Blind leading the blind?

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The attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 were horrific, cowardly and unjustifiable; they were also spectacular. Drawing on dystopian fantasies of destruction from Hollywood movies such as Independence Day, the first plane hit at 8.46am, ensuring the eyes of the world were trained on the towers when the second plane struck just under 20 minutes later. At 9.37am another plane attacked the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93 crashed down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10.03am, but it’s the World Trade Center attacks that endure, the image of the exploding twin towers living on in our visual culture.


“It’s widely acknowledged that, as well as causing so much death and destruction, 9/11 was also intended to be a symbolic attack on America, and the resulting images that flooded the international media were very much a part of the attack,” says Dr Jennifer Pollard, a senior lecturer in photojournalism at London College of Communication. “Many people who witnessed the attacks either first- hand or via media images used the language of movies or dreams to describe what they saw… At the time, many people also felt very uncomfortable describing the attacks as spectacular – those who dared to use this word were condemned as being unpatriotic, insensitive or siding with the terrorists. But it was certainly meant to be spectacular.”

The visual depiction of the attacks at the time focused on pure news – so much so that Thomas Hoepker, a member of Magnum Photos, rejected the image reproduced on our cover, believing it to be a failure. “I didn’t censor it – I just didn’t like it,” he admits. “I thought it unimportant. There had been a Magnum meeting in New York the day before, so just by chance, a dozen very good photographers were present and went and shot pictures. When I saw the results I said, ‘This is incredible, we have to make a book.’ Spectacular images were the things that succeeded most – right to the action, pictures of police and people running, dramatic stuff. I felt I had failed. My images under-represented the drama of the day.”

Hoepker set his image aside and didn’t go back to it for another four years, when he was planning his 2006 retrospective at the Photomuseum in Munich. Returning to the image so long after the event it suddenly seemed more interesting, but its exhibition and subsequent publication caused a furore, with The New York Times columnist Frank Rich describing it in TimesSelect as shocking, a prescient symbol of indifference and amnesia, on 10 September 2006. “I think the image has touched many people exactly because it remains fuzzy and ambiguous in all its sun-drenched sharpness,” Hoepker responded in an interview with Slate. “On that day five years ago, sheer horror came to New York, bright and colourful like a Hitchcock movie. And the only cloud in that blue sky was the sinister first smoke signal of a new era.”

Other images from 9/11 have proved equally problematic – in particular, images capturing the “jumpers”, the people who chose to leap to their death rather than be burnt alive in the wreckage of the twin towers. Only a handful of newspapers published any of these pictures – the most famous of which were taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew – before self- censorship came into play, in response to a public outcry. Drew’s image was published on page seven of The New York Times the day after the attacks, but didn’t appear in the paper again until 27 May 2007, in its Book Review.

“In terms of coverage of 9/11, most agencies and photographers would have shot it in exactly the same way as if it were an attack in a recognised war zone – that is, straightforward documentary coverage of events as they unfolded,” says Hugh Pinney, managing editor for news at Getty Images. “Different sensitivities come into play, however, as soon as the mainstream global media are editing a story that hits closer to home. The people jumping from the windows made deeply shocking images, which immediately humanised the event. [The images] were somehow harder to digest than the depersonalised view of a massive explosion destroying a vast building.

“Personally I think it was right that the images should have been made available to publishers, as part of a documentary record of what actually happened that day. And I think their historical importance is significant. However, I also think that it was the correct decision by most publishers not to run with the pictures, as they were responsible for the mood and sensitivities of their readers, just as they are for providing evidence of what happened. There was simply no need to shock readers further with detail when the overall event had rocked the US to its very core.”

For Pollard though, who is publishing a book on the topic soon, there is another way to read the media blackout over these images. “Richard Drew’s ‘falling man’ occupies a troubling position in the 9/11 archive,” she says. “This and other so- called jumper photographs provoked widespread outcry when they appeared in a small number of press publications, and were quickly hidden from view. As Tom Junod has argued in his documentary, 9/11: The Falling Man (C4 2006), it’s because they are obviously troubling images, but also because, for many Americans, jumping from the towers was seen as an unacceptable way to die. It was too close to suicide, and so didn’t fit with the narrative of heroic death that was ascribed to the other victims.

“Drew’s is the only photograph that remained visible, and the only one printed on a front page,” Pollard continues. “This is arguably because of the subject’s striking pose: rather than flailing desperately as the other jumpers do, he looks composed, calm, dignified. Although we know he is about to die, this somehow makes the image easier to look at. The meanings and narratives constructed around many 9/11 photographs, whether explicitly or more unconsciously, say a great deal about how America sees itself and how it has sought to understand and come to terms with this moment in its history.”

