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Nov 07, 2005

Pentagon Pictures, Tall Afar Tales



Something bothering me lately is the recent practice by the LA Times to accompany news stories from Iraq with photos taken by the American military.

The top image appeared in the October 31st edition of the LAT.  Shot by an Army photographer, It depicts a substantial offensive by American troops to gain control of that city.  (So, is this supposed to play up or play down our firepower?)

The second shot appeared yesterday, also in the LAT.  That image was taken by a Marine.  Artful, isn't it?  The scene of this shot is the town of Qaim, a staging area for airstrikes on Husaybah, near the Syrian border.

Because the news from Iraq has been mostly relegated to the back pages, I don't think most people grasp the intensity of the current hostilities.  What's taking place in towns near the Syrian border is an offensive on the same scale as the Falloujah campaign.  According to yesterday's LAT, U.S. warplanes were dropping 500 pound bombs, and a force of about 2,500 American and 1,000 Iraqi soldiers had invaded the town of Husaybah, which has a population of 30,000.

Frankly though, it's getting a little tiresome to read party line scenarios about dramatic actions (punishing counteroffensive) undertaken just before some supposedly corner-turning event (December parlimentary elections) filled with overwhelming expectations (battle convinces population insurgency is futile and they opt for political participation; American troops begin withdrawal).

Making it all the more strange, these news accounts will also include grimly honest items, too, like this comment from Colonel Stephen W. Davis of the Second Marine Division who described this most recent fight by saying: "We don't do a lot of hearts and minds out here because it's irrelevant."

From what I understand, there aren't a lot of journalists on hand.  The NYT has some presence in Husaybah, as does CNN.  With the exception of a paper like the NYT, however, which can afford to hire stringers or underwrite photojournalists, it seems that the military has been all too willing to fill in the visual shortfall.

(Corrected for accuracy: 11/8/05 11:12 pm PST)

(image 1: Pfc. James Wilt/U.S. Army. Tall Afar, Iraq.  October 31, 2005. Los Angeles Times. Story Link. p. A3.  image 2: Jason E. Becksted/U.S. Marine Corps.  November 6, 2005.  Qaim. Los Angeles Times.  p. A9.)


Isn't it handy that the media can use photos by US soldiers and save themselves the cost of sending photojournalists? Outsourcing war photography to the military is a great way to save money and boost corporate profits.

In the top photo, we stand alongside the photographer looking down the barrel of a gun at a damaged building--it looks like people lived and worked there. The front wall has been blown off, presumably by the US military, and on the second floor, what was once a family's home is now exposed and destroyed. Ordinary Iraqis are demonized by these American military offensives. In trying to achieve a military "objective," the Iraqis are objectified, put under surveillance and if found "offensive," ultimately destroyed.

The bottom photo shows how aesthetics can blur or erase an underlying violent truth. As a helicopter descends, guns point back up into the sky. In Iraq, even the air itself is America's enemy.

First photo looks like a video game with you, the viewer (player), as the soldier, weapon ready to be aimed at waiting 'targets'. The second one is interesting in that it shows so little detail, and the black militaristic outlines and shadowed items are more threatening than if it had been shot sunlit.

Col Davis' statement is as truthful as anything I've heard so far from or about Iraq. His job is to administer the judicious and efficient application of lethal force. Hearts and minds are indeed irrelevant by the time Col Davis is called upon.

We were doing much better with hearts and minds when Bay Watch was the tip of the spear.

The top photo recalls the WWII devastation of Europe or nearly any scene from Saving Private Ryan. Is there going to be a Marshall Plan for Iraq? I recently overheard someone talking about postwar food rationing in Britain in *1953*. As Americans we've been so lucky so far.

