Iwo Jima v. Abu Ghraib

David Simpson

  • No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites
    Chicago, 419 pp, £19.00, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 226 31606 2

On 1 February 1968 Eddie Adams took a photograph of the South Vietnamese chief of police standing in the street and shooting a Vietcong suspect in the head. The picture is listed on the web as one of the ‘100 photos that changed the world’. For years I thought that it recorded the blood spurting out of the side of the man’s head as the bullet went into his temple. Looking again, I see that I must have imagined this, perhaps because the graphic intensity of the victim’s twisted mouth and tightly closed eyes seems to register the very moment of impact and instant death. Or did I somehow see a retouched image? The camera never lies, the camera never tells the truth. Adams himself, very sensitive to the power of images, was remorseful about the impact of his photo: he admired the executioner, General Loan, and felt that he had killed him with his camera just as surely as Loan had killed the prisoner with his gun. Susan Sontag claimed that the event was staged, that Loan deliberately led the man out into the street where he knew the journalists were waiting. Did he want the picture to be taken to show what happened to the enemy during the particularly tense time of the Tet Offensive? If there were any such short-term local benefits they were soon overtaken by the world’s response, which saw one more reason why this war was wrong and had to end.

Adams’s photo comes up in the dialogue of Clint Eastwood’s film about the 1945 Iwo Jima campaign, Flags of Our Fathers (2006). An old man is remembering his participation as a young marine in raising the Stars and Stripes on top of Mount Suribachi, a moment immortalised in another famous photograph, taken by Joe Rosenthal, perhaps the most reproduced photograph in American history. Late in his life, though, it is not Rosenthal’s 1945 photo but Adams’s 1968 image of Vietnam that the veteran recalls; he says simply: ‘That was it – the war was lost. We just hung around trying to pretend it wasn’t.’ No complex truths, intentions or explanations survived the publication of the photograph. General Loan’s effort to send a stern signal turned people against the war he was trying so hard to justify. The story told in Eastwood’s film of the Iwo Jima photograph and its afterlife is of the opposite kind: an initially controversial photograph had painful effects on the lives of the marines who appeared in it but acquired an unstoppable momentum as an icon of US patriotic virtue, serving as an advertisement for the sale of war bonds to a previously sceptical public. The controversy arose because the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the Suribachi summit (the only time the prize was given, by acclamation, in the same year a photo was taken) was actually of a second flag-raising, staged with a larger flag after the fighting had died down. Literally speaking, it was not so much a struggle against military odds as against gravity. This was known at the time, and was a sufficiently sensitive issue for both Time and Life (unlike the newspapers) to refrain from publishing it until it had become so ubiquitous as to be beyond complex questioning. That happened very fast. The photo became more or less instantly a leitmotif of American popular culture and a key item in the manufacture of consent by politicians and advertisers alike. The wartime government produced 3.5 million posters, 15,000 billboards and (by 1948) 137 million postage stamps. Since then it has proved useful not only to self-styled patriots but also to satirists, most recently in the New Yorker, whose issue of 28 May featured on its cover Barry Blitt’s redrawing of the Iwo Jima event with the flag at half-mast and one visibly black soldier contributing to the effort: Iraq, where the US is not doing well and where the army is made up of ‘volunteers’ from poor economic backgrounds rather than of conscripted citizens, is no Iwo Jima.

Debates about the authenticity of photographs, especially war photographs, have been commonplace since at least the American Civil War. In No Caption Needed, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites are less concerned with these debates than with the ways in which iconic images have been used to propose and renegotiate various kinds of ‘democratic citizenship’ and ‘civic identity’. Here original truths matter less than accumulated traditions and assumptions. But not all images can sponsor a significant afterlife. For these authors the Iwo Jima flag works as an icon because it is aesthetically compelling (like the sculptures and statues it has subsequently inspired), because it converts military into civic action (raising the flag is a citizenly act), and because it effaces the personalities of the soldiers in the service of a common and anonymous effort (one of the flagraisers was Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian who left the marines and died a broken man, but there is no way to identify him in the photo).

