23. May 2005 · Comments Off on Memo: Combat Camera · Categories: General, Iraq, Media Matters Not, Military

“Journalists, in contrast, generally have invoked their responsibility as witnesses — believing they must provide an unsanitized portrait of combat…

Tyler Hicks of the New York Times and Carolyn Cole of the Los Angeles Times accompanied the Army in August during the dangerous assault on the insurgent stronghold of Najaf. They weathered several life-threatening episodes with the troops. But much of the respect they gained disappeared when the two tried to take pictures of wounded and dead soldiers being rushed to a field hospital.

Cole, a Pulitzer winner for photographs she took of the war in Liberia, said later she understood the soldiers’ high emotions. But she resented the row of soldiers blocking her camera, who in her view prevented her from doing her job.

“They were happy to have us along when we could show them fighting the battle, show the courageous side of them,” Cole said. “Then suddenly the tables turned. They didn’t want anything shown of their grief and what was happening on the negative side, which is equally important.” (From the infamous LA Times story, which ran in my local paper this weekend)

To: Mainstream News Media (Photog/Video Division)
From: Sgt Mom
Re: Combat Camera

1. There is a bitter joke about news photographers, which goes roughly “If you have a choice between jumping in and saving a small child from drowning, or taking a Pulitzer-prize winning photograph of a child, drowning… what kind of film do you use?” In other words, where does your duty as a compassionate, involved human being intersect with your passion and your day job as a photographer, and which is your first obligation?

2. It would seem that some of those have chosen the second, but wish to have the moral credit for the first, at least as far as taking pictures of the US military in action is concerned. As was so clearly made plain in the infamous TV segment of “Ethics in America” referenced in James Fallows’ “Breaking the News”, top-of-the-line TV reporters Mike Wallace and Peter Jennings would see it as their duty to watch an American military unit be ambushed by an enemy force, and impartially record the results. So… for the past thirty or forty years, the media has preached their obligation to be impartial, to be an uninvolved witness… but touchingly, have also assumed that they ought to have the access, and the emotional wallop of doing Ernie Pyle-type reportage when it comes to the American troops.

3. How f**king clueless can the major media representatives be? Oh, let me count the ways; it’s as if our troops, our sons and daughters are assumed to be some sort of participants in some bizarre reality TV program, that every jot and tittle of their lives (and deaths) is to be on display to a TV cameraman, or still photographer who swoops in to spend a couple of weeks with the troops, and then swoops out again. That single shocking image is out there, without context, without explanation, just there. Ms Cole sees her job as simply to provide them, and her petulance at not being allowed to do so is absolutely jaw dropping. Of how horrifying it would be to parents, loved ones and friends on the other side of the world to see such pictures flashed up on the front page or on the TV news never seems to have entered into consideration. To have the life of your child summed up for all time in a single shocking image of them, injured or dead… just to kick an old news media outlet a little higher in the ratings and add another notch to the eventual Pulitzer nomination, or serve as someone’s political rallying point is the ultimate obscenity. I am not the least surprised that Ms. Cole and Mr. Hicks were shunned; most people do have a thing about being exploited, and prefer being exploited on their terms.

4. I do not mean to include print journalists in this excoriation, the best of whom truely do worship at the shrine of Ernie Pyle. They manage to do their job, quietly and unobtrusively scribbling away in a notebook, usually after the smoke is cleared and the emergency over. A written account of an event is… well, a written account. There is thought, context, a choice of words, an organization in the act of writing. In most cases, print journalists are not standing up and doing it in the middle of stuff hitting the fan. There also exist photographers and videographers who have been embedded with the military on a long term basis, who live with the troops, eat the same rations, experience the same conditions and have an extraordinary grasp of the niceties of military operations, and the feelings of the front-line troops. They are the combat camera specialists, military videographers and photographers enlisted in the various services. They may not get the red-hot Pulitzer-prize winning stuff, but at least they can do their job without pissing off the soldiers or Marines they are embedded with.

5. Finally, I would ask of those journalists and photographers who don’t think there have been enough pictures of dead and wounded soldiers and Marines coming out of Iraq; do you intend now to publish recognizable pictures of the bodies of dead journalists and photographers?

Sgt. Mom

(More at Mudville Gazette)

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