Brokering the Power of the Image

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THROUGH THEIR EYES: This image from 9/11 still haunts me

Looking at dozens of photographs for our D-day special this week, I was struck by how vividly the images caught the chaos of that famous day, a day that claimed the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers. And then I noticed something else: there are very few images that show the casualties. As it turns out, the goriest images were censored, and many pictures of American soldiers killed in combat were not allowed to be shown until later.

How times have changed. Since Gulf War II began, I've looked at thousands of pictures from the battlefront. We've published dozens of them across two-page spreads, including the now famous hospital photograph of Ali, an Iraqi boy who lost both arms in a U.S. bombing. We've never tried to prettify war. Sometimes, however, I saw remarkable images that I felt were too graphic to print in TIME. Case in point: a series of photos taken last spring of U.S. soldiers carefully picking up limbs of dead Iraqis after a battle northwest of Baghdad.

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This is not the first time, of course, that TIME editors have weighed the challenge of showing the consequences of war while keeping the sensibilities of our readers in mind. We faced that issue in 1983, when we covered the invasion of Grenada and the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, and in 1993, when Somali rebels ambushed U.S. troops and dragged the body of an American soldier through the streets of Mogadishu. In each case, we ran photographs that upset some readers but refrained from publishing the most brutal ones. We felt that what we presented to our readers did justice to the tragedies, but not in a gratuitous way.

It is not just a matter of when to show the body of a dead American soldier; we've wrestled with what is appropriate to show when covering the carnage in Rwanda in the mid-1990s, when hundreds of thousands of Tutsi were massacred by the Hutu, and during the recent uprising in Haiti, when I viewed photographs of bodies piled up in morgues that were among the most unsettling images I've ever seen. (In that particular case, photographs of the chaos on Port-au-Prince's streets were so vivid that I chose to use them to illustrate the story.)

Yet it is also undeniable that the task of deciding what photos to run in TIME has grown much more difficult in the wake of 9/11. In putting together our special issue on the World Trade Center attacks, I considered whether we should use photographs of the many victims who jumped out of windows rather than stay behind and be burned to death. I ultimately decided to go with a single photograph taken from a far distance of several people falling through the air; other publications ran close-ups of a man making the same fatal leap. I'm not saying that one decision is right and the other wrong but only that my sensibility led me to pick one over the other.

The past few weeks have been especially challenging, starting with the four Americans ambushed, killed and burned beyond recognition in Fallujah. The story was covered extensively on TV and in the newspapers, with many outlets giving prominent display to two dismembered and charred bodies hanging from a bridge. Since that image was so widely seen, I chose a much less familiar one: a group of Iraqis pointing to two victims on the ground absent the frenzied mobs playing to the cameras. By my lights, this photo, with its matter-of-fact air, is as chilling as the scene that received saturation coverage.

There was never any question about whether to run the abuse pictures from Abu Ghraib. After all, these photographs did not simply illustrate a story; they were the story, and we did as others did, blurring the genitals of the prisoners but otherwise showing what the world saw. For the cover image, we chose not to run a picture but instead asked artist Matt Mahurin to do an illustration of a hooded prisoner with his hands tied behind his back, a haunting image that captured the drama of the moment better than any single photograph could.

We did not, however, print a picture of the actual beheading of Nicholas Berg, just as we did not publish a photograph of the severed head of Daniel Pearl two years ago. These images are widely available on the Internet, and, obviously, those who committed these atrocities did so in order to attract publicity. Photographs of Berg and Pearl taken just before their deaths told the horror of the story well enough for our readers without playing into the hands of the killers.

I share these thoughts not just to assure you that we take picture selection very seriously but also to shed light on how my colleagues and I think about photography. There are few set rules; ultimately, picking a picture comes down to instinct and taste, and we try to keep your sensibilities in mind as well as our own. I'm struck often, by the way, by the emotional impact of the more subtle images. I've seen pictures of the planes hitting the World Trade Center hundreds of times, but none affect me quite the way the photograph on this page does, which we ran in our special issue: two women on the street, one with her hand over her eyes and the other with her mouth covered, her eyeglasses catching a glint of the tragedy. The scene perfectly captures the reactions of so many of us, then and now.