To sanitize photos is to distort history

May 5, 2011

Deborah Copaken Kogan

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.


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Excellent piece – brief but complex, interspersed with personal anecdotes and big-picture thinking. This situation can only make things more complicated. Violence is never an end to anything, except for individual lives.

Posted by Reiser | Report as abusive

Well said.

Posted by Elektrobahn | Report as abusive

Having spent twenty-six years in the military and law enforcement I have seen more dead bodies than any person should have to in a life time. I cannot come up with one thought that having seen such carnage makes me understand history any better or that having seen all this death and destruction makes me a better person. I do not need to see pictures of death to know that death is horrible or to know that war is terrible. But it also does not change my opinion that the war we fight against radical Islam is absolutely necessary. Anyone who thinks that if we stop fighting radical Islam they will stop killing us is naive. I would say think of those horrible pictures of war and death and imagine they are your loved ones here on our soil getting killed in horrible ways. If we don’t continue our fight against radical Islam we will see the pictures you want to show everyone, but they won’t be pictures they will be your family and neighbors in real life. The pictures of grotesque death will not change anything they will only destroy our youths innocence. Not that were not already doing it with movies and media already. Pictures will not stop nor slow war and it is ludicrous to think so. Mexico publishes the pictures you like and look what’s going on there.

Posted by hwyorca | Report as abusive

Dear Deborah Copaken Kogan,

The first casualty of war is the truth.

Posted by beijingyank | Report as abusive

“I understand and support President Obama’s decision not to release the bloody images of Osama bin Laden, for valid fear of fanning flames”

Then what’s the point of this article? To brag about your resume? You’ve just stated the reason he’s not showing the photos. It’s not to “sanitize history”. It’s not part of some conspiracy to “infantilize America”.

If the photos are released to the public, it will be seen as a trophy shot, as gloating. They will be printed on T-shirts with racist captions. They’ll be printed on giant signs carried by violent mobs around the world within hours. Those who don’t believe it’s Osama won’t be convinced by the photos, anyway.

Why do they have to be released Right Now, anyway? Why not 10 years from now, when the emotional impact of the event has diminished? Photos don’t dissolve if not released within days of being taken.

Posted by supermanasdf | Report as abusive

I support the decision not to show the pictures, since it will only inflame the limited intelligence that reside in the Middle East.

If he were alive new video will be published ty adoring fanatics soon enough.

Its not my terust of government and politicians (I am not one of the limited IQ Middle Easterners that alQuida recruits).

Posted by jatondon | Report as abusive

He’s dead. It’s been over three days. He’s not coming back. Take a picture of that.

Posted by derdutchman | Report as abusive

Obama’s reasoning that he does not want to insight retaliation against USA by showing the photos does not make sense.
Does he think that they won’t retaliate because we killed OBL, but that by showing the photos we will push them over the edge and cause them to get mad?

Posted by ZaphodQB | Report as abusive

I agree with supermanasdf. There is no advantage to showing the image and to refuse to do it is not infantilizing anyone.

Initially I expected to see the photo, and I thought what would be wrong with showing the washed body photo, but when I read what the circle around Obama and he himself felt would be best for the US and for the world, I rapidly changed my mind. The priority is to save more lives from being lost to terrorist behavior. The big plan is to remove terrorism from everyone’s lives and return to a rule of law in all our relationships. Worldwide. The US decision here is for reasons of safety of all people, not just the Americans. To show a photo will definitely not assist in the big game plan to reduce and eliminate terrorist actions.

And if there is another big hit in the States, not having shown the photos can not be dragged out as a reason it happened – America will have the higher moral ground and no muddle about causation of terror strikes would occur. Again this strengthens the overall plan by the US and by all allies and sympathizers amongst the nations of the world to move on from a very ugly stage of global development.

So, to sum up, not showing the photos is the equivalent of starving terrorist organizations and individuals of their oxygen – politically, culturally, religiously, morally. It all helps in the evolution of a world order that disavows the use of terror. These concerns are vastly more important than this blog writer seems to understand.

