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July 15, 2006

So Says The NYT Photo Editor, Part I: This War Is In The Book


Vietnam-Execution  Iwo-Jima-Flag  Viet-Napalm-Attack

(click for full scale)

Last week, as part of its Talk to the Newsroom series, the NYT featured a Q. and A. with Director of Photography, Michele McNally.  Given the quality, influence and visibility of The Times photo coverage (especially at this address), I thought it worthwhile to spend at least a few posts trying to see through Ms. McNally’s eyes.  (The plentiful photographic examples lend even more of a window into the visual mind of the paper.)

The point I found most interesting involved Ms. McNally’s prediction around the enduring symbol of the Iraq war.  By now, most people are familiar with Khalid Mohammed’s photo from Fallujah showing Iraqis chanting anti-American slogans before the charred remains of American contractors.  Says Ms. McNally:

“Time will tell, but this one is iconic enough to join the ranks of Eddie Adams, Joe Rosenthal and Nick Ut…”

I’m thinking the Adams, Rosenthal and Ut photos (respectively, above) wouldn’t be as strong if they didn’t capture the moral tone of each conflict, as well as the ultimate result.  In what ways, however, does Mohammed’s image qualify as the central icon of the Gulf war?  Does the photo embody our failure to grasp (or build a bridge) to Iraqi society, with its profoundly different sects and subcultures?  Does the focus on contractors even frame our incursion as the quest for a pay day?  Time-wise, does this imply that Iraq was lost as of November ‘05, either before or as a result of the Fallujah invasion?

Clearly, what makes an image an icon is a complex question.  Would you give the Mohammed photo the same weight McNally does? Also, in what ways would you define the resonance between the Fallujah shot, and the extraordinary other three?

(Edited for clarity: 8:40 am PST.  hat tips: Colin, James)

(image 1: Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press.  image 2: Eddie Adams/Associated Press. image 3: Joe Rosenthal/Associated Press.  image 4: Nick Ut/Associated Press.  All reprinted July 2006.

  • Pyrrho

    That Iwo Jima flag image is more of a photo op than anything. There already had been a flag raised that day; this being just a 2nd, bigger one, raised four hours later. And it didn’t signal any victory or end to hostilities, merely the beginning, as 7,000 more U.S. and 20,000 Japanese soldiers were to perish in the oncoming battle.
    The other images have more of a ring of truth to them, even Mohammed’s. I don’t view his as iconic as the others, but I agree with you on one thing… I personally felt we lost Iraq after seeing and hearing what happened that day.

  • Joseph Plummer

    The Fallujah bridge will be a remembered picture. The one that captures forms the icon for this war however will continue to be the photograph taken by the unnamed guard at Abu Ghraib of a hooded Iraqi prisoner with arms outspread and wires hanging from his appendages, standing on a box and fearful of electrocution. It says more clearly why Bush’s Iraq project failed: a military stripped of its values, an enemy accorded no respect or dignity, threats to life and liberty treated like a joke.

  • ummabdulla

    I think the U.S. troops will still be in Iraq for a while, so this might be premature. But I agree with Joseph; the photo that stands out as of now is that hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner.
    Another one (as spontaneous as the Iwo Jima photo, I guess) is the bringing down of that Saddam statue in Baghdad’a Firdous Square.

  • Eric Verlo

    The Fallujah pic was jingoist propaganda. It would only seem iconic because it is still being used. I doubt that it will resonate for much longer.
    In my opinion the other examples share two qualities. First they depict events about which there is little complexity, namely the viewer has an active sense of his perspective to the event depicted. Second, they are graphically elegant. Each can be easily be substituted by only a few strokes of ink.
    Not so the Fallujah pic. Its prominence is owed to the fact that the MSM wants it there.

