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Jonathan Forani

Jonathan Forani is a third year student enrolled at the Faculty of Information and Media Studies working toward an Honours Specialization in MIT with a Certificate in Writing.  After he has completed his undergraduate degree, Jonathan hopes to continue his studies in Communication or Journalism as a graduate student, or to secure an internship. 



When French theorist Roland Barthes wrote that “[myth] cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things,” he was referring to the unnatural character of different “modes of writing or of representations,” such as photography. [1] David Deacon defines Barthes’ myth as “what have become consensually established as the ‘truths’ of social and cultural life.” [2] In other words, myths are falsely accepted propositions of truth, misrepresentations of reality. While none of the events depicted in the following photographs are fabricated, some of the images may be considered a kind of myth as per Barthes’ conception of the word.  

This paper will address the different approaches to photographing the war in Iraq developed in six key images from established photographers. I will use the first three images to discuss how the photographer’s technique and the image’s appropriation by popular media contributed to a mythic illustration of the conflict. The second three images present photography’s potential as a subversive, counter-mythic force focused on showcasing often forgotten realities of the war: civilian casualties and the humanity of Iraqis. Each of these images function as a kind of “whistleblower” of photography, espousing representations of the conflict that oppose the mythic imagery perpetuated by the U.S. government and dominant conservative media outlets. Despite the media control evident during the conflict, this photography was able to express the anger of those opposed to American presence in Iraq.  

Still, popular press photography was able to reinforce the U.S. government’s stance that the American military presence was justified, particularly in the early days of the war when popular support for the Bush administration was strong. These mythic photographs permeated major media outlets in the United States. They ignored the brutalities of the front lines, and mythologized American soldiers as heroes and messiahs to the Iraqi people. Such photographs exist less as tools of documentation than tools of propaganda, as they largely support the hegemonic line of the American army as a force for liberation and the greater good – in accordance with the mission’s official title, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” It is true that in both instances the photography expresses an ideological position on the war; but the difference lies in the photographs’ accordance with the American government’s position. The mythic photography supports the military presence in Iraq, while the counter-mythic photography condemns that presence as unjustified.  

Before analyzing the key images of this paper it is necessary to address the role of media partisanship in forming the myths. This refers to the tendency of media to adopt biased accounts of conflict and present them as “balanced” and true. Perhaps one of the strongest indicators of the effects of media partisanship can be shown through the comments of Ashley Gilbertson, a Robert Capa Gold Medal-winning photographer. Stationed in Iraq for four years beginning in 2004, Gilbertson expressed concern regarding the photographs that were selected by media outlets. He notes that while left-leaning The New York Times would run the few photographs he took of dead American soldiers, more conservative publications such as Time magazine and Newsweek would rather “pick up the softer pictures” like one of a soldier during sunset he had taken as a “joke.” [3] What Gilbertson’s comments reveal is a kind of media partisanship that inhibits the ability of photography to document important aspects of conflict. This partisanship is evident in their selection of specific images, proving that the message of an image lies in the hands of those media outlets publishing them just as much as it lies in the hands of the photographer snapping them.  

A second factor involved in a photograph’s argument is the position of the photographer in the field of action. Using a system of quantitative content analysis, Andrew M. Lindner conducted a study of “embedded journalism”, a method of journalism encouraged by the Pentagon during the war in Iraq. [4] Embedded journalists are stationed within military units to capture images from the frontlines of the conflict, thus resulting in a military perspective. Though other forms of journalism were present, such as journalists free to go where they please and journalists stationed within cities instead of military groups, Lindner found embedded journalism to be the most prominent type actually published, concluding that “the majority of war coverage in print media heavily emphasized the soldier’s experience of the war, while downplaying the effects of the invasion on the Iraqi people.” [5] Here one can further understand that a photograph’s argument is dependent on more than just the photographer, but also on their relative position in the field of action.  

Three key images will be examined to address the issue of mythic photography of the war in Iraq. Taken by Warren Zinn in March 2003, days after the American invasion of Iraq, Figure 1 shows an image that is one of the most famous of the early days of the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ It features army medic Joseph Dwyer carrying a wounded Iraqi boy to safety. Figure 2 is a photograph taken by James Nachtwey in 2003 of an Iraqi citizen embracing a U.S. marine in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Figure 3, taken by Michael Yon in 2005, features Major Mark Bieger cradling a dying Iraqi girl named Farah after a car bomb exploded nearby.  

