The young soldier died like so many others, ambushed while on patrol in Baghdad. Medics rushed him to a field hospital, but couldn’t get his heart beating again.
What set Army Spc. Travis Babbitt’s last moments in Iraq apart was that he confronted them in front of a journalist’s camera.
An Associated Press photograph of the mortally wounded Babbitt remains a rarity — one of a handful of pictures of dead or dying American service members to be published in this country since the start of the Iraq war more than two years ago.
A review of six prominent U.S. newspapers and the nation’s two most popular newsmagazines during a recent six-month period found almost no pictures from the war zone of Americans killed in action. During that time, 559 Americans and Western allies died. The same publications ran 44 photos from Iraq to represent the thousands of Westerners wounded during that same time.
Many photographers and editors believe they are delivering Americans an incomplete portrait of the violence that has killed 1,797 U.S. service members and their Western allies and wounded 12,516 Americans.
Journalists attribute the relatively bloodless portrayal of the war to a variety of causes — some in their control, others in the hands of the U.S. military, and the most important related to the far-flung nature of the conflict and the way American news outlets perceive their role.
“We in the news business are not doing a very good job of showing our readers what has really happened over there,” said Pim Van Hemmen, assistant managing editor for photography at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.
“Writing in a headline that 1,500 Americans have died doesn’t give you nearly the impact of showing one serviceman who is dead,” Van Hemmen said. “It’s the power of visuals.”
Publishing such photos grabs readers’ attention, but not always in ways that news executives like. When the Star-Ledger and several other papers ran the Babbitt photo in November, their editors were lashed by some readers — who called them cruel, insensitive, even unpatriotic.
Deirdre Sargent, whose husband was deployed to Iraq, e-mailed editors of the News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., that the photo left her “shaking and in tears for hours.” She added: “It was tacky, unprofessional and completely unnecessary.”
Babbitt’s mother, Kathy Hernandez, expressed ambivalent sentiments. “That is not an image you want to see like that,” said Hernandez, still shedding tears of fury and sadness six months after her son’s death. “Your kid is lying like that and there is no way you can get there to help them.”
Hernandez — who lives in Uvalde, Texas, about 80 miles west of San Antonio — wishes the newspapers at least had waited until after her son’s funeral to run the photo. But she has no doubt why they wanted to print it.
“I do think it’s an important thing, for people to see what goes on over there,” Hernandez said in a phone interview. “It throws reality more in your face. And sometimes we can’t help reality.”
In virtually every conflict since the beginning of the 20th century, the debate has been renewed: Do Americans need to see the most vivid pictures of the consequences of war?
One camp has argued against publishing graphic images of U.S. casualties, saying the pictures hurt morale, aid the enemy and intrude on the most intimate moments of human suffering.
Journalists, in contrast, generally have invoked their responsibility as witnesses — believing they must provide an unsanitized portrait of combat.
“There can be horrible images, but war is horrible and we need to understand that,” said Chris Hondros, a veteran war photographer whose pictures are distributed by the Getty Images agency. “I think if we are going to start a war, we ought to be willing to show the consequences of that war.”
Among the most arresting images of the last three years: the charred bodies of American contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallouja, by Khalid Mohammed of the Associated Press; the stoic face of an exhausted U.S. Marine, cigarette dangling from his lip, by Luis Sinco of the Los Angeles Times; the wrenching series of pictures of naked Iraqi prisoners being humiliated at the Abu Ghraib prison, taken by the prison guards; and Hondros’ tableau of blood-stained Iraqi children whose parents had been mistakenly shot to death before their eyes.
So why have photographs of the American dead and wounded been so few and far between?
A wide array of photographers and editors agreed that the most significant reason was logistical.
With a relative handful of photographers at any time covering a nation the size of California, a probing camera is usually absent when a guerrilla attack erupts. Scenes of roadside bombings typically show only a burned-out armored vehicle.
On other occasions, photographers find themselves thwarted by their military handlers. In one case last summer, troops jumped in the way to block pictures of the dead and wounded being rushed to a hospital in Najaf.
Photojournalists sometimes withhold the most striking images from Iraq on their own.