More propaganda photos. I don't agree that only the NY Times can afford to hire stringers and photojournalists in Iraq. The LA Times and CNN and everybody are parts of vast media conglomerates that could just as well afford a few stringers in Iraq as the NY Times does. The problem is that they don't choose to because it doesn't sell soap powder. As a country the US is very inward focussed. We don't really care that much about what goes on in the rest of the world. That's the irony of the Iraq war. We the people don't give a rat's ass about the people of Iraq who have suffered far more under our guns and bombs than they should have.

The LA TImes doesn't have to use those propaganda photos supplied by the Pentagon. They chose to.

showing pictures like this of israeli soldiers supposedly aiming their weapons at and dropping bombs on "helpless" palestinians is inflammatory, and obviously rooted in an innate anti-semitic bias on the part of the Los Angeles Times.

Actually, the last of real journalists may be because they've been blocked from entering, I believe that's what heppened in Fallujah before they (allegedly) used white phospherous and napalm and then went to the lengths of collecting whole layers of dirt and hauling it away, and pressure hosing down huge areas to disguise evidence.

more info here:

Robert Fisk; "there's only mouse journalism in Iraq"

So this might be the media's answer to a reality in which photojournalists find it dangerous to venture out as well. For even a brave or the most reckless photojournalist why bother since their work is heavily censored in mainstream media anyway.

I see WW II type destruction in these grainy b&w photos.. Is the person on the second floor surrendering or is that gesture one of anger, loss or of futility ? The street walker must be absolutely terrified by Iraq forces patrol vehicle and with the US soldier's rifle aiming in his direction. If I listen closely I can almost make out his internal monologue: Thanks be to Allah I survived this horrendous bombing please help me avoid any bullets. I'm also relating to dus7 comment re video game. This was further reinforced with a soldiers comment on CNN a few hours ago, "We are finding 8-10 insurgents here and there who are DYING TO PLAY."!!!!( could it be that you have to bomb a whole village before you can find some one to play ?)

The second photo presents a more ominous situation as it emphasis 'weapons platforms'. The unidentified vehicle or bldg with windows blow out adds to this feeling. It might also indicate that we are fighting in the dark (which is okay since we have night vision goggles) or we are fighting the forces of darkness (I'm mustn't forget to add those two vital companion words)and evil.

This again brings up the subject of photo/story relationship. How much info is sent "with the photo" and how is that info used in the story? How does the writer/journalist pick the photo to illustrate his story?

Great question, itwasntme. I don't know how war reporting is handled, but in more peaceful circumstances, the writer/journalist never selects the images to go with his/her story. Depending on the publication, in-house staff like editors and art directors choose the art (which they often look at together at a light table in the cocoon of the office and make choices based on editorial considerations, such as how much space there is for art, what in the story needs to be illustrated, what is the quality of the images they have to choose from, etc.). Sometimes, a photographer and writer may be sent to cover a story in tandem, though they aren't attached at the hip in order to do the work. In-house staff, often someone quite low in the hierarchy, also write the captions. There are fact-checkers and copyeditors and proofreaders and designers who may have some input on a story, however minor that input might be. So there is always a layer of people who aren't on the battlefield themselves shaping and presenting a story before we get to see/read it.

It's an editorial decision on the part of the LA Times to use photos taken by the military rather than by a photojournalist for these stories. The "why" behind that decision may be sound or suspect, depending on what drives it. Safety or financial issues may drive that decision. Or some bonehead in a position of power might simply think it would be "cool." The eagle-eyed BAG is correct to pay attention to it, because the "authors" of these photos are not objective, of course.

Further, on photos being similar to WW 11 pics, on second thought, most of those powerful images where taken from the air, primarily I suppose for intelligence and bombing assessments etc. How many air photos exist of Fullujah which will never see the light of day. ( At least for a decade or two, depending perhaps on how this sad story plays out).In the Vietnam conflict we were 'treated'to'rolling thunder runs' and extensive carpet bombing. A Canadian documentary of that time showed pilots gleefully gunning down civilians as if they were bobbing for apples. If we wish to see the real horrors of the present war I'm told they can be found on a porn site. This site as probably most of you have heard about provides soldiers a free subscription in exchange for digital images of the evil doers human remains and human carnage in all its forms, from the front lines of this noble adventure.

