Dodging Bulletsand Editors
By Linda Kulman
In the waning hours of the Gulf War, Kenneth
Jarecke was driving in the desert outside
Kuwait Citylost, and dodging buried mineswhen he came across a dreadful scene: In a
rocket-torn jeep sat a dead Iraqi soldier, hands
still gripping the dashboard, his head charred down
to his skull. Jarecke, on assignment for Time, lifted his camera to capture the shot. His military
minder objected, but the photographer stood firm.
"If I don't photograph this," Jarecke recalls saying,
"people like my mom will think war is what they
see on TV."
Combat photography didn't begin as a quest for
the truth. The first war photographer known by
name, Roger Fenton, was sent to the Crimea by the
British government in 1855 to provide an antidote to
the journalistic dispatches of London Times correspondent William Howard Russell, who had been
writing about the wretched treatment of Allied soldiers. Yet, says Timothy Kenny, director of research
and news history at the Newseum in Arlington, Va.,
"Russell's work turned out to be much more important in the long run." By the time Fenton arrived a
year into the war to shoot his quiet panoramas, Russell's reporting had already done its work.
Less than a decade later, when Mathew Brady,
Alexander Gardner, and others began photographing the Civil War, they frequently rearranged scenes.
Gardner was known to place a rifle beside a body
to improve a photo's composition. At Gettysburg, one
of his subjects even performed double duty: In A
Sharpshooter's Last Sleep, he was a Union soldier,
in Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, a Southerner.
(Gardner, unrattled by the death and destruction
around him, dragged the body 40 yards on a blanket and cocked the corpse's head toward the camera for the second shot.) Brady, for his part, once
inserted the image of an absentee officer into a
group portrait and then reshot the picture.
While such staged pictures are frowned upon
today, news photography at that time was still
emerging from the tradition of illustration. "The
photograph is not true, but it tells a story which
is accurate," says Marianne Fulton, senior scholar
at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. Besides, in Gardner's day, composing interesting
shots was a necessityit took five to 10 seconds
(compared with a fraction of a second today) to
capture an image, which meant that the shots were
always going to be static. "That's why you get pictures of a ruined city with one man sitting there,"
says Fulton. "There were probably other people
who walked through the pictures, but the film was
too slow to capture them."
Still, Gardner's images made the public witnesses to war in a way that overturned preconceived notions of heroism and glory on the battlefield. A major exhibition of Antietam photos
held at Brady's New York gallery just a month after
the September 1862 clash "literally stunned the
American people," Fulton writes in Eyes of Time:
Photojournalism in America. "Most of the photographs dwelt relentlessly on the dead and made
graphically tangible . . . not only the unimaginable
scale of the slaughter that had occurred but its
physical horror and its shabbiness." Critiquing the
show, a New York Times reviewer of the era wrote,
"If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our
dooryards and along streets, he has done something very like it."
As technology improved, so too did the military's
control over the press. During World War I, censorship was so severe that "an Allied officer was attached to each correspondent 'whose one and only
function, apart from preventing him from seeing
anything, was to waste as much time as possible,' "
Susan Moeller writes in Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat. Photographers were forbidden to show not only troop
movements or materiel but also any images that
cast the men in an improper light, "such as a naked
soldier in bed in a whorehouse." The military's position: "The average mother sees her own boy subjected to the dangers portrayed . . . and she visualizes her own son in each corpse she sees pictured."
The prohibition against showing American dead
continued through the first years of World War II.
"Soldiers didn't die," says Harold Evans, guest curator of a Newseum show on war photography (and
a U.S. News contributing editor). "They went into
battle and they became a name on a war memorial,
and they didn't die in between." It wasn't until a
month after Pearl Harbor that Americans even saw
images of the attack. Even then, the pictures portrayed no human carnage. But in mid-1943,
Franklin Roosevelt abruptly reversed the policy,
deciding it was time the war came home to steel
American resolve. Nearly two years later, Robert
Capa shot the last combat photographs of an American killed in Europe. "The last man shooting the
last gun was not much different from the first,"
Capa notes in his memoir, Slightly Out of Focus.
"But the boy had a clean, open, very young face, and
his gun was still killing fascists."
In Vietnam, photojournalists were restrained not
by official censorship but by logistics. "You couldn't
go far by road," recalls photographer Philip Jones
Griffiths. Authorized to hitch rides on any helicopter, the press still found "on any particular day,
at any particular moment, you couldn't always get
where you wanted," says Robert Burke, chief of information of the U.S. military command in Vietnam.
In today's international conflicts, the issue is access. Ron Haviv, who has spent 10 years photographing in the Balkans, tells of journalists who
went "from being welcome to being targets." A typical day for him includes "at least one arrest by a faction determined to have its side of the story told,"
he says. Accused of being a spy in Bosnia in 1994,
he was interrogated and beaten for three days before being released. Traveling with a paramilitary
group in 1992 to document some of the first incidences of ethnic cleansing, Haviv shot pictures of a
soldier kicking the town butcher, his wife, and sister-in-law as they lay dying or dead in the street. He
managed to smuggle the film out by hiding the roll
under a seat in his car. Other film showing a civilian being pushed out a window was confiscated by
the commander. And Haviv is one of the lucky ones.
At least 11 photojournalists and camera crew members have died in the Balkans alone since 1991.
As for Jarecke (now a contract photographer for
U.S. News), his Iraqi soldier picture managed to
dodge military censorship, but it never ran on the
Associated Press photo wire. The editors chose
other pictures instead.