When 22 people died just before Christmas in the bombing of a mess hall near Mosul, a Virginia newspaper photographer was closest to the action. Thrown to the ground amid dead and dying servicemen, he sent many images that ran around the world. But he believed the photos of a soldier who died by his side were too personal, and perhaps too gruesome, to transmit home.
A complex machinery sifts out many other images before they reach print. Photographers embedded with the U.S. military agree not to use photos that show the dead or wounded if faces can be recognized. A rule requiring notification of family members means that some photos are held for so long that they lose their immediate news value. In other cases, stateside photo editors rule pictures too graphic for publication.
None of those decisions goes without scrutiny in a war that has been politically charged since its inception. The Pentagon banned photographs of flag-draped coffins being delivered to the U.S., arguing it was a necessity to protect the privacy of the dead and their families. But war critics said the military imposed the ban (lifted partially with the release of some of the military’s own casket photographs) to obscure the costs of combat.
Veteran photographer Paul Fusco — a liberal whose pictures of soldiers’ funerals appeared early this year in Mother Jones magazine — said he was convinced that controls on war coverage came “straight from the White House” and helped prop up support for an unjustified war.
By contrast, a handful of conservative Internet commentators hammered the Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Associated Press in April. They said the wire service’s 20 winning photos for breaking news (including the one of the 24-year-old Babbitt) bucked up the insurgents and failed to show U.S. troops looking heroic or helpful. The pictures, said a blog called Riding Sun, “portray the American invasion and occupation of Iraq as an unmitigated disaster.”
To measure how American publications have depicted the war in pictures, The Times reviewed six months of coverage from Iraq. The period from Sept. 1 of last year until Feb. 28 of this year included the U.S. assault on Fallouja and the escalating insurgent attacks before January’s election.
Despite the considerable bloodshed during that half-year, readers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Washington Post did not see a single picture of a dead serviceman. The Seattle Times ran a photo three days before Christmas of the covered body of a soldier killed in the mess hall bombing. Neither Time nor Newsweek, the weekly newsmagazines, showed any U.S. battlefield dead during that time.
The New York Times and Los Angeles Times printed the most shots of wounded in the war zone during that time — with 10 each, an average of one every 2 1/2 weeks. The other six publications ran a total of 24 pictures of American wounded.
“I feel we still aren’t seeing the kind of pictures we need to see to tell the American people about this war and the costs of the war,” said Steve Stroud, deputy director of photography at the Los Angeles Times.
Fred Nelson, a photo editor at the Seattle Times, said his newspaper ran graphic photos when necessary to convey the gravity of losses on either side.
“But our readers are incredibly intelligent,” Nelson added. “And I think they can figure it out without us sticking a photo of a bloody body in their face every time it happens.”
American television news also has delivered a relatively blood-free portrait, according to academics who have studied video imagery from the war. A George Washington University survey of about 2,000 TV news segments found that the war had been “sanitized” and rendered “free of bloodshed.”
With relatively few pictures coming from the battlefield, American publications have used photos from the home front in an effort to get the story across.
The Los Angeles Times and the newspapers in St. Louis and Atlanta, in particular, have focused on covering memorial services for soldiers and stories about grieving families.
On more than a dozen occasions, the Washington Post opened full pages inside the newspaper to print “Faces of the Fallen,” with hundreds of portraits of those killed. The New York Times packed similar images into a single edition when the U.S. death toll reached 1,000. Newsweek ran a large color spread on a tank soldier weeping over the death of a crewmate. And Time magazine this spring ran a six-page story with photos by perennial award-winner James Nachtwey, offering an unflinching view of amputees at military hospitals.
American publications typically have run substantially more photos of Iraqi blood spilled, including the New York Times with 55 photos of Iraqis dead or wounded over the six months surveyed, compared with its 10 photos of U.S. casualties.
The Los Angeles Times ran 41 photos of Iraqi casualties and 10 of American wounded. The Washington Post ran 18 Iraqi casualty photos and six of U.S. wounded.
“War kills men, women and children, and we would be remiss if we couldn’t in some way show that this is what happens in war,” said Michele McNally, New York Times director of photography. “It’s our responsibility to bear witness to these events.”
Photographers and editors said pictures of Iraqi losses had been much more prevalent in large part because Iraqis had suffered many more casualties.