According to the latest poll, Jill and Joe Citizen are growing increasingly distrustful of Bush and ever-more disapproving of the war in Iraq. These photos may actually come back to haunt rather than help the military someday. The devastation depicted in the first photo evokes all of the imagery already cited: bombed-to-oblivion cities in WWII, the unending conflict in Israel, violent video games. These are not positive associations for Americans. The soldier, armed to the teeth, is what, 50 times larger than the obviously unarmed people (who are clearly not terrorists but normal Iraqis whose houses were blown to bits) walking through the wreckage? It's a picture of wastefulness in every sense of the word.

The second picture is also an image of wastefulness, and evokes scenes from New Orleans, to my mind. Remember all those news images of helicopters rescuing/not rescuing people stranded on rooftops? Another BAD association, if not an outright flashback for some people. I say, "Keep up the excellent work, Pentagon!"

At least they are attributing the photos to the military, but I wonder if every newspaper does.

The other day my sons were watching a house across the street which was being torn down. (Of course, this was by choice, because they want to rebuild.) It took a lot of time and effort with some kind of construction machinery to get even pieces of the front of the house to break off, so whenever we see these houses destroyed - or at least a large hole taken out - they must have been hit with something pretty powerful. And each house is typically home to several generations as part of a large extended family, but we're never reminded that families are being made homeless. Or that children who are forced to leave these towns are missing a lot of school... we're supposed to believe that these houses are full of "insurgents" and there wouldn't be any "civilians" there. (Like in Afghanistan, when they bomb a compound and pretend to be surprised that there are women and children.)

It's not unusual for military photographs to be released to the public, but they're not used that often in today's civilian media (World War II being the historical exception).

Obviously such images have been approved by the military, but that doesn't necessarily make them any less informative, timely, visually appealing, or objective than images taken by civilian photographers.

The photographer of the gritty On Alert image, U.S. Army Pfc. James Wilt, works with the Public Affairs Office of the 82nd Airborne Division. His articles and photos have appeared many times in Defend America, an online newsletter from the Department of Defense. DA has been showcasing military photojournalism since 2001.

There are over three hundred thousand images by U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Coast Guard photographers referenced online. If you glance through Google's results, you'll see that the vast majority of these shots appear in military and government publications.

Some military-sourced images naturally make their way into mainstream media—Pfc. Wilt's Tall Afar photos have also recently appeared on ABC News and The Detroit News—but not that many show up. (MSM is rightfully concerned about its credibility, which has taken some body blows in the last few years.)

Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing tendency at BNN for broad photographic generalizations, but with scant visual evidence to back them up.

fotonique: I'm not sure which broad generalizations you're referring to exactly, but I think you may be making a generalization or two yourself. Trained journalists and trained soldiers have very different ideas about what the term "objective" means. In the vernacular of journalism (as in other fields, such as science and law), one cannot be "objective" about something one is directly involved in. It doesn't have anything to do with the quality of the results (which your other adjectives "informative, timely, visually appealing" speak to), it has to do with whether one's point of view can remain independent. So while there may well be many very talented photographers who are in the military, they are not "objective" about the war they are photographing and fighting in.

Timmah420, thanks for that information about the use of chemical weapons in Fallujah. I saw your post this morning and was able to watch the show; I don't understand Italian, so I could only make out a little of what was said. In any case, the pictures were horrible...

The website is Rai24News

It was also mentioned in the Independent today: US forces 'used chemical weapons' during assault on city of Fallujah

I forgot to say that the Rai24news website has the video in English, but I haven't seen it yet.

