MIT OCW Documentary Photography Class — Writing Assignment 4

“Shooters – When Is The Photojournalist A Voyeur, Rather Than A Reporter With A Camera”
Using examples from Requiem, consider whether a photojournalist, covering genuine news – as opposed to celebrity stalking – can go too far? Are there some things that should not be photographed? Are there areas of privacy in the most public of arenas? Where does the photographer cease being a photographer, and start being a human being?


These are very broad questions to answer using examples from Requiem. It only covers the topic of war and only the Vietnam war.

Can a photojournalist go too far? From a personal risk standpoint, I don’t think so as long as the person understands the risks. The photo of Dickey Chapelle receiving last rites by Henri Huet says it best. She understood the risks — she had been working as a photojournalist covering war since Iwo Jima — and accepted them.

U.S. Marine Corps chaplain John Monamara of Boston administers the last rites to war correspondent Dickey Chapelle.  HENRI HUET, Chu Lai, Vietnam, 1965 -- AP

U.S. Marine Corps chaplain John Monamara of Boston administers the last rites to war correspondent Dickey Chapelle. HENRI HUET, Chu Lai, Vietnam, 1965 — AP


Can a photojournalist go too far with regard to the content of his or her images? Again, I don’t think so. An editor can decide what photos are suitable for publication depending on the audience but should stop short of censorship. The armed forces, at least in the United States, had careful control over the media until Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, people were able to see for themselves how ugly, cruel, and wasteful war is and it made the difference in turning popular support away from the war. The military-industrial-congressional complex learned its lesson from Vietnam and reasserted control over information flowing from conflicts. There are a few, but how many of us have seen combat photographs from Grenada, Panama, or the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, even after NATO became involved?

Encouraged by the success of tight press control in Grenada and Panama, the military “pooled” journalists into specific units under the watchful eyes of Public Affairs Officers (PAOs) during the 1991 Gulf War. One of the few non-video-game-style photos to make it out is an image of an incinerated Iraqi soldier by Kenneth Jarecke. It was refused by Time and the Associated Press, not because of military pressure, but for editorial reasons. It was published by the Observer in the United Kingdom and Libération in France but wasn’t seen in the United States until American Photo ran it months after it might have made an impact.

The same tactics were used in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq by “embedding” journalists in specific units. This is a stark contrast to a photographer being able to hop a ride on a Huey to the action in Vietnam.

Three things have made military control of the press less successful in recent conflicts: the long durations of both wars, the ubiquity of inexpensive, high quality cameras, and the internet. People get tired and make mistakes and the longer a conflict lasts, the more photos there are to leak to the public. Not counting military cameras, there is probably one camera for every US soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. Phones and point-and-shoot digital cameras are everywhere — the sheer number of images guarantees that some will make it past military censorship. Not every access point, satellite uplink, or cellular connection can be controlled by the military; pop a memory card into a PC in a cybercafe in Kabul and a photo is on social media, viewable globally, in seconds.

A photojournalist cannot go too far. The military will try to censor him, someone with a camera phone will scoop him, right-wing media will demonize him, and liberal media will be too afraid of losing access to run the photo. Self-censorship by photojournalists is redundant.

Are there some things that should not be photographed? First, specific tactics or strategies should not be photographed or at least not published immediately. If an enemy has a specific vulnerability, that information should not be published until after the end of hostilities. Conversely, if a photographer has an image that shows a vulnerability in our methods or equipment, it should remain unpublished to afford an opportunity to fix it. This has worked well in the cyber-security realm; release information to the software maker first. A deadline for public release of a hack puts pressure on them to do something.

Second is classified information. Many things, as we’ve learned via Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, were classified because they are illegal or embarrassing and not because they contain national security information. Photographers Dana Stone and Sean Flynn disappeared in Cambodia on 6 April 1970, three weeks before President Nixon announced expansion of the war into Cambodia. A week before the announcement, Secretary of State Rogers told congress, “We recognize that if we escalate and get involved in Cambodia with our ground troops that our whole program is defeated.” Documents declassified in 2000 show that there were bombings in Laos and Cambodia as early as 1965. Who knows what Stone and Flynn might have been able to reveal had they made it back.

Are there areas of privacy in the most public of arenas? There are, or at least, there should be. A celebrity showing that the carpet matches the drapes while getting out of a limousine at a public event is different from a bombing victim lying in the street with her dress up around her waist. A photojournalist needs to get the shot but that doesn’t mean it can’t be cropped or strategically blurred. Going back to Huet’s shot of Chapelle, it shows that one can get the shot while being sensitive to the emotional impact of the moment.

Where does the photographer cease being a photographer, and start being a human being? Hopefully, a photographer is always human. Larry Burrows’ sequence covering Marine helicopter Yankee Papa 13 wouldn’t have been so moving without his humanity. He had no way of knowing how it would turn out when he started following Crew Chief James Farley. The first photos, from the briefing to touchdown are all business; even macho. The desperate race to try and save the crew of another Marine helicopter erodes the tough facade. The sequence ends with Farley alone in a supply shack, ashamed of his tears but unable to stop them.

Yankee Papa 13 crew chief James Farley carries M-60 machine guns to the helicopter.  LARRY BURROWS, Near Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965  -- Larry Burrows—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Yankee Papa 13 crew chief James Farley carries M-60 machine guns to the helicopter. LARRY BURROWS, Near Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965 — Larry Burrows—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In a supply shack, hands covering his face, an exhausted, worn James Farley gives way to grief.  LARRY BURROWS, Near Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965 -- Larry Burrows—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In a supply shack, hands covering his face, an exhausted, worn James Farley gives way to grief. LARRY BURROWS, Near Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965 — Larry Burrows—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images




The book: Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina
Up to 10% of Amazon purchases made with this link go to MIT OpenCourseWare.
Course link
Wikipedia entries for Dickey Chapelle, Henri Huet, and Larry Burrows.
The full sequence of “ONE RIDE WITH YANKEE PAPA 13” from Life Magazine.
The War Photo No One Would Publish by The Atlantic on Kenneth Jarecke’s photo.