September 4th, 2009 by Demophilus
RIP LCPL Joshua Bernard We have been told many things over the years about how we perceive the visual world. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A picture is worth a thousand words. There are, of course, many other such epigrams. Currently, we are seeing the beginnings of a furor over the decision by the Associated Press to go against the wishes of the family involved and publish photos of a dying United States Marine. Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country, AP photographer Julie Jacobsen witnesses and recorded this sacrifice. The editors at AP decided to publish this record, and now we are left to sort out the meaning of it all. War and photography have been inextricably intertwined for well over a hundred years. Matthew Brady’s documentation of the American Civil War and Robert Capa’s iconic images of World War II define as well as anything the public record of those conflicts. Perhaps Capa’s photographs are so iconic of World War II that as a person who experienced that war only through history books, I am always shocked when I remember the war was not fought in Black and White. Photographs are a piece of the record of history, no different in their underlying sense than a written history, or in the oral stories handed down from generation to generation, when people take the time to listen to old soldiers when they wish to share their experiences. Perhaps something in the human psyche attaches more weight to photographs. Maybe we attribute to them a sense of impartiality, that the record is there and unbleached before us, that separates them from the written and subjective word. For whatever reason, they seem to have more substantial gravity in our minds. The problem is that photos freeze a moment in time. Photos lack context. All a photo can show you is one infinitesimally small slice of life. There is nothing before, there is nothing after, and there is only the moment. That’s where people come in. We fill in the context. We put meaning into the empty spaces, the voids the picture leaves out, and we decide what it means. This can be a powerful tool for good, or a destructive tool, it all comes down to the beholder. In World War II, there was much agonizing over the release of photographs of American dead soldiers. When, ultimately, the decision was made to make such photos public, the hope was that the human cost would be driven home-not to stop the fighting, but to strengthen the resolve to see the mission through. It is no secret that war is a destructive, violent and ultimately lethal undertaking. People die. Some of them are your friends, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and compatriots. Some of them are the enemy. Nobody is more cognizant of this aspect of war than the men and women who fight. If you need some underlining on exactly how these things imprint upon those who fight, please see MOTHAX’s article here for a beautiful meditation on how war exists as a world apart. I believe that the intent of journalists who publish such photos is to show what words can’t always show, the seemingly obvious truth that war is ugly. But how do we react to such images? Do they strengthen our resolve and redouble our will to defeat an enemy? Do they convince us that war is bad and that we should all lay down our arms right this minute and stop fighting and doing terrible things to each other? There are as many reactions as there are people. Paradoxically there may be more reactions than there are people. I myself react in multiple ways to such things, on conscious and unconscious levels. Is there a right reaction? Is there a wrong reaction? My deep and abiding disagreement with AP in this matter stems not from the depiction of the terrible last moments of a brave Marine’s life. I have the utmost sympathies for that man’s family, and I do deeply feel their grief. What is so terrible to me about what AP has done here is to do this over the wishes of this man’s family. This removes the common decency from the equation. There are families, I honestly would have wanted mine to do so should I have fallen as such, who would accept the burden of their public grief if it meant that their country’s will to fight was bolstered. That is not a burden that every family can bear though, as we all deal with grief in our own ways. I was raised to respect the grief and burdens of others and not to intrude unduly. I was raised to support the people around me and that as much as anything else drove me to volunteer to become a soldier. I would never fear images so much as I fear how they are used, to what ends they are deployed, and to what aims they are submitted in service to. To abdicate respect for the family involved in this heartrending situation seems to clarify that the intent cannot be to respect the sacrifices of this soldier, but rather to prey upon it to advance a different agenda and that, to me, speaks thousands of words.
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