Pollard points to a photograph taken on 11 September by Thomas E. Franklin of The Bergen Record as one attempt to wrestle back control. Showing three firefighters at Ground Zero in a pose that bore a striking resemblance to Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 shot, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, it was published on the front covers of many newspapers around the world. The New York Times Magazine, meanwhile, resurrected the twin towers as two shafts of light on its front cover on 23 September 2001, commissioning artists Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda to mock up their proposed Phanton Towers tribute (which eventually became reality).

“In the United States a response to the attacks was to embrace other symbols more consonant with The American Way…” writes Fred Ritchin in The War of Images (an essay he will present at C/O Berlin on 10 September in a conference on The Uncanny Familiar. Images of Terror, and which will be published in the book of the accompanying exhibition by Walther König). “The looping, repetitive imagery of the burning buildings as a funeral pyre became a mantra from which some symbolic good had to be rescued. Quickly giving iconic status to the photographs of the American flag being raised in the ruins became an attempt at transcendence, a way of trying to ease some of the pain even before most of it could be digested.”

Small wonder then that 9/11 has been described as the first blow in a war of images “that has reverberated through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”, as Pollard puts it, “as the US military and political machines have sought to create images of victory that would be powerful enough to counteract this symbolic defeat”.

The War on Terror

George W. Bush introduced the “War on Terror” a week after 9/11 at Camp David, and in a televised address to a joint session of congress on 20 September 2001 he stated, “Our ‘War on Terror’ begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

Airstrikes on Afghanistan began on 07 October as a direct response to the terrorist attacks. Iraq was invaded nearly 18 months later, using evidence put forward in an infamous speech to the United Nations by Colin Powell, which included aerial images purporting to show Iraqi weapons. Ritchin adds that “the iconography created by the American government to win people’s hearts and minds” started soon afterwards, most obviously with staged photo opportunities such as the orchestrated toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad on 09 April 2003, and Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on board the USS Abraham Lincoln on 01 May the same year.

Some photojournalists avoided the photo opportunities, travelling to Afghanistan and Iraq independently and documenting the effects of the invasions on civilians. Andrew Testa and Moises Saman were both in Afghanistan at the start of the war, for example, and Saman worked there independently until 2005. “The most important part of war is the civilians, the people who have no choice,” comments Testa. “In Afghanistan the only way to access local people was by not hooking up with soldiers,” adds Saman. “That obviously scares people.”

Gradually though, both countries became more dangerous and after March 2004, when four contractors working for the US were killed, mutilated and hung from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq, photographers who wanted to work there had little choice but to go with Coalition troops. There is, says Saman, no distinction between being a journalist, an NGO or a soldier in many places, “just the fact of being a Westerner means you stand out as a foreigner”. Reporters Without Borders believes that 209 journalists, photographers and media assistants were killed in the first five years after the invasion of Iraq, while two went missing and 14 were kidnapped.


Hooking up with Western troops became known as “embedding”, a term dreamt up by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defense, and the Pentagon. But while the procedure was much more widespread than before, photographers play down its importance – Thomas Dworzak (who joined Magnum as a nominee the year before 9/11) comments that, “before, it was called sucking up to the Commander”. In fact, it’s been an unavoidable necessity in conflicts from World War II to the Bosnian War in the mid-1990s and, as Dutch photographer Geert van Kesteren points out, there are also some positives, because it allows you to get close to the military action. He chose to be embedded in Iraq, he says, “to see more”.

Photographers also say US troops in particular have made little attempt to censor material, allowing potentially negative images to be distributed. Adam Ferguson, a member of VII’s Mentor Program, was with US Marines in Marja in Helmand on 28 July when one of their mortar bombs killed a 14-year-old girl, for example, and when he published a slideshow on Time’s website, “the US Marines public affairs wrote to me to commend me on the piece.”

At the same time, though, he and other photographers accept that embedding has warped their depiction of the war. “Being embedded has definitely affected the way I have made pictures in Afghanistan, for I essentially photograph one side of the conflict,” explains Ferguson. “This is inherently limiting – it frustrates the hell out of me – but I am still of the opinion that one side of the story is better than no side.”

Pinney goes further, pointing out that embedding with troops, sometimes facing life-and-death situations with them, almost inevitably makes photographers more sympathetic towards them. “The concept of the embed is, I think, the work of a PR genius,” he says. “Forcing journalists to share the experience of the soldiers inevitably forges a bond. They get hungry together, bored, hot, scared – they become comrades and the resulting coverage is undoubtedly more positive, but also more human and more personal as there is a rapport between photographer and subject.”