I just wanted to thank the people who were kind enough to give me constructive criticism regarding one of my photos. You have given me a different perspective on my work. I must say, I try to be as objective as possible in my writing and photography. For those who think I am taking propoganda photos, you are wrong. I try to show the reality of the situation here. I was trying to show people what the paratroopers see here everyday in the photo. The viewer can look down the barrel and have the same view our servicemembers have day in and day out. If you look at the picture, you can tell the barrel of the weapon is nowhere near the pedestrian on the street. The paratrooper was in a defensive position protecting his officer who was talking to Iraqi workers, ensuring they were getting paid. Also, if the people who felt the need to speak poorly about Armed Forces photographers obviously hasn't researched any of our work. I have released photos that have showed the plight of Iraqi children here. I release them in an attempt to gain support from the world populace to aid the children. Next time you feel the need to take a photo from a Military journalist and pick it apart, don't. Look at it for what it is, a photo of Iraq. And maybe if you see some poor child in the photo you'll take the time to find out how to donate books and money to them instead of pretending to understand the plight of a people you never met in a place you have never been. It won't be tommorow, but one day the Iraqi people will rise as a nation in the world.
All the Way!
PFC James Wilt

PFC James Wilt, it's nice that you stopped by to give us your perspective.

I can see that the soldier is not aiming exactly at the man, but it would take a split second for him to move it to target the man. Don't you agree that the guy is probably scared that something might happen to make the gun turn on him?

I live in Kuwait, and I remember during the runup to the Iraqi invasion, we'd drive down the highway next to various U.S. military vehicles, and there would be a soldier in the hatch of each one, pointing his rifle and looking around for anything suspicious, I guess. I wasn't doing anything wrong, but it made me VERY nervous, because any loud bang or suspicious movement might have made him react. (Just one example: One guy was driving an old car which backfired in the vicinity of some military vehicle, and he had quite a hard time convincing the police that he didn't fire on them.) Since I wear Islamic dress and my husband has a big beard, I figured he might just find us suspicious.

And that was in Kuwait. So imagine a young male Iraqi who's in the middle of a combat zone, where every man is considered an enemy combatant.

By the way, it seems that a lot of Iraqi people are rising up - but maybe not the way you meant.

To James Wilt, thanks for posting. Your input is very important to me. I commend your bringing us a view of what is going on as objectively as possible. However, I think that the gun IS very near the pedestrian on the street, and that the soldiers posture cannot be easily seen as "defensive" by us here at home. I guess ya gotta be aware of nuances like this to interpret these photos, so thanks again for writing. Do you know if a donation to Red Crescent would get books to kids in Iraq? How could we get arabic books or other items needed for that culture to the people? Other than dropping something by plane, I mean.

...and I forgot to mention my fear that if I sent something to an Arabic organization there, I might be targeted by my own government as a suspicious person worth taking a second look at where I post, and who I email...

James, is there a collection of your (and other military photographers') photos on the web somewhere?

Please post and comment here in the future, if you can.

itwasntme, I don't think anyone is gonna care too much about some small schmuck who donates $5.00 to the Red Crescent. Since you don't seem to know how to google yourself I am providing the link to the international red crescent below...I am sure that these contacts could answer your questions.


Can you direct me to a source which provides a wide range of photos of the destruction in Fullujah from the AIR. I would really appreciate getting this type of perspective...thanks

Annette, my dear, I have taken offense. Perhaps you did not detect the irony in my tone about dropping "things" from airplanes, or in my gratuitous mention of my government spying on its own citizens. Something about your slap-dash assumption that my contribution would be a small one assumes things about me that you do not know. Peace.