But there are other reasons. American editors have less fear that grieving friends and relatives half a world away will have see the traumatic photos. And Iraqi casualty photos can be transmitted without the “hold” restrictions — for notification of family members — that govern photos of American casualties.
When they do show images of casualties on the American side, newspaper executives can count on a backlash. Newark’s Star-Ledger received about two dozen complaints when it ran the picture of Babbitt on its front page.
Complaints to the News Tribune of Tacoma about the “insensitivity” of the photo prompted Executive Editor Dave Zeeck to write an explanatory essay on Page 2 of the main news section. Zeeck told readers that he believed the picture, taken by John Moore of the Associated Press, epitomized the sacrifice of the American soldier.
“We not only have the right, but the responsibility to run such photos,” Zeeck said.
Nearly 20 photographers who have worked in Iraq said in interviews that no factor limited pictures of the bloodshed more than the difficulty in getting to the news.
News organizations have invested millions of dollars in covering the war, but journalists form a thin, broken line when stretched across the vast deserts and mountains of Iraq.
At any given time in recent months, from three to 13 photographers have been on assignment with the military, a U.S. Army official said. And those who remain “in country” find their movements increasingly limited by the violence.
“Compared to the pope’s funeral or Martha Stewart or the Michael Jackson trial, there is nobody here,” said Jim MacMillan, part of the Associated Press’ Pulitzer Prize-winning team of photographers in Iraq. Americans, he said, “are missing the war. The embedded perspective is going vastly undercovered, with some exceptions, and that is the only place you can cover the risk and the price being paid by Americans.”
The conflict in Iraq has produced uncommon displays of bravery and skill from dozens of photographers; that’s the consensus of correspondents who have been there and of those who have covered earlier conflicts.
But like journalists through history, today’s war photographers endure long hours of boredom, punctuated by “crazy adrenaline for perhaps 20 minutes at a time,” said Thomas Dworzak of Magnum Photos, another agency whose photos are distributed widely to the media.
In one six-week period, Dworzak said, the unit he was embedded with engaged in two firefights and suffered two bomb attacks, while violent encounters went unrecorded minutes away.
Digital cameras and satellite communications make it possible to ship pictures from a foxhole at the front. No technological advance, however, can eliminate perhaps the photojournalist’s most difficult terrain — building camaraderie with soldiers while continuing to hold them objectively as subjects.
Many soldiers and officers in Iraq said they came to respect the cameramen and camerawomen who stood beside them through firefights and mortar barrages. But those relationships can fray quickly when things go wrong.
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.”
Although they had not broken any written agreement, both photographers said their Army handlers made it clear they were no longer welcome. They transferred to a Marine unit. (The Army public affairs officer who oversaw the two did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Hondros, the Getty Images photographer, took pictures early this year that provoked a particularly strong reaction. They showed children in the terrifying moments after an Army patrol accidentally shot their parents to death.
Published in Newsweek and several newspapers, the pictures sparked discussion of the military’s rules of engagement with civilian vehicles and provoked an outpouring of aid for the “orphans of Tall Afar.” They also resulted in Hondros being banned from any further work with the unit, part of the 25th Infantry Division.
Officers with the unit, which patrolled the town near the Syrian border, said they thought they had an understanding with the photographer that he would hold the pictures until they could investigate. Hondros said he had made no such agreement.
“The military does hold over your head the ultimate trump card that if you do something they don’t like, they can boot you out,” said Joe Raedle, another war photographer for Getty Images. “But for the most part, it doesn’t keep you from doing your job.”
Though a few photographers relentlessly blare the 1st Amendment clarion, most said they found themselves on the battlefield balancing a more nuanced set of values and emotions.
Dean Hoffmeyer of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia found out how confounding such calculations could become a few days before Christmas, when a suicide bomber attacked the military mess tent where he was waiting in line with dozens of soldiers.
Blasted to the ground, Hoffmeyer pulled himself up and into the chaos of the deadliest attack of the war on any U.S. base. A young man bleeding to death beside him would be one of 22 to die that day.
Despite a broken lens, aperture wide open, Hoffmeyer fired off several frames of the mortally wounded soldier.
He continued taking pictures of the blast scene — images that ran prominently in nearly every American paper in the days to come. But he never transmitted the pictures of the dying GI.