The authors think that we have a ‘need’ for these iconic images, and often suggest that democracy is all the better for them. But it is a fine line (if there is a line) between the vigorous, deliberative debate conducted by empowered citizens, of the sort championed by political scientists like Jon Elster and Amy Gutmann, and the consumption of patriotic propaganda in the interests of the state. Hariman and Lucaites look back with some nostalgia to the ‘good war’ and its flag-raising as a high point of American public culture. They recognise that it misrepresents both military and social hierarchy in depicting everyone as equal beneath the flag, and they can see that its aesthetic appeal obfuscates the history from which it emerged and to which it spoke. But they cannot quite shake the belief that this was a golden moment in the history of the iconic photograph, and that positive republican values are somehow alive and well within it, making it a source of inspiration for the ‘coproduction of democratic public culture’.

Coproduction by whom? One might accept the argument that the Iwo Jima image and others like it have a utopian potential that might in some better world function as a vehicle for expressing a democratic public culture. But the image alone cannot bring this about; democratic culture would have to exist already for these meanings to be extracted from an icon whose history in the world we have is, as the authors concede, one of more or less tawdry exploitation. It has not worked as a tool for people to ‘negotiate relationships’ but rather as a way to win votes or attract new customers. As members of representative democracies we have scarcely any direct access to negotiating anything with anybody. And those we have elected to speak for us have shown in recent years very little interest in the practice of coproduction with and within their electorates. Ira Hayes and his kind are hardly more welcome in the so-called national conversation now than they were in 1945. I see little if any evidence of the success of this or any other image in fostering any ‘social connectedness, political identity and cultural continuity’ that is not largely ideological. The table was not big enough for us all in 1945 and it is not getting any bigger. Hariman and Lucaites seem to admit as much in a dense and provocative (but undeveloped) paragraph acknowledging that what is at stake for most of us in stable societies is not ‘decisive action’ but a reform of ‘attitudes’, and that it is no more than a ‘pretence’ to think that representatives and their publics are full partners in making decisions. This admission does not sit comfortably with their more frequently stated belief in a democratic public culture, a belief that recalls the civil-society rhetoric which accompanied the end of the Soviet empire in 1989. That rhetoric now looks less and less like a new beginning and, with its romantic celebration of dialogue, conversation and negotiation, more and more like the expression of an exuberant ideology. If it happens at all, negotiation is at best what we do in personal relationships and in buying houses. Far from feeling a need for iconic images, I find myself wondering whether the world might be a better place without them.

No Caption Needed richly documents the ironic and cynical uses of the Iwo Jima photograph, but claims that these too are forms of ‘civic engagement’. As one would expect from professors of communications, the authors aim for (and often achieve) a tone of studied neutrality. Communication itself, for good or ill, is their topic. Kitsch may be only kitsch, but it is still ‘a democratic art’ because there is a lot of it; and because photojournalism is a public art it takes on ‘a distinctively democratic character’. Here ‘democratic’ means anything popular, anything that a number of people might talk about, regardless of its content. But there is another meaning of democracy running through the book, and a more exalted one: the collective solidarity and sense of communal life that the utopian content of the Iwo Jima photo is taken to embody. This democracy is something the authors do think of as a good, and they see it as threatened by the ascendancy in public life since 1945 of a purely liberal-individualist ethic, reflected back in later iconic photographs. This is what allows them to subscribe to the idea of a ‘decisive generational break’ shaping ‘the last third of the 20th century’. In so doing they tend to echo the rhetoric that hails those who lived through World War Two as the ‘greatest generation’: civic-minded and community-oriented where we are selfish and navel-gazing.

What pushed along this transition, they suggest, was the Vietnam experience and its photographic record. The war was seen as being fought for misguided politicians and stupid generals rather than for high ideals and against an evil enemy. Faced with such a disaster, most Americans concluded that it was better to look after themselves. This retreat from the public sphere was a victory for what the authors call ‘liberalism’, but at the expense of democracy or social solidarity. The mimicking of the Iwo Jima icon in a widely circulated photo of firemen raising the flag at Ground Zero on 12 September 2001 could not have failed to point the contrast. George W. Bush invited the firemen to the White House and once again a stamp was issued, though this time no war bonds. The authors see here ‘the first instance of an iconic template being created out of the template of a predecessor’, thereby making a cheerful case for 9/11 as redirecting the public imagination away from self-interest (liberalism) and back towards democratic solidarity, but with a ‘somewhat more liberal articulation’ than the original Iwo Jima image projected. We can see the faces of the three men: they are no longer abstract icons of democracy, and they stand apart from one another rather than pulling together. I would go further. Only two men are working on the flag, while the third looks on. They are not setting their shoulders to a great effort but standing upright, unstressed, and using their hands (or even their fingers) rather than their whole bodies. All three seem to be white males. The image projects too much local history and detail to rise to the level of myth.

