Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Picture Imperfect

[posted by Callimachus]

This piece, co-written by a New York Times photographer and his journalist wife, is worth reading. It will stay with you. It is insightful on a personal level, and no doubt it will be read straight by many people opposed to the American project in Iraq.

But take a step back, and it is disturbing on any number of levels. First, there's the basic image of the Australian-born New York Times-employed photographer with a clear anti-war commitment itching to press the shutter button and snap photos of wounded or dead Americans wallowing in their blood, while the comrades of the fallen men glare him off:

Only his feet were visible, sticking out. If I had taken the photo, I would have been lynched by his comrades. When corpses are around, every eye in the zone, teary or angered, is on me, ensuring I don’t get too close and take a picture.

Earlier in the piece he blamed the military bureaucracy for blocking such images with a paperwork maneuver -- "If you’ve ever wondered why photographers don’t take many pictures of death and horrible injuries—the ugly facts of war—now you know." But this later bit suggests, in fact, you didn't know when he told you. He let you know, inadvertently, after he showed you. The situation would be the same even if there were no Pentagon paperwork.

Along the way, he inadvertently shows you something else disturbing: Torture can work.

I left the courtyard stunned, intensely conflicted. By breaking up this al Qaeda cell, the raid had saved lives. No question about it. And the information couldn’t have been gathered in a timely manner if the Geneva Conventions had been followed. Again, no question. But I hate torture and will never condone it.

Nor will I. But no wonder he's a good spot-news photographer. That's the job of the man with the camera; to show you, not tell you. Even when he despises what he sees. And no wonder his experience in Iraq haunts him. I don't think even he sees the full range of the haunting yet. His conclusion:

I’m just recording history now, documenting the decline, in the hope that the people who don’t recognize it now may one day look back at my pictures and see the war for the mistake-riddled quagmire it was—and is.

He's trying to imprint a template on his experience, one that gives it meaning and validation in the framework of his world. A bad war, prosecuted by bad politicians. As before, though, I think he is showing more than even he realizes. He's not chronicling one war. He's showing you all of them, and a good deal more of human experience that can't be contained in the chapter heading "war."