I was given the opportunity on Monday to listen to a talk by SMSgt Rex Temple, whom, along with his wife Liisa, founded School Supplies for Afghan Children. He discussed his tour in Afghanistan, the conditions there, and what prompted him to start this project. Some of the information I had known, some of it I had not, and the experience was eye opening. No matter how aware I was of the topic, having it brought to light right in front of me was a different matter.
He also brought along photos. Now this is a realm I have experience with – I have previously delved deeply into war and photography, and how it can be used toward numerous ends. It can add a face of humanity to an enemy, or dehumanize them further, making them into easy antagonists. You may actually recognize this from films – the “bad guys” tend to wear uniforms and masks, making it easy to swallow when our brave hero mercilessly guns them down. Reality is not like that though, and it is a difficult and important job for journalists and war photographers to paint the whole of the situation, and not just one side of reality. And while we might like to draw the line between journalistic media and movies, it is still the case that the general public consumes them both freely, exposed to multiple venues and forms of entertainment, culture, and “real news”. It overlaps and blurs.
Of course, like it or not it is in the interest of governments to control what pictures get painted, to make sure the spin in the favor of their position, whichever that might be. In his book, After Photography, Fred Richtin discusses the topic in depth, specifically in the section “Image, War, Legacy”. During the time between World War II and the Vietnam War photography had just started to become accessible to the masses. Vietnam proved to be the first American battleground in which soldiers and the media could supply an abundance of footage from the front lines. And supply it they did. The push back. was immediate, and the country rebelled against the already disagreeable fight. The American government was quick to try and put a lid on things and mandated stricter policies concerning press. They banned cameras completely in parts of the Gulf War, and in later battles, such as in Iraq, cracked down on photograph of dead troops, citing their privacy, as well as other potentially inflammatory materials. Internal documents show The Pentagon referring to using retired generals as “message force multipliers” or “surrogates” under the banner of media analysts to deliver “themes and messages” to millions of Americans “in the form of their own opinions”, as told by the New York Times.
The Internet proved it’s own level of obstruction to a unified, government propagated image of war, allowing unprecedented amounts of freedom to voices of dissent. By the early 1990’s, access to the web was becoming increasingly available to the general populace, and by the tragedy of 9/11/2001, it has become commonplace. Pictures were released, either sanctioned or not. And yet in the media, after the initial stream of rating inducing footage, war simply fell on the wayside in favor of reality TV, and journalistic integrity was slowly drying up. Less and less is it the interest of the media to portray the truth with integrity as it is for them to make money, so they choose stories to boost ratings. Important information is distorted or abandoned outright if media outlets don’t think it will bring in viewers. As far as the War in Afghanistan is concerned, if people aren’t dying or driving cars off of cliffs, it is seldom released by mainstream media. CNN’s main page online for news of Afghanistan consists of, as of this writing, almost entirely reports of death, attacks, battle, and some mention of Obama’s plans to withdraw troops.
Catherine Cano talks a bit about how TV news channels in Canada and America are becoming increasingly skewed in their broadcasts, fearing boredom by their viewership, abandoning “process” stories in favor of “emotional” material – opinions, natural disasters, and relatable material, so called “soft news”. Large media outlets are accused of bias, in many cases owned by businesses or individuals wishing to push their own agendas – again, for the purpose of making money. A few strong hearts and hands kept the spirit alive, but many abandoned it in favor of ratings.
So the images were there, but no one was looking. And even when we did see them, we could not even be certain of what we were looking at in an era of easy photo-doctoring and an increasingly uneasy relationship with the press. Reuters was famously caught doctoring war images. Nor are they the only ones to do so.
Such a change over even thirty years.
But pictures are important. The images that come out of war-zones are needed, and it is an unsettling thing when the mainstream media cherry-picks it’s content to satisfy it’s pocketbooks. The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words, but there is more to it than exposition. They are evidence of the physical, a body and soul behind the abstract of words. I could try, for instance, to express to you the reality and significance of the war wounded in Afghanistan, or I could simply show you this:
These people still exist, are still being ravaged by conflict and war, and still need help. It is easy to forget about the “real” Afghanistan if all one gets is the information given by the large corporations. It is tempting to dismiss a faceless enemy in a distant battlefield. But we need to remember that there are people there, living in civil war, and there are children without schools or education. And we have an opportunity to help them.
The above picture comes from The Boston Globe’s Big Picture Gallery. To see the rest simply follow this link.