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.
David Deacon defines Barthes’ myth as “what have become consensually
established as the ‘truths’ of social and cultural life.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
On his website, photographer Michael Yon proclaimed that the photograph is “representative
of the horrors of the enemy we all face.”
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.
While the image portrays something horrific,
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.
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.”
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
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.
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