Posted by CarolineWebb | Report as abusive

I understand and support President Obama’s decision not to release the bloody images of Osama bin Laden, for valid fear of fanning flames”

As if the killing of Osama hasn’t already fanned the flames.


Posted by doctorjay317 | Report as abusive

[…] To sanitize photos is to distort history […]

Posted by Today’s Shared Links for May 5, 2011 – Chuqui 3.0 | Report as abusive

The point is that here that It isn’t against Islam that we are taking a stand. If We look at the following Religions Judaism, Christianity/Catholicism, Islam: Strip away all the Prophets, Son of God etc and you have the one God that ultimately started the Paradigm.

But to be clear, the fight is against, not a religious sect, but Leaders, who would keep their followers ignorant of the truth of their Religion and its True Teachings for the sole purpose of Political Power or Gain. I am not Islamic but I do have Islamic friends. Just as I have who follow Buddhism, Hindu, etc.

We now need to be watchful of who will fill the void that has been created. I spoke to someone today who wanted to see the pictures to justify an IN YOUR FACE approach to Terrorism. What he failed to realize is that by taking this approach, that others may find it offensive and the result is conflict.

As a side note: I find it interesting that Pakistan did not know that Osama resided within their boarders when footage (either mocked up or authentic) showed Pakistani People mourning Osama’s demise! That is for other more politically able people to handle than I.

I have also seen photo’s of death, Real life burn victims from explosions. It’s not a pretty site. It is best to move on and continue with the healing of the wounds of the past.

We can but lead by example to attempt to make the world a better place. In which we can acknowledge conflict between opponents but work toward resolution in less collateral damaging ways.

Posted by villaincostumes | Report as abusive

[…] Also see Deborah Copaken Cogan, who suggests that “to sanitize photos is to distort history.” […]

Posted by The case for releasing the bin Laden death photo « Mark Follman | Report as abusive

In order to bring peace to a conflict we need to show the peace makers the reality of war, photos of the dead, the cry of the innocent, and the war cry of the oppressor.
James Pembroke

Posted by Camerahide | Report as abusive

[…] sight.) But I followed with interest the unfolding saga of the images, from the fakes to those of other people killed in the raid. Initially, my opinions were on the ambivalent side of ‘they probably shouldn’t release […]

Posted by Looking death in the eye || Small Aperture | Report as abusive

The film of innocent people holding hands while jumping from a burning skyscraper is something I only needed to see once. They are seared into my memory forever, even though I have refused to watch 9/11 footage since that day.

The footage of Bin Laden gloating after the attacks is also something I only needed to watch one time.

We cheered the news of Bin Laden’s death not out of jingoism, but out of solidarity with his victims. Was it wrong to celebrate Hitler’s death? Even the Dalai Lama has gone on record as saying that WW2 was a just war. Bin Laden may not have racked up as large a body count as Hitler, but that was simply because he lacked the means, not the will.

Bin Laden didn’t only hijack those planes, he hijacked human progress. He damaged every single person in the world and every person who will ever be born by derailing countless crucial efforts to improve life on this planet. How much better would all our lives be if he had never existed? How much progress could have been made toward peace and coexistence and medicine if he had not caused the diversion of trillions of dollars and the disruption of millions, or even billions, of lives?

We now know that he was actively planning even more attacks, ever trying to kill more and more innocent people, be they Christian, Jew, Atheist, and especially Muslim–who ironically made up the vast majority of his victims. He damaged me, he damaged you, and he wantonly murdered on a global scale.

His death was a legitimate cause for celebration, even with the knowledge that the war he started continues.

Yes, killing serial murderers isn’t pleasant. But celebrating their justified deaths isn’t jingoistic. Confusing the joy felt by this madman’s demise with jingoism reveals a deep immaturity about the concept of right and wrong.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive