Whether to take and then to publish photographs of injured, dead, and dying American Servicemen and women remains a deeply troubling and hotly debated issue. The most recent incident involved the Associated Press's decision to release, against the wishes of his family, a photo by Julie Jacobson showing a mortally wounded Marine, Lance Corporal Joshua M. Bernard, being administered to by his comrades in a frantic attempt to save his life. In a letter to Tom Curley, the President of The Associated Press, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expresses outrage typical of those opposing the photo's release. "Why your organization would purposely defy the family's wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy, or Constitutional right -- but judgment and common decency . . . An "unconscionable departure" from the restraint most journalists have shown in covering the military." While some have dismissed Gates' criticism as a poorly disguised attempt to sanitize war by interfering with the public's right to know and the journalistic duty to inform, others argue that in taking and publishing this photo, Jacobson and the AP have crossed a moral line by violating the dignity and right to privacy of Corporal Bernard and his family.
There can be no doubt that since perhaps the First Gulf War controlling what photographs may be taken and published was a reaction to the negative impact photos of injured and dead Americans had upon public support for the Vietnam War. To ensure, therefore, that the public remain supportive, or at least apathetic to the current wars, a decision was made by war's initiators and proponents, that photos must be censored and the citizenry prevented from seeing up close and personal the human cost of war. Pulitzer Prize winning reporter from Vietnam, Sidney Schanberg responds, noting that such pictures are important ". . . if this is going to be a free press democracy (in which) the press operates as a voice for or a window for the public, and the public has a right to know just how bestial and horrible war is. And that's what we're (the press) there for, to tell (and show) people what is going on, and what it feels like and looks like, and smells like where war is happening." Schanberg's point, of course, is that such photos are integral to the press's duty to inform and the public's right to know. The presumption, perhaps hope is better, is that the citizenry will first look at and learn from such photos, and then, once educated, will become socially and politically engaged and better able to make informed decisions about the legality, morality and expediency of war.
But there is clearly more involved here than merely a citizen's right to know and a journalist's duty to inform. Jacobson realizes and expresses in a journal entry the moral difficulty of making the decision to publish such a photo. "Would you as a parent want that image posted for all the world to see? Or even would you want to see how your son died? You'd probably want to remember him in another way." Santiago Lyons, the director of photography at the AP, explained and justified the decision to publish the photo in terms of a journalistic imperative "to show the real effects of this war." Despite recognizing and appreciating the "anguish of the family," and the sacrifice Bernard made for his Country, ". . . the need to tell this story overrode some of the other considerations." I guess, in Lyons view, resolving the moral dilemma was a matter of utility, of weighing prima facie imperatives, of calculating the greater good, and concluding that the "journalistic imperative" to inform and the public's right to know trumped, overrode, the moral imperative -- a concern for the anguish of the family, Bernard's sacrifice, his dignity as a person, and his right to privacy.
Jacobson understood that taking a photo which, despite its blurriness, dimness and graininess, did not mask Corporal Bernard's wounds or the blank expression of shock, horror, or fear on his face, was clearly in violation of the media rules of engagement. In her journal she writes, "I shot images that day well aware that those images could very possibly never see the light of day. In fact I was sure of it . . ." But yet, despite this awareness, she took the photo because, she continues, "To ignore a moment like that simply because of a phrase in section 8, paragraph 1 of some 10-page form would have been wrong."
Sadly, what Jacobson, Lyons and others fail to understand or choose not to recognize, is that the decision whether to take or publish a particular picture is not just about some words on a page. Again Jacobson, "There is a form we signed agreeing to how and what we would cover while embedded. It says we can photograph casualties from a respectable distance and in such a way that the person is not identifiable." These minimal guidelines, this agreement, this contract that Jacobson agreed to and signed, is not some Bush Administration draconian attempt to sterilize war, to hide war's realities from the American citizenry. Nor is it about censoring expression or thwarting the freedom of the press. Rather, requiring not a prohibition against photographing casualties but only that the injured/dead not be identifiable is a reasonable compromise between journalistic reporting, informing the public, portraying the true reality of war, documenting history and the moral obligation to respect the dignity, privacy, and rights of the individual and his/her family. Further, in this case there exists a series of very powerful photographs documenting the incident, including a number of images showing the Marines frantically administering to a mortally wounded, though unidentifiable Bernard. Consequently, the "greater good" that Lyons refers to is not served by, does not require, the release of that particular photograph in which Bernard's face is visible. So the decision whether "to ignore a moment like that," whether to take and to publish the photo, is not about a journalistic imperative. Nor is it about some noble moral stand against sterilizing war and in behalf of the public's right to know. Rather it is about character, integrity, principle, morality and abiding by one's agreements. More importantly, it is about fulfilling an important moral obligation to respect the dignity and the rights of the dying person and his family.
In her journal, Jacobson makes the important observation that under the media rules of engagement, photographers "have no restrictions to shoot or publish (photos of) casualties from opposition forces or even civilian casualties." She then asks the question "Are those people any less human than American or other NATO soldiers?" Clearly, Ms. Jacobson is accurately identifying an inconsistency in our media guidelines. But the conclusion to be drawn from this hypocrisy, however, is not that we should remove all restrictions on what may be photographed but rather that moral consistency demands that we expand them to include a respect for the rights and dignity of all human beings not just our fellow countrymen and allies.