The World Press Photo Awards, Julie Jacobson and Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard

This years winners of the World Press Photo competition have recently been announced. You can see the winners gallery here. Once again, there is plenty of stunning work on show, much of which I haven't seen before.

One of the winning shots was taken by in Afghanistan by AP photographer Julie Jacobson of a fatally wounded Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard being tended to by his colleagues. When published in September 2009 it generated an enormous amount of controversy and debate. A post on the NY Times Lens blog generated almost 700 comments. A lot of people object to seeing images of dead and wounded Marines while much of the anger directed against the AP, the news media and Julie Jacobson centered around the decision the AP took to disregard the wishes of Bernard's family, who asked for the picture not to be published. You can read the AP's report on the issue, including extracts from Julie Jacobson's diary here. I remember reading about this briefly at the time but I was on the move and didn't have the opportunity to sit down and read about it all in depth. The image, and my reaction to the decision to publish stuck in my mind though.

I personally think that the picture should be seen. I think the AP acted insensitively in their decision to ask for permission and then ignore the family's wishes but ultimately I think they made the right call. Bernard's death happened in public. Although it was not public in the sense that a shopping center or city street is public, it was not a private event, and cannot be treated as such. In an interview with Jim Bennett - who begins his post with the accusation that this picture will only inflame anti-American sentiment and serve as a propaganda tool for Islamic extremists - Bernard's father states that this picture serves no purpose. With all due respect I think he is wrong. The argument is that it is disrespectful to Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard's memory to show him in such a condition. That is an argument I cannot agree with. I think that violent death is a tragic event but if a soldier's death is truly a sacrifice then we need to understand exactly what that sacrifice entails. A folded flag and a salute just don't do that for me I'm afraid.

Of course, it is possible to make a picture of suffering that is disrespectful. The attitude of the photographer and the way in which the image is made can of course be an affront. In this case, however, I don't believe the image is gratuitous. Jacobson shot this image while embedded with these troops. She was living amongst them, working alongside them and she shot this picture from a distance. She did not see the wounded man and run over to him, shoving her camera in his face before asking if he was OK. She did not get in the way of the Marines who rushed to his aid. In fact she states that the thought crossed her mind to help him but she saw that other Marines were already tending to him and that her help would not be needed, so instead she did her job and took the picture. To accuse her of gratuitous opportunism is a misrepresentation of the role of a journalist. But then, a lot of people seem to misunderstand what a journalist's role is these days. For too many people, journalists are regarded as muckrakers and intruders, people who will write only bad things about people and wish only to advance their careers. of the suffering and misfortune of others. It is upsetting the amount of times I tell people my job as a photographer includes work as a photojournalist only to hear the reply 'You mean like a paparazzi?'. Too many people confuse celebrity gossip with news, but I will avoid digressing into that argument now.

So just as people misunderstand the role of a journalist and the importance of honest reporting, is it possible that people are misunderstanding their reaction to this image? Truly it is an upsetting and disturbing thing to see anyone so grievously wounded (no matter how blurred and grainy the image) but surely then, instead of lashing out with venom at the reporter and the distributors, the emotional reaction should prompt people to say 'Oh my god isn't that awful, we have to do something to bring this war to an end. How can we do this to each other? Shouldn't we all be able to live in peace and end this senseless violence?'

Maybe I am just biased because I am a photographer. Maybe I don't buy into nationalistic, patriotically framed propaganda. Maybe I don't believe the idea that war is a glorious and noble thing. I don't know what it is, but my very last thought when looking at this image is 'what an affront to this man's dignity that photographer is perpetrating.' The true affront to Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard's dignity is that he died young, thousands of miles away from his family, where he was serving the wishes of a government that has a political agenda that it cannot pursue without resorting to violence on a mass scale.

Is that the truth that people really should take offence to? If that were the case then I could completely understand the outrage of Defence Secretary Robert Gates in this case. While his letter to the AP clearly states his objection to the AP distributing the picture against the wishes of the family, he frames his argument in the context of what is fitting for the American people "to understand, to see, and to appreciate". This obviously does not include pictures such as this.