  • Scarabus

    Personally I expect a photo that becomes an “icon” to (a) grab one immediately, (b) be effective in composition, (c) focus on a single powerful, culturally determined idea, while revealing layers of meaning upon reflection. That being so, I just don’t think the Fallujah bridge photo can qualify.
    Rosenthal’s photo shows guys raising a flag. It communicates such meanings as courage, self-sacrifice, and triumph. Adams’s photo shows a guy committing a summary execution. It communicates such meanings as the cruelty, ambiguity, and moral dubiousness of the war, and especially of the regime we had chosen to back. (Show that picture to some young people who doesn’t know what it’s about, and ask then for their reactions. I bet a majority would feel more sympathy for the alledged VC than for the general.) Ut’s photo is about kids fleeing a napalm attack. It communicates everything Adams’s does, with the added impact of the children’s obvious terror. “Collateral civilian damage” is cold bureaucratic jargon. This photo shows the heartrending reality behind the language.
    What is the Fallujah photo about? I didn’t know when I looked at it. I saw some kids shouting and some other kids climbing on the bridge. From the text I learned that the difficult-to-identify stuff hanging from the bridge was charred remains of civilian contractors. There are lots of meanings to read there, but I just don’t think the photo works the way the others do.
    I’d sum it up this way: To me, an iconic news photo must elicit an immediate moral reaction. The caption can help viewers put that reaction in context and suggest food for further reflection. But if I need the caption even to know what the picture is depicting, then as far as I’m concerned it just doesn’t qualify. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad photo, just that it can’t cut it as an icon.

  • rporter

    In purely formal terms, the three “icons” are far simpler images to read. The important figures appear front and center in the frames, and there are few distracting details cluttering up the images. The Fallujah Bridge photo is more complex. What does the viewer focus on first, the man in the foreground with his hand upraised, or the contractors’ bodies dangling in the background? This photo is simply not as easily deciphered as the earlier images, and demands that the viewer takes some time for contemplation.
    As others have already observed, the Abu Ghraib photo is much less cluttered. In fact, there is almost no information outside of the hooded man and the box he stands upon. That’s why it was an obvious choice for the originators of the iRaq culture jamming project. The impact is immediate.
    McNally states on the NYT site that she likes a complex image, and aesthetically speaking, I think she has a good point. But if cultural icons are the objective, ’simple and clear’ is demonstrably more effective than “complex and interesting”.

  • thebewilderness

    I think the picture of the burned bodies of the contractors hanging on the bridge will come to symbolize something that isn’t in the picture. Falluja, and the day the US decided to exercise the ancient tradition of collective punishment. That was the day the occupation was doomed.
    The iconic picture, I think, will be the hooded prisoner standing on a box with electrodes connected to his body.

  • black dog barking

    Each of the black and white images tells a simple story, obvious at a glance. To an American each of these simple stories activates deeper constructs, easy to feel and hard to verbalize. How was Vietnam different for us than the Second World War? Those three photos answer the question.
    The color photo from Fallujah tells no simple story. Any deeper resonance is lots of noise, little signal. A caption is necessary to identify important elements. To an American an unruly crowd at a bridge with rope once meant lynching. There were large identifiable social forces acting out in a lynching, forces spanning generations, a story larger than the act. This is a random act, connected to no one beyond the immediate actors. A transaction.
    For me the iconic photo of our Iraq experience is this , a Marine color guard.

  • Doug

    The Abu Ghraib photo of the mock electrocution ( is in my mind the defining picture of the Iraqi war. It cemented in my mind that the US had made a complete and utter mess of the whole situation and wasn’t even TRYING to remedy the situation.