In Barthes’ literature on cultural myths, he describes the cover of a French magazine depicting a black-skinned soldier as mythic in its ignoring of France’s history of colonialism. [6] Just as this cover ignored the surrounding circumstances, the photograph of Dwyer (Figure 1) privileges individual heroism over mass conflict and ignores what brought this situation about in the first place: the American invasion of Iraq. Zinn’s iconic image of the war in Iraq will continue to stand as an emblem of heroism, and while the bravery of American military is undeniable, this photograph displays the tendency of Iraq war photography to ignore the greater context of the conflict. Here, myth can be understood as a recontextualization, a problematic element of war photography that will be examined after the analysis of the next two mythic photographs.  

Figure 2, taken by James Nachtwey (2003) supports the so-called Operation Iraqi Freedom stance that the American government adopted upon invading Iraq. This label of the conflict was one of the alleged goals of American presence (and its title, until recently); that is to free Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein and “give” them democracy. In showcasing this aspect of the war Figure 2 reveals the effects of embedded journalism as discussed previously and ignores the damaging events occurring off-camera. James Nachtwey was not stationed within an American military group but within the city of Baghdad, and consequently was able to capture more images of Iraqi citizens than would a journalist travelling with American troops; however, his photographs of the Firdos Square statue destruction received much wider coverage from American media than his shots of the civilian population. Figure 2 depicts a joyful occasion in which some Iraqi people show their gratitude to American soldiers who have “freed” them from Saddam Hussein. The statue of Hussein in the background is draped in a large rope resembling a noose the colour of American military uniforms, alluding to the threat of an American “strangulation” of Hussein’s regime. Though the photograph depicts a scene of celebration, in actuality the Iraqi people had only been freed of a statue of Hussein in a courtyard, as the real Hussein had yet to be toppled from power. While this scene was apparently a powerful symbolic moment for those in attendance, in the context of American media it is a glorified image of the American presence in Iraq. The soldier in the photo is presented as a kind of messiah to the people of Baghdad, rather than an intruder causing the deaths of thousands of civilians.  

In their article “Picturing the Iraq War” Shahira Fahmy and Daekyung Kim discuss images from the day of the statue destruction and how they were presented in various news media outlets in America and the United Kingdom. In the UK, The Guardian ran on its cover page a long-shot photograph showing the whole scene of the square” as to present a better depiction of the crowd that day, which consequently was smaller than it appeared in American news images. [7] Witnesses to the statue falling confirmed that images in American media were misleading: one press member called it a “staged photo opportunity;” others said that aside from “a very small crowd” surrounding press and U.S. media, “the rest of the square was almost empty” and called the audience a “rent-a-crowd” from a near-by city. [8]  

After observing images such as the Nachtwey photograph (Figure 2) Fahmy and Kim concluded that “U.S. media may have felt the need to frame the news in a more patriotic framework in an effort to meet readers’ expectations.” [9] This raises very complex assumptions around photograph selection in American media. If it is true that American media outlets favoured patriotism rather than the realism of counter-mythic photographs, then the photographer’s role in framing an image’s message is more active than originally stated, contributing to the problematic mythologies of photographs such as Figures 1 and 2.  

Figure 3, titled Little Girl (2005), received a significant amount of media coverage in America, and was voted as one of the top 10 photographs of 2005 by Time Magazine readers. [10] On his website, photographer Michael Yon proclaimed that the photograph is “representative of the horrors of the enemy we all face.” [11] Further, in a televised interview with Major Bieger’s wife and two children, Farah the Iraqi girl and the war are discussed minimally in comparison to the heroic actions undertaken by Bieger and other military men. [12] While the image portrays something horrific, these two instances of the photograph’s discussion show that the dominant American discourse around the photograph focused on the heroism of Bieger, the conquering of the “enemy,” and the conflict’s Operation Iraqi Freedom mantra rather than the overwhelmingly damaging effects of the American military presence in Iraq.  