As for the idea that it will be used as propaganda for Jihadists; well, I was under the impression that propaganda referred to the use of information, rather than being an inherent quality of that information. In fact, you could use information - in this case an image - to support opposing arguments and persuade people to act in accordance with your own agenda depending on how you frame the context. I do believe that is the very definition of propaganda. That is why it is important to explore, examine, inquire and think, rather than just accept what you are told. That is the only way you will avoid succumbing to propaganda, which by the way is not something used exclusively by Islamic extremists.

So do we really want our reality to be censored. Already, there are new rules being dictated to journalists regarding what they can and cannot photograph. How then will we learn about these events? Should we live in an Orwellian society, where our leaders decide what we should know and what is good for us while we blindly obey? Perhaps we should only ever see images of Marines taking their last breath being reenacted on the movie screen in a fictionalized narrative? Certainly that is something that does not throw up such anger and debate. Well, no matter how graphic and engaging a movie may be, we still – most of us anyway - know it is only a movie. We know that the actor portraying dead man will get up when the cameras stop rolling and go get a latte and a bagel. I don’t care how incredibly realistically a situation is portrayed, it cannot show the true brutality with the same impact. If you don’t believe me, go watch Black Hawk Down then take a look at Paul Watson's photograph of the photos of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland from that very battlefield.

That is not to say that movies and fiction are unimportant and do not touch on these issues with the same concerns in mind, but to censor reality is just plain idiocy. I believe it does a massive disservice to the soldiers fighting. They go through some unimaginable horrors and civilians need to understand that. How else can we relate to servicemen and women when they return home? How else are we to know what they are dealing with. Bernard's father tells us that what the Marines are going through is unimaginable and that we don't understand enough about what they do and why. To that I say then let the journalists do their job and help us see it.

To many of us, the memory of this man is now more than just a name and a number. I know more about him because of the debate surrounding this photograph than I do about the hundreds of other Marines who have lost their life in this combat. For his family, he was a real person, now this photograph shows the rest of us that truth too. This was a real man, with a real body and a real life that could be taken away from him by an act of violence.

I understand that for some, to have this image publicly displayed could feel like an intrusion into private grief, but if I were the father of this Marine I would be thanking Julie Jacobson and the AP. I would not have to lie awake at night imagining the scenario of my son's death so far from home. I would have evidence to tell me that he spent his final moments surrounded by his comrades, who rushed to his aid and did all they could to save him. I would know that someone was with him and that they cared. I would cry unstoppably at my loss but I would know that someone was there to witness and help my son when he needed it the most and I would know that in seeing this others may better understand my family's pain.

To those who think this picture is disrespectful, I say that perhaps you prefer it if we remembered him only as a statistic. I'm sorry but again I have to respectfully disagree. I have said it before and I'll say it again, if I was a soldier killed in action, you can be damn sure I would want a photograph of my death plastered across the front page of every publication in the world. Rather than desensitising us to the violence, I would hope that it would make people think about the war and work harder to bring about it's swift conclusion, so that my fellow soldiers can come home to their families and that the picture of my death would be the last picture of death you see, and not because of some form of censorship, but because no one else died in this way, and we had peace. If my death and it's image would end a war, I could not think of a more noble cause for which to die or a more noble reason to display such an image. After all, if we are to believe in the noble way of the warrior, and if we are to believe that war is fought to defend the high ideals of humanity, then is it not peace and freedom for which these Marines are supposed to be fighting and dying? Is not the end of war the true goal of the conflict? Because if it is, then it is images like this that we all need to see. If only to make us fight that much harder for the day when we can say, truly, that war is over.


Markus Spring said...

Tom, I do wholeheartedly agree with you. It is only too understandable that a family in grief might at first decide against a publication, but as you said: This is not a private affair. To me as well the ultimate disrespectfulness would be to count the violent end of the life of Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard only as a figure in statistics.
But clearly the decisionmakers have another agenda. The rage of the Secretary of Defence is clear evidence of this.
The task of the free press is to give documentary evidence of what is going on in the world, including the battlefields. For 'embedded' journalists, this has become difficult enough. And AP has taken the right decision to publish this image. I do hope it serves the purpose helping to end violence in this world.