  • Nezua-Limón Xoloquinta-Jonez

    I agree with a few elements of a few different comments.
    1. we have a long way to go before the cyclone of violence in the Middle East is done tearing through lives. believe it or not, a more drastic and terrible (or representative) picture may unfortunately rule the day. i hope not.
    2. the hooded box-stander in abu ghraib still feels more iconic to me.
    I disagree that you the picture “shouldn’t need any explanation.” I mean, in general, a strong picture will not require text. Just as the first films you shoot in film school are silent black and whites.
    But we are talking about photos iconic of specific wars. So right away, you do need some context with these. I remember seeing some before I knew the history of them. I was born in ‘69, and was inundated with iconic images for years, images for which I had no understanding for years to come. I saw some of the same pictures above after I understood what “Vietnam” meant, and what had happened. They became doubly horrific for me.
    So I don’t necessarily think “no explanation” is the most reliable criterion. But I suppose a more immediately iconic shot would require less explanation.
    What I think of when I see this image of the bridge in Fallujah is that it is what is called a “self-reflexive” shot to filmmakers. A fancy way of saying the subject matter is aware of the process of filming; they are looking at the lens. The Direct Address tells us (with no text) that this is an age of media. In the old images, while all subjects may have been aware of the mechanism of capture, it is only in this recent one where you can see the mechanism of capture is actually part of the scene, itself. It is required.
    Just as this entire war has required the eager and able participation of the media, and all her means. Just as it was the presence of such media and mechanisms of image capture that showed the world how ugly the Occupation was becoming in Abu Ghraib. Or in those photos of the Iraqi children with bullet-craters in their heads and eyes.The beautiful and verdant fourthofjuly-shockNawe attack on Baghdad.The media that helped sweep in the illegitimate president who needs war like a crackhead needs the rock, and that helps him facing up to the truth of his crimes.
    I also note the jarring conflict between swinging, dead bodies and exultation and absolute indifference of those more concerned with appearing on camera. That reminds me, as well, of the inhumanity that has been unleashed upon the Earth with all of this violence, rape, and murder of choice. It reminds me of an entire government’s will to torture, the smiling private pointing to a captured Iraqi’s genitals, the Internet sensation of a Marine strumming tout his ode of mocking, killing, raping an Iraqi girl. These are dark times indeed, times of public images of men being legally stripped and mocked with filthy panties on their head, being peed on for the camera, being dressed up and slated for harm, being hated, being killed as the world watches. This image reminds us of that much. We love to watch, we do, we do. From the Lower Drowned 9th Ward on my 32″ flatscreen, to the embedded reporter as he hushes and ooohs hanging off the back of a rolling tank in the green nightscope light, riding with me and my armchair to Baghdad.
    I have no way of knowing if this image will be as iconic as the others, and I don’t know that it shares all the same elements. But I do know it presents a couple very important ones all on its own.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Ms. McNally’s choice is bizarre, both visually and emotionally. What has the most visual prominence in the Mohammed photo? Answer: The revelers’ heads and the bridge. We don’t identify emotionally with the revelers (or the bridge), so that leaves the charred bodies. We don’t relate to them, either (we can’t even really SEE them, let alone identify them visually as *human* bodies), so where is the emotional content of this photo? Aside from depicting celebration, there isn’t any. McNally surely brings her own emotional charge *to* the photograph (because she probably got to examine the charred bodies with a loupe), but the photo doesn’t in fact contain emotional content the rest of us can immediately identify and relate to. I seriously question her visual analysis.
    To be iconic an image must have emotional content. It must transcend two dimensions and touch us on some basic human level. The Mohammed image is simply graphic, not iconic. Not to mention it’s a visual mess.