This isn’t necessarily pro-Coalition or pro-war – putting a human face on conflict can make for hard-hitting anti-war images if the individuals subsequently suffer injury. But it can also make for jingoism, as Jon Levy, founder and director of Foto 8, a magazine dedicated to documentary photography, points out. “The culture of embedding is no doubt quite pervasive, and the bonds you build having only seen things from the soldier’s viewpoint means you become naturally empathetic with the plight and experience of ‘our boys’ fighting the good fight.”

In addition, the other side of the argument has proved almost impossible for Western photojournalists to capture. This is partly because the insurgents are chimeral – “terror” is a hard enemy to photograph – but also because they’re hard to find. Al-Qaeda, for example, is a loosely interconnected network rather than a traditional opposing force, and it’s got little to gain from publicity. “This is a unique war,” says Pinney. “The insurgent enemy is virtually invisible for most of the time and the front line is indeterminate at best.”

“In the past people have photographed both sides [of a conflict] – for example, Jan Grarup has photographed both the Israelis and the Palestinians,” adds Benjamin Lowy, who began his career shooting in Iraq in 2003. “But it’s very hard to cover the Taliban because they’re both anti-Western and anti-media. Al-Qaeda doesn’t want to be documented, because they’re unknown. Western media and Western journalists have a distinct problem covering both sides – the only access we have is from the war machine perspective.”

Working with local photographers sidesteps some of the Westerners’ problems, but not all. No matter how talented, locals can’t penetrate closely guarded secrets any better than anyone else, and just as Western photojournalists can find themselves lumped in with the Coalition, locals can find themselves falling victim to prejudices. Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein and freelance photographer Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed were both arrested by the US military in Iraq on suspicion of colluding with insurgents, for example, and Hussein was held for two years without trial. In a war in which, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”, as George W. Bush stated in an address to Congress on 20 September 2001, the concept of impartiality can cut little ice.


Al-Qaeda is not the only organisation keeping secrets, though; no matter how open the embed, or how talented the photographer, no one has access to the full picture when they’re embedded with Coalition troops. Dworzak says there is supposed to be a news blackout every time a soldier is killed, and that “very strange things to do with the Geneva Convention meant that I couldn’t photograph the wounded in a Baghdad hospital because they were all captives.”

Edmund Clark, meanwhile, has photographed inside the Guantanamo Bay naval detention centre, but was given carefully controlled parameters in which to do so. Working independently, he had to negotiate for six months to get permission to shoot, “ticking the right boxes” and promising not to photograph certain things. “I had to agree not to photograph anyone’s face, not to talk to detainees, not to photograph around the watch towers, or include both the sky and the sea [in one shot],” he says. “I had to shoot digital, and at the end of the day sit down with a security person and go through all the pictures – every file. They would say if something needed to be deleted.”

Some of these rules were governed by the same Geneva Convention Dworzak references – it forbids exposing captives to public curiosity – but even so, Clark’s experience speaks of strict control in which it would be impossible to photograph an interrogation, let alone the abuses recorded in Abu Ghraib by the guards perpetrating them. “What came out of Abu Ghraib was extraordinary because it was completely uncensored,” Clark says. “I could never shoot those pictures.”

Clark adds this is no different to any other war though – as he points out, photojournalists weren’t exactly invited into working Nazi extermination camps either. Dworzak refers to these secrets as “black areas”, and also points out they have always existed. “I have often heard that the military did not explicitly censor or vet images for content [in the War on Terror], but their role in determining what areas one had access to and how one gained access to a particular part of the war was no doubt instrumental,” concludes Levy.

As Clark says, though, the images that emerged from Abu Gharib were extraordinary. Their existence and subsequent publication, both online and in the mainstream press, have led some to conclude that online distribution plus the ubiquity of camera phones, will mean that virtually all aspects of war are seen in future. And while photojournalists may find it hard to photograph (or publish) gory images, sites such as Got War Porn? specialise in posting “combat footage with a vengeance” shot by military personnel, “countering the cyber-jihad one video at a time”. The site is biased, but there are many very bloody videos posted online by al-Qaeda too.

“These pictures are part of the ‘image war’ too,” argues Pollard. “And terror organisations such as al-Qaeda seem to be far ahead in understanding the viral and self-generating power of image circulation on the internet.” Others argue that images of violence do little to interpret what’s going on in the war though, and Lowy adds that no matter how many digital cameras there are in the world, “there will always be secret things you can’t find out about and places you can’t photograph.”