A successfully iconic photograph, we are told, must displace or forget ‘what lies outside the frame’: the Pima Ira Hayes, the hiring patterns of the New York Fire Department, the full-blooded Cherokee identity of the woman in Dorothea Lange’s famous photo Migrant Mother and her own sad afterlife (also discussed in this book). Although most of the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were collective, the image singled out for mass distribution in the West was a shot of a single man in front of a column of tanks. This image of a lone protester standing up against the incarnation of state power, Hariman and Lucaites argue, works to underwrite liberalism as ‘the dominant mentality for an emerging global order’ premised on a universalist notion of human rights. Any possibility of a ‘deep yearning for democracy’ (in their sense of social solidarity) in China is displaced by a display of rugged individualism.

Some of the same pressures are seen to have governed the afterlife of other images. Two compelling photos from the Vietnam War era – Nick Ut’s 1972 photo of the naked girl running from a napalm attack, and John Filo’s shot of a girl screaming over a dead body at the 1970 Kent State shooting – generated narratives that would ultimately dampen any sense of the outrage they first caused or articulated. The 1995 photographs of Kim Phuc’s still scarred but wholly maternal body lovingly embracing her healthy child, and of a grown-up Mary Ann Vecchio holding hands with the man who photographed her screaming 25 years earlier, recast the story of an ‘appalling crisis in American political history’ as a fable of ‘individuals making nice’. Again, the potential for democracy-building debate and dissent is replaced by sentimental images of personal fulfilment and forgiveness. Hariman and Lucaites argue that since Ut’s 1972 photo, which for them relies tellingly on the imagery of a ‘universal humanity’, the emphasis on individual wellbeing as a universal good has become increasingly dominant – and as such may even be ‘the leading edge of globalisation on US terms’.

This is a rather dismal narrative, and it is not unconvincing. But there is still that other strand in the authors’ argument, veering towards a more optimistic faith in the power of iconic photos to energise the public sphere. Hariman and Lucaites have a high idealism about this: emotional identification is essential if citizenship is to be ‘an actual mode of participation’ and not an abstract idea. They believe that the best photojournalism can make us ‘benignly attentive towards strangers’, encouraging a ‘connecting with and caring for others’. Perhaps it can. But not all of the examples discussed in the book suggest such benign outcomes; nor is it clear how can they emerge from what seems to be a downward historical pattern. Does even the Iwo Jima image bear the weight of such expectations?

The extent of the decline from an ideal of iconicity is made apparent to Hariman and Lucaites in the photos of the 1986 Challenger explosion, which were more or less flagrantly manipulated to justify and defend Nasa as a pioneer organisation requiring the facing of risks by exemplary individuals on an undiscovered frontier. The degree to which the disaster was just another avoidable accident, and one arguably occasioned by the urge not to ‘cancel the show’, remained largely unmentioned in the media in favour of an ‘exercise in carefully orchestrated stupidity’. The Challenger archive, relentlessly and honestly chronicled here for its record of almost unmitigated and obviously manipulated civic religiosity, does not sit comfortably with the authors’ thesis of democratic coproduction. Still, they insist that there is an ‘intermediate zone between hegemony and resistance’, where there might be room for both cohesion and dissent and where one might be productive of the other. In a similar spirit they imagine the iconic photograph as sustaining an ideal compromise between the impersonality of deliberative democracy and the individuality that typifies liberalism without either cancelling out the other, so that there need be no ‘harsh divide between critical reason and spectatorship’. There is a distinguished tradition that says there is indeed such a divide, and it is one that the authors’ own narrative often appears to support as it describes the differences between the Iwo Jima flag-raising and the Challenger and Tiananmen Square photos. They would contend that this is a historical condition and not an inevitability, and that the balance between ‘civic piety and public cynicism’ is always open to redefinition under the pressure of changing circumstances. The future of iconic photojournalism will be one index of whether liberalism, as they define it, will side with democracy or with more authoritarian forms of governance.