Seeing them weeks later, his editor would describe them as “horrible pictures, wonderfully made.”
The married, churchgoing Hoffmeyer has struggled with the decision ever since. He has gotten plenty of support from other photographers and taken hits from a few others, who suggested he left his best work in his camera.
Hoffmeyer thought the pictures of the soldier — his hand pressed over a neck wound streaming with blood — might be too graphic for publication. If the vivid shots had made the paper, they might have infuriated the Virginia National Guard battalion he had covered, and threatened his plan to catalog the unit’s postwar lives. Finally, he thought how terrible it would be if he ever had to see pictures of his own son, age 9, in such a position.
“I don’t know if what I did was right,” the 41-year-old onetime radio disc jockey said. “But it’s what I felt was right.”
Another photographer on the front line made the opposite decision, but the result for American newspaper readers was much the same.
Stefan Zaklin of European Pressphoto Agency transmitted the picture of a fallen U.S. Army captain during November’s assault on Fallouja. It was apparently the only news picture to be published of one of the dozens of service members who died in the battle.
The photo ran in Thailand’s Bangkok Post, in Paris Match and on the front page of Germany’s Bild-Zeitung, the highest-circulation newspaper in Europe.
The Village Voice in New York became the first American newspaper to print it this week, along with an essay in which Sydney H. Schanberg argued that the war could not be covered while “omitting anything important out of timidity or squeamishness.”
MSNBC.com had briefly posted the shot in November, but took it down after complaints from the officer’s family.
“At first we thought it was a really iconic photo of the terrible violence going on in Iraq,” said Dean Wright, editor in chief of MSNBC.com. But when it appeared the soldier could be recognized, “we thought it was too horrific, because it was more personalized then.”
Many American editors sound the same note as Jeff Schamberry, director of photography for Newsday, the Long Island, N.Y., daily.
“Our policy in general is not to use a picture with a body, a dead person — unless there is a very compelling reason,” Schamberry said.
That’s a marked contrast from the attitude at many foreign publications, which tend to run more pictures of bloodshed, whether from the accident across town or a war across the world.
Scenes of the war’s death and destruction appear routinely in Europe and Asia, according to several journalism analysts. But that coverage has limits. Editors of several English newspapers acknowledged, for instance, that they used pictures of British casualties sparingly.
Nonetheless, foreign news outlets depict more bloodshed, perhaps in part because their audiences have often had closer contact with war and seem less willing to accept sanitized coverage, one U.S. academic said.
“Americans have a view of war that comes out of World War II, that war is a sort of sacred national cause,” said Daniel C. Hallin, a communications professor at UC San Diego, who has conducted extensive reviews of TV war coverage. “We are all supposed to unite around war because these great sacrifices are being made for freedom.”
Even aggressive American photographers sometimes become resigned to the notion that the public might not see their work.
“These pictures are going unseen because editors don’t print them,” Hondros said. “And they don’t print them because readers don’t want to see them.”
But there is some evidence that the public holds a more ambivalent view.
A survey on behalf of Associated Press managing editors questioned 2,461 regular newspaper readers about a series of photos, including the image of the mortally wounded Babbitt.
In the unscientific survey, 59% of the readers said they would have published the Babbitt photo.
“This doesn’t tell me we shouldn’t be there,” reader Rose Barnett of Jacksonville, Fla., said of the photo. “This tells me that this was a brave and kind man to lay his life down for the freedom of others. God rest his soul.”
Times researchers Jacquelyn Cenacveira in Los Angeles, Jenny Jarvie in Atlanta, Lynn Marshall in Seattle and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
American newspapers and newsmagazines have printed few pictures of American casualties. The Times surveyed six newspapers and two newsmagazines for six months for pictures of the dead, wounded and grieving--including funerals, memorials and rehabilitation of the wounded.
Los Angeles Times
New York Times
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Images of Iraqis killed and wounded in the war have been much more common during the six months from Sept. 1, 2004, to Feb. 28, 2005. Editors said there had simply been more Iraqi casualties and that they were less concerned about relatives seeing images published here.
Los Angeles Times
New York Times
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Graphics reporting by Jacquelyn Cenacveira, Lynn Marshall and Jenny Jarvie