These photographs have three important things in common. Firstly, the subjects of each photograph are seen in varying degrees of embrace. The loving embrace is a powerful symbol in Western culture, and thus this aspect of these photographs should be considered as another “selling point” that led to their selection by American media. The second commonality is that in each photograph the soldier acts as a kind of parental figure embracing an infantilized Iraqi figure. This symbol will be further examined later in comparing these mainstream images to less pervasive images. The third commonality is that Figures 1 and 3 both feature children. The inclusion of children, in terms of visual rhetoric, is strongly associated with concepts of purity and innocence. The symbolic power of children is taken to an extreme when these concepts are juxtaposed against the context of war scenes. Figures 1 and 3 become powerful tools of propaganda when considered in this light. Each photograph can be viewed as a kind of rescue image with the infant standing in for the general Iraqi population. In this way it is even more important that an American soldier is seen as the rescuer of the Iraqi children in the photographs. Figure 1 features Dwyer rescuing 4-year-old Iraqi boy, Ali Sattar. Zinn, the photographer, also captured the moments leading up to Figure 1, which reveal that Dwyer was not the original rescuer; actually, an Iraqi man was. This again signifies the manipulative nature of photograph selection by American media outlets. Both Zinn and Nachtwey captured photographs that told more of the story, but those photographs do not portray the American military presence in Iraq as messianic or heroic. American media outlets thus did not select these photographs, at least partly because of this factor, among other aesthetic concerns.  

In the third issue of News Photographer in 2004, it is suggested of war photography that “images are seen showing what has happened, but far fewer images show why things have happened” – in other words, “people only see casualties without context.” [13] This issue was raised in the discussion of Figure 1, as it ignored the context in which the boy came to need Dwyer’s assistance in the first place (the American invasion). This is pervasive throughout much of the photography of the war in Iraq, including those that do not present such glorified imagery as the above photographs; however, what the following photographs present to the viewer is an image of the Iraq war that counters that of the mainstream media by providing the viewer with, if not the “why things have happened” – as this is more difficult to portray – then at least counter-mythic depictions of what has happened.  

As discussed earlier, popular conservative news media tend to reject photographs that disturb government-encouraged myths, but some photographers – such as Carolyn Cole, Chris Hondros and Jean-Marc Bouju, who took the following three lesser-known photographs – were able to share images of the conflict that subverted the mainstream account.  

Figure 4 is a devastating photograph taken by Pulitzer Prize-winner Carolyn Cole. It shows an Iraqi family reacting to news that three of their relatives were killed by American soldiers in

Baghdad on April 9, 2003. The photograph has two main things in common with the previous three images analyzed above. Firstly, Cole’s photograph features children. However, this time they are not being saved by an American hero or messiah. In the previous photographs the children were passive actors in the frame; here, they are the direct subjects of a narrative that focuses on the effects of the American presence on Iraqi civilians, rather than the glorification of American military. Secondly, Figure 4 features an embrace. The difference here is that the adult embracing the child is not an American soldier, as in Figures 1 and 3, but their Iraqi mother.  

When compared to the previous three photographs, Figure 4 counters a problematic theme of Operation Iraqi Freedom prevailing in the earlier photographs, which present American soldiers as a kind of parental saviour to the infantile nation of Iraq. In this way, these photographs demean the Iraqi people to the status of children. In contrast to this, Figure 4 does not depend on any kind of heroic figure to frame the piece – the photograph is an example of the ability of photography to document events in ways that complicate the mythic narratives of messianism and heroism glorified by popular press.  

Chris Hondros received the 2005 Robert Capa Gold Medal for Figure 5, titled One Night in Tal Afar, depicting 5-year-old Samar Hassan shortly after her parents were mistakenly killed by American soldiers. This disturbing photograph is similar to the first group of photographs in that it features a young child, but is drastically different in its portrayal of American military. As in Figure 4, the child depicted in the photograph is the primary subject of the frame, but here the child is not being “rescued” by any glorified American hero. The horror depicted in Hondros’ photograph is inflicted by American military. The soldier in the photograph is faceless, the camera focusing on Hassan instead. In stark contrast to the three popular press photographs of above, this photograph de-humanizes the American soldier by only showing him from the waist down. In fact, the only thing truly identifying the figure as military is the gun. Here, the American soldier is defined by his weapon rather than his heroism. This is a vastly different representation of American soldiers: instead of a parental saviour swooping in to rescue the Iraqi people from corruption and violence, the American soldier is depicted as violent, and in this case particularly, a harmful intruder.  