I took up your invitation and didn't get to check all of the "over 300,000 images" but I did peruse more than 300. Beautiful weapons, happy soldiers often with equally happy children and so on...
If I were 18 I would join up immediately if this and the mainstream US media were my primary sources of information.
Residing in a British Commonwealth Country (part of the diminished Empire) after the Korean war, at 17 I caught 'the patriotic bug' and became a weekend end warrior contemplating full time service. After five years as a cadet in a private school which emphasized King, Country, Duty (military)I was obviously well primed. Fortunately friends helped me make a better decision but it took them two years to do so.
Don't get me wrong I'm not against military service as long as it serves within the borders of the country it defends.
With extremely rare exceptions and there are none that I have observed since 1945 which have warranted foreign armies in foreign countries. (Many other options really do exist to deal with conflicts )
If we must have armies I think the Swiss Model is an excellent one.
For military addicts it could serve as as a gradual therapeutic withdrawal program from this deadly addiction.

It is in this light that I take such a keen interest in analyzing images and reports. As I become better informed perhaps I can help 'street proof' my younger friends to assist them from making rash, ill informed or 'patriotic decisions' based more on emotion rather than on reason. (As and if they should check out those 300,000 images they may do so with a more informed vision)

I enjoy your critiques, have patience with we who are inclined "to generalization with scant visual evidence"... there may be more things about, than readily meets the eye.

PFC James Wilt said: "Next time you feel the need to take a photo from a Military journalist and pick it apart, don't."

Next time you visit, Mr. Wilt, make sure you come prepared for verbal small-arms fire. It's one of the unpredictable dangers in a society where people are free to pick things apart if they feel they need to.

I genuinely appreciate your efforts on behalf of Iraqi children, and to be quite frank, I think it's the least you can do. I have a question for you: How much did you know about the "plight" of Iraqi children before the U.S.-led invasion of their country? Also, do you have any accurate figures for how many Iraqi parents have been killed by U.S.-led actions since the 2003 invasion? I ask because of an exhibit I recently saw that's presently touring the East Coast. It's called "Eyes Wide Open: An Exhibition on the Human Cost of the Iraq War." You should check it out. It's quite affecting.

You, too, fotonique. Here's a handy URL:
The website lists the dates and cities of the tour, plus you can sign up for e-mail updates. I highly recommend that everyone try to see it.

With all due respect and genuine appreciation for your insightful past comments I hope you will accept this observation of mine in the spirit in which its intended, in good humour.
You may have blownagasketalready over PFC James Wilt for he is given the photo credit by BagnewsNotes and those are his remarks to which you responded.
You advice is excellent but I don't think he would at this point in his military career wish to follow them.
There are times when denial or illusion are necessary to spare one the pain of confronting reality
I do hope he will accept your critical remarks for it takes gonads to come on this site especially when on active duty as I assume this soldier is.

jt from BC: I first want to say, you are a thoughtful and careful writer yourself, and I appreciate your kind, prefatory comments. I do realize that PFC James Wilt is the photographer of the first photograph posted above. I also realize that I am challenging his comments directly. It is my intention to do so, to illustrate (rather than explain) what free speech in a democratic society really means. It means that not everyone thinks the way you do. If the experiment in exporting democracy by brute force succeeds in the Gulf, the citizens of Iraq may someday articulate some opinions we won't like or agree with.

I am opposed to the war in Iraq, and I have always been opposed to it. As long as my country keeps bombing the shit out of living human beings, I am going to speak up about it until we stop. A PFC in front of someone's name means he is my representative in this war that I oppose. I don't expect to change his or anyone's mind about the validity of war, but I am going to take any opportunity to present another point of view if someone is willing to consider it. If I have to present it vigorously to get someone to notice it even exists, I will.

The website I referenced has pictures of the various tour sites of the Eyes Wide Open exhibit. In Indiana, for example, you will see a photograph of soldiers, not just civilians, who dared to see this exhibit. They had the gonads to go look; maybe PFC Wilt will at least look at the website.

ummabdulla and itwasntme: In my haste to post I neglected to say that I think you both articulated vivid points for PFC Wilt (or anyone) to consider; thank you for views that are complex and considered. They show that one's perspective depends dramatically on which way the gun barrel is pointing and whose finger controls the trigger.

How clever, I should have surmised you were holding on to an ace, what excellent purpose and timing you demonstrated in playing it.

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