  • PTate in MN

    A fantastic post, and really excellent comments above! Like others, I also find the photo from Abu Ghraib more “iconic” of the Iraqi war than the Fallujah bridge image, but then, I’m a liberal.
    Iconic pictures, imho, are viseral–you don’t need to know anything. The act of viewing the image evokes a response in the viewer that transforms his or her understanding:This response shapes ones subsequent reality. The two pictures from Vietnam communicate instantly that something is terribly, terribly wrong, and the gut response to these photos led Americans to question the American presence in Vietnam. (It also led Bushco to control media images from Iraq.) By contrast, the picture from Iwo Jima is heart-stirring: It makes one feel proud to be an American. It justifies the cause and foreshadows our victory.
    The viseral part of this Fallujah picture has to do with that cheering young man in the front of the picture, but it’s hard to know what response is called for. Are we celebrating with him? Are we not cheering with him? The transforming reaction comes only with a lot of priming. Once you realize what those lumpen shapes in the back are, then you feel horror, disgust or outrage, if you are an American.
    In light of many discussions where we have objected to a conservative bias in NYT photos, how very interesting that Michele McNally finds the Fallujah bridge “iconic.” I believe this image is iconic for conservative supporters of the war. When they view this picture, primed as they are, they respond with fury and outrage. With appropriate priming, this image symbolizes all that is barbaric, hateful and dangerous about Al Qaeda terrorists (even though this had nothing to do with Al Qaeda.) It energizes conservatives. Our innocent guys–not even soldiers!–were just passing through, trying to help rebuild Iraq, and they were brutally murdered by those ungrateful barbarians. It’s an atrocity. The response to the story told in this image (to those with sufficient priming) is to harden resolve and justify all violence against these brutes.
    So how very interesting that the NYT director of photography finds it iconic!

  • jt from BC

    I would nominate the Marlboro man not only for its realistic haunting presentation of a US soldier in combat but also we have learned so much about his pre and post life which encapsulates the tragedy of so many of his mates.,0,4301669,full.story?coll=la-home-headlines

  • margaret

    The discordant photo is Iwo Jima, a triumphal image. The other three depict atrocities which shocked us at the time we first saw them, and they have an immediacy, because the pictures were taken at the moment of human suffering. The Fallujah picture fails, in this respect, because the moment which would have been iconic would have been the murder of the contractors.
    The Abu Graib pictures, any of them, but, especially, the one with the hooded, shrouded figure, wired, with his arms stretched out, will be the symbol of this ill-fated war.

  • Jo

    The bridge picture is not the one I think of as of now as meaning the most. Iraq and the car bombs and prisons, and Bush on the ship are more in my mind. I think we have it in our mind that WW2 was the good war so that picture fits. The other fits for Vietnam. We sure do not win many wars any more and none from Korea.

  • jt from BC

    ummabdulla, > Another one (as spontaneous as the Iwo Jima photo, I guess) is the bringing down of that Saddam statue in Baghdad’a Firdous Square.
    Thanks for reminding us, its most appropriate and timely given the hundreds of hours and thousands of words of Firous Square that still sputter on in the US as the toppling of The Tyrant was or is still considered *a defining moment in bringing freedom to Iraq*. I believe that without the Internet this illusion *of freedoms first moment* would be circulated as iconic exhibit # 1.
    “..The most impressive psy-op of the war, however, occurred on its last day, when US soldiers toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdous Square, Baghdad. The square is right opposite the Palestine Hotel where foreign journalists were staying. All US TV stations showed carefully framed, close-up footage of what seemed like a largish crowd toppling the statue with the assistance of a US army vehicle. The footage was shown live for hours, repeatedly broadcast throughout the day, especially by CNN and BBC, and cited by US leaders as proof of the ‘legitimacy’ of the war.
    While most Iraqis were glad to be rid of Saddam, they had been reluctant to perform in large numbers for the invading army. With the blood of 2,000 Iraqi civilians and 10,000 soldiers on their hands, Bush and Rumsfeld needed cathartic footage of the oppressed masses surging forward towards freedom. The Firdous Square statue toppling was conceived for this purpose and executed brilliantly.
    Had TV cameras shown a long shot of Firdous Square, the impression the toppling would have created would be very different. There is a long shot posted on the web ( which shows a largely empty square cordoned off by US tanks. Small clusters of Iraqis outside the square can be seen watching the toppling of the statue, as silent spectators rather than active participants…”

  • Keir

    No question about it in my mind; the most important pictures—I don’t know how necessary “iconic” is at this point—of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq are here. (Warning: not for the faint of heart.) The Abu Ghraib torture photos are also necessary evidence of what this severely asymetric war is—and is not—about.

