By Hilsum, Lindsey
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 133, No. 4688
Two images dominate America's vision of itself at war--the heroic picture of marines raising Old Glory at Iwo Jima in 1945 and the terrible moment in Vietnam when nine-year-old Kim Phuc runs, naked and in agony, from a napalm strike. The images became iconic because they epitomised a feeling of the time: Iwo Jima represented the triumph of victory over Japan and Kim Phuc the horror as the US slipped into the cruel quagmire of Vietnam.
As the photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib emerged, I found myself on a panel judging the One World Photojournalism Award. Some images made us uncomfortable. Do photographs of wild-eyed young men with AK-47s reinforce a stereotype about war in Africa, or reveal a truth we would rather not acknowledge? Does the fact that poverty can look beautiful distort the truth? We favour photographs which tell a story that fits our world-view--the camera may not lie, but we do, to ourselves.
The Bush administration is losing the war of images in Iraq. It carefully staged the photo opportunity last May when the president strode out across the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, attired in full flight suit-including parachute and water-survival kit--to declare "mission accomplished". But that image now looks ironic.
Instead, two images the administration tried to suppress may come to symbolise America in Iraq: coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base, and a grinning Private Lynndie England, pointing mockingly at the genitals of Iraqi captives in Abu Ghraib prison.
Before the war in Iraq started, the American government made sure that the ban on taking and disseminating photographs of dead service personnel being airlifted home was strictly enforced. But it took pictures for its own record, and on 14 April a journalist called Russ Kirk won the right through the Freedom of Information Act to see the coffin pictures. After several refusals, the air force was compelled to send him a CD of 361 images of aircraft landing at the base in Delaware and the coffins being carefully borne away.
The pictures had been suppressed because of what a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, General Henry Shelton, called the "Dover test"--the extent to which the American public can tolerate pictures of war dead being brought back in caskets. This administration's attempt to avoid the Dover test failed because Americans are hungry for pictures. The mainstream media in the US all carried the coffin images. …