Obama vs Osama

The recent images of the US president sitting alongside his Secretary of Defense and senior White House staff to watch the live assassination of Osama bin Laden can perhaps be read as a microcosm of this entire so-called “image war”, because it contains so many elements of it. Pete Souza, the official White House photographer, has captured the officially sanctioned shot of the Situation Room, so carefully controlled as to look staged; meanwhile the images of violence the President and his team watched are hidden from view.

The White House decided not to release the shots of the bin Laden because “we don’t think a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference” (said the president in an interview on 60 Minutes). Later, in a press conference, Obama added, “It is important to make sure that very graphic photographs of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool.” Versions of the bloody images – which may or may not be genuine – soon surfaced online anyway.

“I am sure this photograph [from the White House Situation Room] will be the image of the decade, especially for those of us interested in photographic aesthetics,” comments photographer Lisa Barnard. “At the time, I was quite surprised by the lack of discourse present in the media about the enormity of this image. It’s clearly staged, re-enacted, posed, performed – whatever – you want to call it, and it clearly represents an event that actually happened… All of this justifies its position within photojournalism and its connection to the truth. But all of those assumptions and contradictions are not what makes this image interesting. For me, its monumental importance lies in what the protagonists are doing – watching porn!

“The problem and the brilliance of the photograph, I understand, is that we are coerced to watch the higher echelons of the Obama administration gain pleasure – they are clearly absorbed by the situation – from what apparently is unfolding before them on a screen crammed into the corner of a tiny room (why so small?). We all looked without knowing, and then it was too late! It confronts our fascination with ‘War Porn’ and the exploitation of others’ suffering and the glorification of war. This gift of an image from the White House is emblematic of everything that is wrong with society, its false consciousness, and in equal measure, what is fantastic about photography and how it continues to surprise and inspire me.”


Faced with these issues, some photographers have opted to take a different tack, making images emphasising the difficulties of photographing a war zone. Lowy’s series, Iraq/ Perspectives, shows everyday scenes taken from inside an Army Humvee, for example, leaving the frame of the window clearly visible in the shot. Lowy was embedded with the US army when he took the images, and included the frame to represent both his and the soldiers’ perspective on the country. “Initially it was inspired by my mum, when she asked me if I could go with Iraqis to the mall,” he says. “She didn’t know anything about Iraq because the US media was all embeds and bomb blasts. Initially Iraq was a place where I could go jogging – people don’t know that about Baghdad, it sort of looked like New York. But although there is daily life [now], I can’t get out of the car. This is how soldiers see it. It’s also like looking through a TV, and almost like looking through a viewfinder.”

Lowy has also shot a series of images through the night-vision goggles used by the US military, an approach used by van Kesteren for some of the images in his seminal 2004 publication, Why Mister, Why?. Again, shooting this way gives the viewer an insight into the way in which the US military sees Iraq (quite literally), and Lowy emphasises the fact that relatively few people have the goggles. Barnard, meanwhile, has focused in on how the US Army visualises the war in a project called Virtual Iraq, which studies the Institute of Creative Technologies. ICT, established in 1999 with a long contract from the US Army to create immersive training environments, including both real and virtual elements. Barnard’s projects include both documentary images and stills taken from the game-like CGI – war has become quite literally the image in this initiative.

Mishka Henner’s Dutch Landscapes takes another sidelong look at the use of images in war, taking stills from Google Street View that have been pixellated by the Netherlands government to disguise fuel depots, army barracks and air bases. “I find myself drawn to the work of photographers who seek to uncover the facts, who search for what we can’t see, says Henner. “And in this search for the invisible, [they] uncover shocking truths about the workings of the military and intelligence machine.”

He adds that he’s inspired by Trevor Paglen, a US photographer who builds high-end optical systems to photograph secret government sites, and amateur satellite-watchers’ data to track classified spacecraft. For Simon Norfolk, who has used large format cameras with very long exposures to photograph secret satellite launches, this approach is essential in trying to depict 21st-century warfare, much of which cannot be photographed using traditional methods. “In newspapers and magazines, in the kind of stuff that gets into World Press Photo and Visa Pour l’Image, the things that are photographed are the things that are photographable,” he told BJP in an article published on 15 October 2008.

That means men shooting rifles. But in terms of the way that war is actually fought now, men firing rifles is a completely irrelevant little backwater. As a method of prosecuting warfare, it really saw its last days back in the Korean War. Modern warfare is about satellite systems, lasers, drones, information warfare, cyber warfare, secret torture and quiet little assassinations we know nothing about. The problem is, how do you photograph that?”

