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Waiting for a Clear Picture To Emerge

After Two Years, the View From Iraq

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page D01

After two years and more than 1,500 U.S. casualties in a war that has been perhaps the best documented in history, no single photograph from the hostilities in Iraq has emerged as iconic. Images arrive, vie for our attention and are contradicted or superseded by other more immediate images. The red glare of shock and awe, the orange haze of sandstorms in the early weeks of war, the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein, the speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier -- all of these moments, captured in photographs or video, belong to what feels like a prehistory of what we have now, a long grind with continuing destruction and a failing attention span for the daily death toll. Only a few images from the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib have forced themselves repeatedly on our attention, and even those have faded (here) as our attention turns elsewhere and the U.S. government prosecutes a few low-level offenders.

Despite heroic efforts of photojournalists to document the challenges and successes of the long grind of occupation, no one has captured a picture that has anything like the power of Nick Ut's photograph of a naked girl fleeing a napalm strike in Vietnam (could it be published in a "family" newspaper today?) or Joe Rosenthal's image of the flag raised on Iwo Jima. Those images captured -- or helped crystallize -- a consensus about the wars they represented, a consensus that has yet to emerge about the war in Iraq.


The toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in April 2003 and President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" photo-op weeks later seemed to be defining images of the war in Iraq, but their significance has been dimmed by subsequent, and ongoing, events. (Reuters)

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Visually, most of the past two years of war in Iraq has come to us through a process of photographic metonymy -- that is, through a series of substitutions that get us close, but not too close, to the real thing. In literature, metonymy (the substitute of an attribute of something, or closely related object, for the thing itself) is so familiar we hardly need a fancy word for it. "The pen is mightier than the sword" is one of innumerable examples. Of course, pens (which stand for the media) aren't mightier than swords (which stand for the power of political coercion and the military), but the meaning is clear, and this sort of condensation and substitution, we were all taught in grade school, is the essence of poetic language.

Photographs of the war in Iraq have become a stylized series of metonyms. Blood on the pavement substitutes for the mangled body. Shoes, clothing, coffins all stand in for the dead. Mangled cars stand in for mangled bodies. Survivors are photographed in a way that hints at the greater object of concern, those who died. The sum total of these substitutions feels, at times, like a theater without actors, a set of props and costumes and extras milling about, without hint of what the real drama is meant to be. In Greek tragedy, death almost always took place offstage, after which a representation of the corpse was wheeled out on a platform known as the eccyclema. In an effort to balance good taste with truth, the photograph has become an eccyclema of sorts, a euphemistic vehicle for what we all know is happening offstage, over there.

The dilemma of photographers, and the people who make decisions about what images will appear in newspapers, is obvious. Bombings are random and often all that's left for the photographer to document is the aftermath. And a straight-on view of the carnage in Iraq would almost certainly run afoul of the basic standards of taste that govern what appears in a contemporary newspaper.

We like to tell ourselves that suggesting can be more powerful than showing, that the same poetic concentration that occurs in linguistic metonymy also applies in the photographic kind. If nothing else, it deflects the argument that by not showing the graphic truth of the war, journalists are shirking their responsibility to full coverage. If the tastefully allusive image is, like poetic metonymy, more powerful than the straightforward image, then no essential truth has been shaded or suppressed.

But it's not clear that this is true. The most powerful photographs of war -- Eddie Adams's Pulitzer-prize winning photograph of a Viet Cong prisoner executed on a street, Robert Capa's image of a Republican soldier felled in the Spanish Civil War -- remain ones that show directly the moment of death, the destruction of the body or the mortal remains. By contrast, the metonymic images of this war are becoming thinner, more generic, rather than denser and more intense. They fall into categories -- man weeping, car burning, women running, soldiers patrolling -- without any single image rising above the lot.

And the effect of this generalization of the war, and its slow migration off the front page, is that the war has become difficult to see. The headlines are a low-level noise of familiar words -- bombing, blast, suicide, flattened, ripped, rocked -- merely rearranged, day after day. And the language of visual suggestion has worn so thin that the usual division of labor, in reading war photographs, has broken down: Great photographs work on us -- they sear us, shatter us, devastate us -- but now we must work on the photograph, remember to feel something, to imagine what can only be implied, to note, for the record, that this substitute image, like the body on the eccyclema, stands for a real death we cannot see.

The past two years have offered us multiple hopeful narratives for the war, and there are new hopes that the insurgency may be subsiding. There was the narrative of fast victory, the narrative of liberation, the narrative of sovereignty, the narrative of democracy and now, with images of an elected Iraqi Parliament appearing on the front pages of our newspapers, a narrative of autonomy, stability and self-governance. None of these narratives has yet managed to be as consistent, as manifestly true to daily life in Iraq as the ongoing narrative of instability. They coexist with it, and perhaps one day will supplant it.

The advantage that the new images of an Iraqi Parliament have over the daily images of death and destruction is simple: They are new, they are tasteful, and because they don't deal with death, they can show their subject matter directly, without substitution. They are refreshing and we can look at them and hope that they are true -- a welcome relief from looking at the images of the past two years and wishing they weren't. Although we know (from all the discarded hope of previous happy images) that they may yet yield to the repetitious imagery of new chaos, they are for now easier to look at.


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