That future is now being played out in ways that both modify and exemplify the conventions of photojournalism. The authors report a TV narrator claiming, during the US invasion in 2003, that ‘the search is on for the one great image that will define the battle of Iraq.’ There are always choices, but the rule in today’s media is that only one iconic image at a time can reign supreme. The end of World War Two produced the kissing couple in Times Square, also discussed in this book as a notably sanitised image of the mayhem on VJ Day in August 1945. There has been no one great image for Iraq, nor was there one for the first Gulf War of 1990-91 – though for much of the rest of the world it was the horrific photograph of the charred bodies of retreating Iraqi soldiers draped over burned vehicles after the ‘turkey-shoot’ fire-bombing on the road to Basra. During the first Gulf War there was a strict policy prohibiting the free circulation of journalists in and around the combat zones, a policy that was modified in 2003 by the system of ‘embedding’ news reporters within front-line units, where many of them happily censored themselves by identifying strongly with their own troops. One occasionally heard such breathtaking inanities as the TV anchorwoman’s remark that, for her, ‘those Navy Seals really rock.’ The official aim was to prevent the emergence of any image of the war that might stir dissent, and in some ways this has proved successful. There have been very few photographs in the US of dead and dying Iraqi women and children, though the rest of the world sees them much more frequently. This means that in an era of increasingly global instant communication, different constituencies literally do not see what others are seeing, and what others are seeing is habitually dismissed in the US as mere propaganda. The wager is that a cynical and self-absorbed populace will by now be quite used to accepting the potential for deception attached to all photographic documentation of suffering, thanks in part to the Timisoara ‘massacre’ (written about by Baudrillard) and to some of the well-known misattributions of photos of the Balkan wars and even of the Holocaust.

And yet, if only because of the proliferation of cameras in the hands of ungovernable and occasionally high-minded people, there has not been a complete blackout of controversial images of the Iraq war. Official attempts to clamp down on the circulation of potentially disturbing photos has only added fuel to the fire, as it did in the case of the flag-draped coffins coming home to Dover Air Force Base. (No one bought the official line that the veto on photography was necessitated by a respect for the feelings of the bereaved.) And, of course, there were the Abu Ghraib photos, the effects of which were worldwide and continue to reverberate. The candidates for Iraq’s version of an Iwo Jima moment have been flops: President Bush’s ‘mission accomplished’ victory wave in combat gear now looks like a bad joke, and the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad was almost immediately exposed as a staged event performed in front of a small, drummed-up audience. Unlike the Iwo photo, it could not recover from its rocky start as a potential icon, and it survives now largely as a reminder of an incompetent US propaganda effort. We do not have the mainstream media to thank for what we might see as this healthy level of public suspicion; only recently have the major networks and some of the major newspapers taken a turn away from general support of the war effort, whether because they are ashamed of their earlier acquiescence or because they no longer want to endorse a cause that has become deeply unpopular with the American public. It has been the sheer indiscipline or deliberate disobedience of ordinary people that has smoked out the hypocrisies at Dover and the cruelties at Abu Ghraib.

If there is anything convincing about the case for a robust democratic potential in the dissemination of images, it will require a much less decorous process than this book’s rhetoric of ‘coproduction’ and ‘negotiation’ might suggest. And the potential is further limited by the distance from critical action imposed on the public by a representative democracy monitored by relatively inert or conformist mainstream media. American voters have a choice between two parties which both supported the invasion of Iraq, and if one of them is now slowly responding to a change in public opinion it is far from calling for immediate withdrawal. But images, iconic or otherwise, are now – more than ever – available for global dissemination, so that the potential for dissent ought to increase even when a hegemonic patriotism within a single nation-state works against it. This will remain the case for at least as long as global technology is not efficiently monopolised by global corporations. The most spectacular example of this change in the circulation of images is perhaps the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. An extraordinary number of people all over the world saw the towers collapsing in real time, and were then able to see them fall on video over and over again. The global availability of this image contributed to a huge outburst of sympathy for the dead of 9/11, but it has also made possible quite different responses (like the scandalous ‘street celebrations’, themselves of dubious provenance) and freed the image from the control of any one national interest or consortium. In Afflicted Powers (2005), the Retort collective argued that the image of the collapsing towers laid bare the vulnerability of a state no longer in control of the spectacle. If this is so, the global technology that gave the state the power to project itself across the world also took that power away.