Banality of war

For Testa, photographing modern war is trickier still, because some of the most important things happen behind the scenes between men in suits. It’s less than gripping visually, and it’s also hard to access. He went to the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War in January 2010 to see Tony Blair give evidence, hoping to photograph the former Prime Minister surrounded by police and harangued by protestors on his way in. “He didn’t even have the guts to appear in public,” says Testa (Blair entered the inquiry through a private back entrance). “The only way to get him was on a TV screen live with the police behind.”

Nina Berman is trying to photograph something even more intangible, meanwhile – the manufacture of consent. Her project, Homeland, studies what she describes as “The militarisation of American life post 9-11; in particular the burgeoning homeland security state,” showing the disaster-training programmes and military rallies that have helped foster a climate of fear. “I’m interested in how war is sold, the dreams offered, the notion of American power and patriotism, the contradictions and human cost of military service,” she says. “I’ve had anti-war people criticise me for not focusing on the pain of Iraqis and Afghans; I’ve had pro-war people criticise me for making images that aren’t heroic enough or that show suffering that can be demoralising. But mainly the work has been embraced as honest, complex and emotive, and it’s been viewed with deep interest by a wide range of audiences at many varied venues. That it can’t be pinned to one political point of view, or issue, gives it lasting strength in my opinion.”

Van Kesteren, meanwhile, used apparently banal family photographs to show the everyday side of life under war inaccessible to photojournalists in his 2008 book, Baghdad Calling: Reports from Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. A collection of snaps from mobile phones, which he and his team found both by talking directly to Iraqi refugees and searching Facebook, it provides “a direct link to the people who are featured in the news every day, but whom we never really encounter”.

“It presents a selection of the images sent to family and friends by Iraqi people in and outside the war zone,” he explains. “It’s kind of post-Facebook revolution imagery. The camera phone had just been introduced, and after Baghdad Calling came out the Arab world used the mobile phone image as ‘press material’, as eyewitnesses to events. To me, that is what makes the collection so unique. All of the images were taken to inform friends and family, not to inform the world.”

Arab Spring

As van Kesteren points out, amateur images and footage in the Middle East is now taken for more specific purposes – to be posted online to inform others about what’s going on. Amateur footage proved instrumental in both reporting and encouraging the so-called Arab Spring, but perhaps the single most famous example is the mobile phone footage of a young woman called Neda Agha-Soltan dying during a 2009 election protest in Iran. Widely circulated both in Iran and around the world, Pinney describes it as “probably the single biggest threat to the incumbent regime so far”.

Photojournalists were severely restricted within Iran, and they face many of the same problems in Libya – Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed working independently in Libya and meanwhile both the rebels and the Libyan government are organising “embeds”. “I’ve been working out of Tripoli as an official photographer,” says Saman. “Basically I’m a guest of the Gaddafi regime, granted a journalist visa to work while on assignment for The New York Times. I’m working under extremely controlled restrictions, not allowed to have independence and always followed by minders.”

For some this situation sums up why photojournalists are becoming less important – once the only source of images, they’re now one voice among many. Others urge caution, arguing that seeing more images doesn’t necessarily equate to being better informed, and calling for photojournalists to use the new media landscape in a more positive way. “Is our contemporary obsession with imagery – 60 billion photographs on Facebook alone – bringing us closer to a helpful understanding or to a more alienated voyeurism?” Ritchin asks. “What if the twin towers of the World Trade Center had been filled with people using their cellphones to video the growing inferno and sending tearful goodbyes to loved ones, updating their Facebook pages? How do civilisations survive all of this? As we up the ante, are we preparing ourselves for seeing, or to no longer see, or at least not to empathise – sedating ourselves, perhaps as a survival mechanism, with incomprehension?”

“There’s been a tendency to ascribe great significance to it [the use of social media in the Arab Spring], but I’m not so sure,” says Stephen Mayes, managing director of VII Photo agency (founded on 09 September 2001). “Not everyone has a smartphone or access to the internet, so what we’re seeing is from a select group of the liberal, educated class, and the number of original stories is actually very small. They get amplified in this echo chamber as we try to make it a coherent story about social networks and so on, but it’s a distortion. Photojournalism has always been a distortion in its own way, but it’s a distortion we can decode – we know that one newspaper has one view, another paper another. So far we haven’t tried hard enough to decode what’s been going on in the Middle East.

“Just collecting information isn’t enough,” he adds. “I’d like to see journalists taking a more active role in ‘curating’, using our expertise to put the facts together into a meaningful whole. We should be asking, ‘What is this amazing stuff?’ and trying to re-imagine our role. Journalists can’t tell the whole story, they never could, but we don’t need to cling to the linear narrative that drove 20th-century photojournalism any more. Photography is adding strategies.”

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy