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Digital cameras change perception of war

The explosive photos of abuse in an Iraqi prison drive home how much digital photography, coupled with the Internet, expose dark corners previously hidden from view.
This now-infamous photograph of a U.S. soldier and a naked Iraqi detainee was one of hundreds of digital images obtained by the Washington Post from Iraq.Courtesy of The Washington Post
/ Source: The Associated Press

The explosive photos of abuse in an Iraqi prison drive home a defining fact of 21st century life — that the pervasiveness of digital photography and the speed of the Internet make it easier to see into dark corners previously out of reach for the mass media.

Some of the most shocking or memorable photos from the Iraq war were almost certainly taken by soldiers or government contractors — and zipped around the world with an ease that never existed in the days of film.

“With the technology now, the amateur photographer is as capable as a professional journalist and is operating with the same tools: Digital camera, laptop and an Internet connection,” said Keith W. Jenkins, photo editor of the Washington Post Magazine.

“The embedded process was supposed to give government a better handle on what journalists were doing, but now you have this whole rogue operation of civilians with digital cameras who have access to things the media don’t,” he said.

Photos from Abu Ghraib prison of hooded, naked Iraqi men piled in a pyramid near a grinning American captor and a hooded man standing with wires running from his outstretched arms have caused an international uproar since they first appeared on CBS last week.

The New Yorker magazine published similar photos. While CBS did not return calls, The New Yorker confirmed the photos were shot with a digital camera, though it did not disclose the source.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that it had obtained 1,000 digital images from Iraq, some of them showing prisoners being abused and humiliated.

“The iconic images coming out of this war may be the amateur photographs of Iraqi prisoners,” said Peter Howe, the former director of photography for Life magazine and curator of an exhibit on the Iraq war now running at the International Center of Photography in New York.

Soldiers in Iraq commonly have laptops and digital cameras, said Sheryl Mendez, New York photo editor of US News and World Report magazine, who has spent four months in Iraq covering the war. When she took photos of soldiers, one immediately burned them onto a CD and passed it around to his battalion.

Ease of use improves quality of images
Because digital cameras have features like automatic focus, they have made it easy for anyone to take technically good photographs. “You no longer have to have someone standing in bright sunlight to get a good picture of them,” Howe said.

Combine that with Internet connections that have made it easy to send pictures in seconds, and images of the war that previously might not have been seen have found an enormous international audience.

A civilian contractor in Kuwait, Tami Silicio, broke a Pentagon ban on unofficial photographs of soldiers’ coffins when she shot two images with an inexpensive Nikon Coolpix camera and e-mailed them to a friend last month, hoping to show the dignity and care given American war dead.

The friend called The Seattle Times’ photo editor, Barry Fitzsimmons, then forwarded him the photos.

“It was one of those one-in-a-thousand calls you get,” Fitzsimmons said. “The next day I got a picture of a bird in a tree.”

He talked to Silicio in Kuwait. “I said, ‘You have to realize what you have, what could happen, and why we don’t have pictures like this,”’ he said.

After one of the pictures ran on the front page of The Seattle Times and were picked up by other papers, Silicio and her husband were fired from their jobs in Kuwait.

“Look at what this picture has done,” Fitzsimmons said. “It’s internationally known. It may make a lot of changes in how things are done in the military, in terms of dealing with the media.”

Amateur war photography is as almost as old as photography itself. During World War I, the army would execute soldiers who took photographs, Howe said.

While that step is obviously extreme by today’s standards, perhaps the military, eager to manage public perceptions, might begin confiscating cameras of soldiers and contractors, Jenkins said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened,” Jenkins said. “The images that are forcing the government to do things are coming out of very unlikely places.”