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Faces of death (continued)


Context is vital, but it can also change, and itís never complete because everything canít be included. Another moment from Vietnam: in 1968, Eddie Adams photographed South Vietnamese general Nguyen Ngoc Loan at the very instant that he executed a Viet Cong fighter with one bullet to the head. Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, which seemed to encompass all the insanity and immorality of that war. Yet Adams, who died earlier this year, later came to see it quite differently. He got to know General Loan, and realized that the execution was perfectly justified; and he regretted that Loanís life was made much more difficult because of that infamous image.

"Photographs, you know, theyíre half-truths, you know, thatís only one side," Adams told National Public Radio in 1998, shortly after Loanís death. "Itís just a sad statement, you know, I think of America. He was fighting our war, not their war, our war, and every ó all the blame is on this guy. I got to know him pretty well. I talked to him the last time about six months ago. He was very sick, you know, he had cancer for a while. And I talked to him on the phone, and I wanted to try to do something, explaining everything and how the photograph destroyed his life, and he just wanted to try to forget it. He said let it go. And I just didnít want him to go out this way."

I asked Dirck Halstead, himself a former war photographer and an acquaintance of Adams, whether he could draw an analogy between Adamsís experience and Sitesís. Halstead, now the editor and publisher of a magazine called the Digital Journalist, responded by e-mail. "In general, photojournalists are like cops. They have pledged themselves to always do the right, ethical thing. However, we all have heard of countless police officers who have become traumatized as a result of having to shoot someone in the line of duty. Unfortunately, this comes with the turf," Halstead told me. "Kevin Sites was covering a battle, as a pool embed. His job was to record what was going on. He was as surprised as Adams was by what happened. He also, obviously, was conflicted and confused by what he had just shot.... He clearly has bonded with the men he has been covering. This happened with most of the pool reporters and photojournalists who have covered the war. This makes it even more difficult, since he obviously feels he let his comrades down. But he has to keep in mind why he was there, and what his job was. I feel for him and want to express to him my respect for a job well done."

Adams only learned of the broader context of Nguyen Ngoc Loanís life later, after his photo had been seen around the world. Sites tried to offer what context he could in his original report ó the exhaustion, the fear, the booby-trapped bodies, the death that lurked around every corner. But a photographer can, at best, help tell the story of whatís happening just outside the range of the viewfinder. The broader context ó the broadest context ó remains elusive. On November 17, NPRís Melissa Block interviewed an Al-Jazeera spokesman, Jihad Ali Ballout. The subject: why Al-Jazeera was running Sitesís video on an almost-continuous loop, whereas it refused to show the execution of Margaret Hassan, a video that network officials have admitted is in their possession. Ballout told Block that "these atrocities of killing innocent people, especially people such as the late Mrs. Hassan, was really an outrage. There is a difference between that and when there is a whole army of 20,000 military people converging on an area in Fallujah." Block responded by asking whether Al-Jazeera was using a "double standard" in showing the Sites video but not the Hassan execution. Ballout didnít really have an answer.

Now, of course, the Hassan execution does not balance off the Fallujah mosque incident in any way, and the moral equation is complex. On the one hand, what happened to Hassan does not somehow justify the misbegotten war in which we are now embroiled. On the other hand, it is useful to remind ourselves ó and it is obviously useful for the Arab world to remind itself ó that what the Sites video documents is not the moral equivalent of shooting Margaret Hassan in the head. One was a split-second reaction to a confusing, possibly deadly situation. The other was an act of terror in the most literal sense ó that is, it was the taking of an innocent life solely for the purpose of spreading terror. One was a tragic mistake. The other was pure evil. But though we should surely see both ó as well as the bodies of the civilians who have died or been maimed by our arrogant act of liberation, as well as the beheadings and the Abu Ghraib images and everything else ó we travel down a dangerous road when we use these images to try to justify. At best, they help us to understand, however imperfectly.

"The meaning of these pictures is not embedded in the video itself. What people think about this video is going to depend on what they think about the war," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Bob Zelnick, who chairs Boston Universityís journalism department, and who is a former war correspondent for ABC News, praises in-depth reportage, such as Dexter Filkinsís November 21 New York Times article on accompanying US troops in Fallujah, for educating the public about the terrible consequences of urban warfare. "There has been a realistic picture presented of what these guys are up against," he says. "You read that stuff and you can understand whatís going on over there, why anybody would pull the trigger first and ask questions later. Human beings have the blessed ability to make distinctions. We can distinguish between Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. The reason we can do that is because of good reporting in each case."

The problem ó the tragedy, really ó is that though the images tell us much about the way the war is being conducted, they tell us little about the wisdom of the war, or even its ultimate cost. It says much about this war that we can see pictures of a Marine killing a wounded insurgent, of Iraqi inmates being tortured, and of atrocities committed against Americans and other Westerners by terrorists, yet we cannot see the flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base. That ó as well as the additional suffering weíve inflicted on the already-long-suffering people of Iraq ó is the ultimate context.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

 

page 3 

Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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