picture.
Perhaps in response to both the difficulties of being able to gain access to war zones in order to document them due to governmental control and in order to remove themselves from the ethical concerns of voyeurism and making art objects out of victims of disaster, there has been a move by some photographers towards creating retrospective work that does not show direct conflict but the traces of war. Termed ‘aftermath’ or ‘late’ photography, the contemplative nature and added complexity of this type of work is to be commended. However, there are also other dilemmas presented – the move from the pages of newspapers and magazines to the walls of the art gallery raises concerns about whether it is ethical to make aesthetically beautiful images of destruction and suffering.
The photographer Simon Norfolk, who began as a photojournalist in the traditional documentary mode and now identifies as a landscape photographer, argues that producing beautiful imagery is a tactical approach in order to reach a wider audience – the beauty of his photographs disarming the viewer and drawing them into a place where a conversation can take place. (Norfolk, 2008; SmartMonkeyTV, 2012) While I admire both Norfolk’s work and his optimism, I fear that although the work succeeds in provoking contemplation the chances of individuals, especially those in power, being influenced is slim. I also suspect his audience is already in alignment with his beliefs.
It is easy to become jaded by the limitations of photography and the difficulties of circumnavigating the various controlling influences that govern both access and distribution. I find the view of Azoulay (2008: 190) on this front an inspiring counterpoint to these issues:
“As long as there are cameras in this world, photographs will continue to be made simultaneously by different people, and heterogenous realities will be presented that will eat away at any supposed monopoly.”
Perhaps the current discourse around the truth, or otherwise, of photographs and their meaning is a positive step in acknowledging that there is little in the world that can be explained in simple, binary terms. That a photograph can have multiple meanings and can evidence contrary world views simultaneously is something that should be faced into as a positive that promotes debate and interrogation. That nothing is taken at face value and everything is questioned, while running the risk of leading to confusion, is an improved situation to blind belief in what we are presented with. The only antidote to fake news is increased visual literacy and analysis.
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