On June 26, Zoriah Miller made a decision that may have saved his life. He also made a decision that cost him his job.
One of only a handful of Western photojournalists in Iraq, Miller chose not to accompany several Marines to what sounded like a routine city council meeting in Garma in Anbar Province. He opted to stay with Company E of the Second Battalion, Third Marine Regiment, as they patrolled nearby.
The council meeting was anything but routine. A suicide bomber killed 20 people, including three Marines, and Miller and the patrol were the first on the scene.
Recording the carnage
For about 10 minutes Miller took photographs while the Marines responded to the chaos, and then he was told to leave. Later that day, the Marines considered taking his photo memory cards but were advised not to.
For the next three days, Miller edited his photographs, wrote text explaining the event, and showed both to the Marines in his embed.
According to Miller, the men of Company E said that the photographs and text were dignified and respectful. Miller felt confident that he had observed the rules for embedded photographers: waiting until the families of the dead and wounded had been notified, keeping identifying information out of the pictures, making sure security wasn't compromised.
Within hours of uploading the photographs and text to his blog, Miller was disembedded on the grounds that he had given the enemy information about the effectiveness of the attack.
Miller protested that nothing in his blog gave new information – that the mainstream media had already reported the details – but the chain of command escorted him from his post.
He shouldn't have been surprised. Other photojournalists in Iraq who have published photographs of dead soldiers have also been disembedded – retribution, they say, for showing the cost of an unpopular war.
Miller shouldn't have been surprised by the public reaction, either. He has been vilified, threatened and mocked, and also praised and called a hero. Political conservatives have been more critical than civil libertarians and journalists, though members of the military have been on both sides – either upset at what they perceive as disrespect or appreciative that their story is being told.
Both reactions have dogged photojournalism since its beginning.
During the Civil War, Mathew Brady equipped a wagon with supplies to develop photographic plates on battlefields and hired several assistants to follow the Northern troops. After the Battle of Antietam in 1862, Brady displayed graphic photographs in his Manhattan art gallery. The New York Times printed an editorial that feels timely today:
“Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. ....These pictures have a terrible distinctness. By the aid of a magnifying-glass, the very features of the slain may be distinguished. We would scarce choose to be in the gallery, when one of the women bending over them should recognize a husband, a son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies that lie ready for the gaping trenches.”
Sociologist Paul Joseph points out that photographs of the trenches of WWI did not appear until the war was over, and no photographs of wounded or dead American soldiers were printed until almost two years after Pearl Harbor.
In 1943 national leaders decided to use photography to help explain the sacrifices the American public was being asked to make.
“The public could see bodies from World War II battlefields because Washington was confident that U.S. citizens would think that the killing, while certainly sad, was also necessary in the context of a just fight against fascism,” Joseph wrote in the 2006 fall issue of Tufts Magazine. “Government officials no longer think that the public will come to the same conclusion.”
Joseph also wrote that “explicit pictures do not automatically create opposition to war but on balance lend weight in that direction,” which explains why an administration managing an unpopular war would attempt to censor photojournalists such as Zoriah Miller.
Public grows weary
Even those who argue that the public's right to know trumps our private concern with grief often grow weary of the images of war.
After the Civil War, for instance, the public stopped attending exhibitions of battle photography. Mathew Brady was saddled with the debt he had acquired equipping wagons and paying assistants and was forced to sell for scrap his glass negatives, many of them ending up as greenhouse windows or glass eyepieces in the gas masks used later in WWI.
More enduring are the issues he raised with the creation of photojournalism itself – balancing the competing desires for privacy and knowledge, defining what we mean by truth, recognizing the power of images in shaping our view of war.