Much of the power of the WTC imagery comes from the fact that it records and reproduces the passage from intact skyscrapers to piles of rubble. Hariman and Lucaites claim that the video of the 1986 Challenger explosion was more powerful and ‘shocking’ than any still photo could be because one sees and feels the destruction through time, like watching a hanging or a beheading instead of seeing a static image of it. Does this suggest that video technology has more potential than photographs to disrupt state censorship? It may be that No Caption Needed is a product of Minerva’s owl looking back at an artefact that is about to be displaced. If so, then the displacement may be double: that of the still image, and that of a public’s willingness to see it endowed with powers of religious or civic bonding. The Abu Ghraib photos did cause shock and turmoil, and they have certainly not been turned into icons by the war’s supporters. Although some saw in the photos evidence only of light-hearted pranks by bored soldiers, no one dared call them fakes – an extraordinary thing, in the age of Photoshop. And as more reports of torture seeped out of Abu Ghraib and other detention centres, the photos elicited widespread resistance to the Rumsfeld argument that there were only a ‘few bad apples’ at the bottom of the chain of command. What they did not do, at least in the US, was arouse any profound sympathy for the airbrushed subject-objects of the tortures, or lead to an extended consideration of the condition of the prisoners themselves. Abu Ghraib became a debate about ‘our’ moral character. Much was made of the affront to the dignity of the prisoners, but there was a great reluctance to use the word ‘torture’ to describe what was shown.

Hariman and Lucaites propose that ‘indifference towards others’ is the greatest danger in public life, and that photojournalism at its best can prevent it by making us care for and about others. The opposite case, made by Susan Moeller – and by Rousseau and Plato before her – in Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death (1999), a book that is only briefly noted here, is that excessive exposure to images of pain and suffering can inoculate us against what the authors here call ‘strong emotional uptake’. It is not easy to assess how much of the uptake of the Abu Ghraib photos was to do with compassion (there has been little risk of ‘compassion fatigue’ over Iraq since we see hardly any images of the dead and dying, and no one has marketed any of them as potentially iconic). The portrayal of pain, Hariman and Lucaites realise, must be narrowly contained if it is to become iconic: the screaming girl at the Kent State shooting can embody a ‘lost citizenship’ because she and not the dead body is the centre of attention and because the body itself shows no sign of its death and retains a certain ‘decorousness’. Disaster shots in general can work as icons only if they lend themselves to more redemptive narratives about overcoming setbacks. Hariman and Lucaites thus leave out any discussion of Holocaust photographs, partly because this has been well and widely done already but also because they are deemed to be ‘in a class by themselves’ and ‘unique’. Holocaust images do not, in other words, observe the limits that govern the iconic photograph: that it allow for a flexible response and feature some aesthetically pleasing form that is at once conventional and arresting.

How much of the best or most effective photojournalism depends on what is not and can never be iconic, what can never be absorbed into some saving narrative of national or personal progress towards a happier and better future? The boy in the Warsaw ghetto, the hooded man at Abu Ghraib, the shots of those who jumped from the burning towers on 9/11 that appeared only briefly in the press and on TV and were then, at least in the US, quickly suppressed: all of these images and others like them cannot become iconic, and should not. Perhaps, rather than increase the supply or regret the passing of potentially iconic modern-day images in hopes of resuscitating some inevitably managed form of democratic solidarity (or illusion thereof), we would do better to find a meaningful way to circulate those images that stubbornly resist being made into icons. Images always come with or quickly lead to words when sense begins to be made of them, but any image that fits too happily into verbal translation should be suspect. All iconic photographs do this, however much outrage they may appear to generate. Meanwhile, the suppression or marginalisation of non-iconic photographs not only pre-empts any possible encounter with the pain of others; it also creates a visual vacuum that allows for the invocation of ‘terror’ as pure abstraction, always unseen and always to come, and all too easily manipulated by the state as a justification for overseas adventures and domestic repression.

Are there, then, means by which we can imagine alternative images coming to public attention, if only through the idiosyncratic accidents of transnational transmission and reception? And would they then subsist in the neoliberal homelands only as the property of rogue individuals and small countercultures or subcultures? Trusting to chaos, if that is what it is, is at the moment better than looking to the mainstream media for any seriously subversive gesture against the various forms of censorship currently in place. Imaging and perhaps imagining the pain of others speaking other languages seems more important right now than shoring up democratic solidarity within the world’s most powerful nation-state. It would be nice to think that the one might lead to the other, but the history of iconic photojournalism on offer here suggests that this is unlikely: iconic images cannot bear very much reality.