To sanitize photos is to distort history
By Deborah Copaken Kogan
The opinions expressed are her own.
The first casualty of war I ever saw was in the mountains of Afghanistan at the end of the war with the Soviet Union, but by the time I saw the body, it was already covered with cloth and headed on a makeshift stretcher for burial. I shot a photo of this. It was never published.
The first freshly killed body I ever saw was that of a young poacher in the jungles of Zimbabwe, where the government had issued a shoot-to-kill policy for any poacher caught red-handed with rhino horns. His back was riddled with bullets, and he lay in a pool of his own blood. I shot a photo of this, too, which was eventually published several times over, but because of the way the light hit the body, because the color of the man’s blood matched the russet color of the jungle dirt on which he lay, and the dappled morning light through the jungle growth gave everything an ethereal glow, if you weren’t looking closely at the holes in the dead man’s sweater, you might have mistaken him for a live man mid-nap.
These images were shot during the late eighties and early nineties, when I was a photojournalist based in Paris, where bloody images of war were served up regularly with one’s oeuf au plat, whether as double-page spreads in Paris Match or on the cover of Liberation or on massive subway and newsstand ads for German magazines like Der Spiegel or Stern, all of which eventually published my photos as well. At first it was shocking, as a twenty-two year old American steeped only in movie violence, to witness such real violent images on a daily basis, but soon thereafter it became more shocking to go back to America and see the sanitized versions of history being served up by American newspapers and magazines.
I shot a photo on the third night of the Soviet coup, of one of the three men killed in what would be later referred to as a bloodless coup. It was shot with a flash, so his blood was bright red, and you could see his brains leaking out of his skull onto the rain-soaked pavement. That, to me, was the real image of that crazy night, the one seared in my memory for nearly 20 years now, but Newsweek chose to publish the next photo on my roll for their double page spread, of a Russian man celebrating in front of a burning trolley bus with his fists clenched in the kind of post-touchdown ecstasy we’ve come to expect of our football stars.
I understand and support President Obama’s decision not to release the bloody images of Osama bin Laden, for valid fear of fanning flames, but I do think it’s a slippery slope from national security concerns to the infantilization of a nation. President Bush, by not allowing photos of dead American soldiers coming home for burial, acted no better than a Soviet apparatchik. That these newly released amateur photos crudely shot with a flash, of unidentified bodies littering the blood-covered floor of Osama’s compound have come to light through Reuters I find not only historically refreshing but journalistically vital, perhaps even an adolescent-to-adult turning point in the way we, as a nation, perceive war.
To stare at the toy gun, half-hidden behind one of the men’s shoulders, in a thick pool of blood crisscrossed with what looks like a couple of USB cords, is to stare into both the absurdity and utter mundanity of hatred and violence. Lest we forget, this was once a man, and maybe that fluorescent green gun belonged to his child, or maybe it belonged to someone else’s child who wiled away his days in that fortress of madness, and maybe the dead man was a really bad guy who deserved to die, or maybe he was just the guy there to fix the computer. We’ll never know, but the image forces us to construct a narrative, to ponder the effects of conflict and death on future generations, to see the face of death up close and personal so that maybe when we find ourselves slipping into jingoistic shouts of “USA! USA!” it might give us pause and see the raid on Osama’s compound for what it was: the long-awaited bitter beginning, one hopes, to the end of a sustained and brutal war.
Deborah Copaken Kogan, a columnist for the Financial Times, is the bestselling author of Shutterbabe, Between Here and April and the forthcoming The Red Book.