Anonymous said...

I agree with almost everything you write. I would go beyond saying that the AP acted 'insensitively' and believe they were wrong in publishing the photo against the family's wishes. It is my personal opinion that the public is entitled to see images of the consequences of war and that this would greatly change the way war is viewed (especially) in American culture, but I believe families and loved ones should have the final say-so on publication of such images.

Anonymous said...

While war is definitely not a private affair, and while the military should allow images to be published of soldiers killed in battle, that decision to allow publication IS most definitely and ultimately a private one. We should not be so eager to use a family's loss to support our anti-war stance; if a family so chooses to allow publication of an image(s) I would be wholeheartedly supportive. If they do not so choose, we should not override their decision because we assume what the greater good or the greater disrespectfulness is, as the AP so wrongly did.

Jim (or Missy :-) said...

You state that I began the post with the "accusation
that this picture will only inflame anti-American sentiment and serve as a propaganda tool for Islamic extremists." Did you read the post beyond the 1st paragraph? Your readers should.

How is it that you manage to look at something and call it anything but what it is? I find it remarkable that you would characterize my statement as "an accusation" when the post contains incontrovertible photographic proof that the picture in question has been used for exactly that purpose by exactly such people. But you make no mention whatsoever about Yousef al-Khattab and his "Revolution Muslim" organization, and what they did with the picture. That's quite telling, sir.

Your rationalizations and equivocations on the definition of "propaganda" serve only to reveal your inability (or unwillingness) to address the truth of this matter. What you wrote was inaccurate and irrelevant; "propaganda" means what it means, and the definition is not altered by what you "believe" the definition to be. Dictionaries, not photographer-bloggers, are the recommended resource for word definitions.

You wrote, "To accuse her [the photographer] of gratuitous opportunism is a misrepresentation of the role of a journalist." No, it's not; it's simply my admittedly subjective assessment of the character of one journalist in particular and her leadership at the Associate Press. I based that conclusion on what I read in her diary and what I saw in the sickening actions of the AP. The "role of a journalist" was neither represented nor misrepresented in what I wrote. The conduct of ONE specific journalist and her overseers is what I question. The brush with which I painted is not nearly as broad as you are leading your readers to believe.

Not only have you disingenuously distorted what I wrote, you're also suggesting that journalists are such a noble breed that you all are somehow immune to the same ambitions and desires that motivate so many others - advancement and recognition, to name just two. Please.

You wrote, "But then, a lot of people seem to misunderstand what a journalist's role is these days." Hm. Based upon what you've written here, the public relations problem of the Fourth Estate can't all be pinned on media consumers' inability to understand the role of the journalist. As you stated, "Maybe I am just biased because I am a photographer."

Maybe indeed.

Jim Bennett

PS - As I type this in your blog's comment space, I notice that "Comment moderation has been enabled. All comments must be approved by the blog author."

Ah. So much for "So do we really want our reality to be censored."

Tom White said...


Thankyou for your comment. As you recommend that I read your post carefully (which I did) may I suggest that you do the same in reading mine. The comment moderation I employ is to allow me to avoid spam being posted in the comments section, which, if you had read the full sentence explaining why I moderate comments you would have seen. You will have noticed that I also wrote that journalists are quite capable of behaving badly but that in my opinion, based upon what I have read, that I do not believe it is the case here.

Here also is a definition of propaganda, from merriam-webster
2 : the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
3 : ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect

Notice that that definition is perfectly in line with what I wrote, which is that information itself is not propaganda, it is only how that information is used that makes it so. If we are to censor information solely because someone might conceivably use it in a way we don't agree with then I dread to think what kind of closed society we would be living in.

I appreciate the difference in opinion here - without which the world would be a very uninteresting place, but I respectfully ask that you apply the standards you ask of me to your own reading of what I wrote.