Thursday, 3 May 2012

War of Images

Marines recruitment brochure, 2012 © Michael Christopher Brown

This week I gave a presentation at the School of Visual Communication, Ohio University, where I attended graduate school. While having dinner one night at a Pita Pit sandwich shop I saw brochures advertising the Marines. As I was at OU to show imagery from the Libyan war, the brochures peaked my interest.

Marines recruitment brochure, 2012 © Michael Christopher Brown


There were images of young soldiers firing weaponry and training in hand to hand combat, with strong, aggressive expressions on their faces. But I immediately noticed there was something missing, as these were not pictures of war. The images were of training exercises, and represented best case scenarios a Marine might encounter while engaged in combat. The imagery focused on life and achievement as a Marine but they did not show a potential cadet what he would likely see during battle: death and loss.

Marines recruitment brochure, 2012 © Michael Christopher Brown

I thought of the image photographer Julie Jacobson made in Afghanistan in 2009, of a soldier who was mortally wounded by an RPG fired by Taliban. This image created a big stink with the State Department, who tried to get the AP to pull the photo off the wire. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sent a letter to the Associated Press, saying "Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front pages of multiple American newspapers is appalling." It would cause the family "yet more anguish."' It was a smart approach, it worked and it continues to this day, using the family as an excuse to not publish the truth: newspapers such as the Washington Post decided not to publish the picture in print due to its "graphic content." But I am sure if Gates had encouraged the family to let the image run, if he would have told them that people in this country need to know what happens in our wars, that the family might have felt they were doing a service to their country. As AP director of photography Santiago Lyon said: "It is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is."

Marines recruitment brochure, 2012 © Michael Christopher Brown


But what Gates and our top brass know is if we let the press publish this imagery, along with the much more horrific imagery that exists in war, our now confused and numb citizens would be so shocked they might rise up and force our government to end the war, just like they did with Vietnam. I was not alive during that war but it was then our government learned the power of photography. So ever since then photographers have rarely been able to publish, or even photograph, real war. Instead there are forms a photographer must sign to embed with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, forms which prevent photographers from showing the horrors of war and basically anything else that might stir the air of optimism, created by U.S. brass, that hangs over Afghanistan.

Marines recruitment brochure, 2012 © Michael Christopher Brown


Of course, fewer Americans would support the war efforts of our country if we were visually reminded of the real costs. But we are never given that terrible reality of war, not even in The New York Times. There are no real visuals of war which would confirm the existence of that horror. So we forget that the dead and injured, fighters and civilians, have a face. We see their names in the newspaper then finish our coffee without ever seeing what really happened to them. No wonder we do not care in mass as we should.

Marines recruitment brochure, 2012 © Michael Christopher Brown


One of the Pita Pit workers, no older than 20, told me if I was interested I could visit the local Marine representative in the morning. Guess he thought I was younger than I am, but he proceeded to mention all the benefits of serving and was excited that his school would eventually be paid for. When I asked him if he would see the front lines while enlisted he said he would most likely be a  mechanical engineer stationed at a base, but that he might see the front lines at some point.  But I wonder if he would have enrolled if Julie's marine had been on one of the brochures? If he knew what war really was. Then, even if he knew he would never see the front line, I wonder if images such as Julie's would at least make him ask questions and wonder just what he would be fighting for.

Marines recruitment brochure, 2012 © Michael Christopher Brown


Michael Christopher Brown (Foam Magazine #27/Report)

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