The 2003 World Press Photo of the Year award went to Jean-Marc Bouju for Figure 6, a photograph of a hooded Iraqi prisoner of war comforting his young child. The “parental saviour” symbol – featured in Figures 1, 3 and 4 – is here at its most complicated. As in Figure 4, this photograph features an actual parent-child relationship (the parent-child relationships of the other photographs are of the fabricated, mythic kind discussed earlier), but in this case another element is added. Here, the parental figure is hooded, an element that later became a horrifying symbol of the War on Terror when the torture photographs of Abu Ghraib prison were released. Thus, the resonance of the parental imagery is drastically different in Bouju’s photograph than in the Zinn and Yon photographs: the parent is draped in a demeaning costume. Further, coils of razor wire fill the foreground of the photograph, highlighting the confined and helpless situation of the prisoners. Like many pro-American war photographs, Figure 6 also features a child; however, this child is not saved by American soldiers, but imprisoned by them. The powerful paternal saviour featured in Figures 1 and 3 is turned on its head and draped in an iconic costume that defies the heroic themes pervasive throughout popular press photography of the war in Iraq.  

Recently, the world became enamoured with “whistleblower” Julian Assange, famed editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, the organization responsible for the release of hundreds of thousands of classified documents exposing unjust acts of the government and military during the American presence in Iraq. Though Assange is likely to be touted as the man who exposed the wrong to the world, the efforts of certain other whistleblowers should not be forgotten. In their ability to photograph the war in Iraq in counter-mythic ways that popular press would not or were not able to, war photographers like Carolyn Cole, Chris Hondros and Jean-Marc Bouju can perhaps be considered the original whistleblowers of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1957.

Bouju, Jean-Marc. “POW Comforts Son,” 2003. World Press Photo.  (accessed December 6, 2010).

CBS News. “G.I., Iraqi Girl Photo.” CBS News Online.  (accessed on December 2, 2010).

Cole, Carolyn. “Iraqi Family Grieves,” 2003. Framework.  (accessed November 10, 2010).

Deacon, David, et al., Researching Communications: A Practical Guide to Methods in Media and Cultural Analysis. London: Hodder Education, 2007.

Fahmy, Shahira, and Daekyung Kim. “Picturing the Iraq War: Constructing the Image of War in the British and US Press.” International Communication Gazette. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2008.

Hondros, Chris. “One Night in Tal Afar,” 2007. Good Blog.  (accessed on November 5, 2010).

Lindner, Andrew M. “Among the Troops: Seeing the Iraq War through Three Journalistic Vantage Points.” Social Problems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Ludwig, Steve. “Lights, camera, rescue.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. (2003).

Nachtwey, James. “April 9, 2003,” 2003.  (accessed on November 10, 2010).

Stallabrass, Julian, and Ashley Gilbertson. “In Conversation.” Journal of Visual Culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2009.

Time. “In His Arms” Time Online. (2005).  (accessed on February 12, 2011).

Winslow, Donald R. “War images also need to provide intellectual context.” News Photographer. Durham: National Press Photographers Association, 2004.

Yon, Michael. “Memorial Day Weekend.” Michael Yon Online Magazine. (accessed on December 2, 2010).

­–––––. “Little Girl,” 2005. Michael Yon Online Magazine.  (accessed on November 10, 2010).

Zinn, Warren. “Joe Dwyer,” 2003. Warren  (accessed on November 10, 2010).



[1] Roland Barthes. Mythologies (Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1957), 110.

[2] David Deacon et al., Researching Communications: A Practical Guide to Methods in Media and Cultural Analysis (London: Hodder Education, 2007), 144.

[3] Julian Stallabrass and Ashley Gilbertson, “In Conversation,” in Journal of Visual Culture (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2009), 356.

[4] Andrew M. Lindner, “Among the Troops: Seeing the Iraq War through Three Journalistic Vantage Points,” in Social Problems (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 21.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Deacon et al., Researching Communications, 150.

[7] Shahira Fahmy and Daekyung Kim, “Picturing the Iraq War: Constructing the Image of War in the British and US Press,” in International Communication Gazette (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2008), 456.

[8] Neville Watson, SBS TV Australia, and Robert Fisk, “Baghdad: the day after”,          in Steve Ludwig, “Lights, camera, rescue,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, (2003), par. 5,

[9] Fahmy and Kim, 456.

[10] Time, “In His Arms,” Time Online, (accessed on February 12, 2011).

[11] Michael Yon, “Memorial Day Weekend,” Michael Yon Online Magazine, (accessed on December 2, 2010).

[12] CBS News, “G.I., Iraqi Girl Photo,” CBS News Online, (December 2, 2010).

[13] Donald R. Winslow, “War images also need to provide intellectual context,” in News Photographer, (Durham: National Press Photographers Association, 2004), 8.


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