  • Rafael

    It would have worked if it had been the bridge and the bodies, the camera looking toward through the brideg end to end, a sort of “bridge to no where” or “bridge of no return” (that last one haunts many Korean veterans to this day), but its to croweded. The others show asimple context, this is waht “we” are doing, winning a battle, executing a prisoner, killing children, in that sense the hooded figure in Abu Ghraib would be far more exmplary of what “we” are doing, in this case, torture.

  • Cactus

    “In what ways, however, does Mohammed’s image qualify as the central icon of the Gulf war?” By that may we assume The Bag means iconic to U.S. viewers? In which case, it differs in a very significant way. The Mohammed image depicts the putative enemy rejoicing at killing, burning and hanging mercenary soldiers acting for the U.S. military.
    The others are the result of actions on our side, two of them actions that horrified the public. In other words, they were actions that brought home to the U.S. public not just the horrors of war, but the horrors COMMITTED BY US. Only the Rosenthal photo, even though a reenactment, is iconic in the sense it depicted the winning of a military goal by the U.S. It gave hope and pride to the viewers at home during a dark time.
    So do I think the Mohammed photo will be an iconic image of the Iraq invasion/war/occupation? No. I agree that of the ones I can recall, the Abu Ghraib hooded prisoner will be at least one of the iconic images in that it depicts actions BY OUR SIDE that horrified the public at home. It is also an uncomplicated image that is easy to recall and the hooded image starkly stands out from the rest of the room. And another clue to its icon-icity (?) is the number of times and ways it has been repeated. It continues to show up in various places.
    Another iconic image would be the one of the dozens of flag-draped coffins in the belly of a cargo plane. Because we know they are dead. Because we know their deaths are being hidden from us. Because we know our fearless leaders are afraid of that photo. Is it any wonder the photo editor of the NYT doesn’t want to remind the public of Abu Ghraib and returning coffins?
    And I agree with others here that said the Mohammed image is just too complicated, busy and difficult to grasp the story quickly. If the viewer did not already know it, it would not be easily seen that the figures were hanging, not just climbing a ladder.
    And wasn’t her choice interesting in the sense of “nice people don’t look at dirty pictures?” The images mentioned by the posters here are much more ‘in your face’ with the cruelty of war, and the cruelty of OUR people. This photo shows THEIR cruelty, yet the visual gruesomeness is rather obscure. In sum, it’s a rather nice bland image of a horrific sight.

  • Mad_nVT

    I agree with others that the Fallujah Bridge photo is unlikely to become an icon for this war, because it is too unclear. But the event was hugely symbolic, because it finally demonstrated to the American public that the Iraqis wouldn’t be throwing rice and flowers at the invading army. Or at the dirty mercenaries.
    For me, the three most iconic photos of this war are:
    * The hooded and tortured prisoners
    * That cocky fraudulent bastard in his flight suit, proclaiming “Mission Accomplished”
    * The illegal photos of flag-draped coffins being secretly shipped home
    They are so important, not because of what goes on in Iraq, but because of what they show of what America has become. America finally begins to come to terms with the reality of the American empire: the immoral behavior, the lying, the fraud and the secrecy.
    By means of the nightmare in Iraq, we see our reflection.

  • mamayaga

    I think there’s another iconic Iraq picture not yet mentioned: the one of the little Iraqi girl screaming in terror, covered in her parents’ blood after the family was blown away at a checkpoint. It’s an apt bookend to the napalm photo.

  • ahpook

    oh my. thanks to all the commenters so far and especially Nezua-Limón Xoloquinta-Jonez for putting things so eloquently.
    The hooded Abu Ghraib figure on the box has an iconic quality in a very 21st century sense. he can be reduced in color and dimensonality to an almost clickable icon and still retain recognizability – See this particularly brilliant example from :

  • donna

    When I think of Iraq, I think of the little girl covered in her parent’s blood or the boy with all his limbs blown off. Those are my icons of Iraq.

  • French Swede the Rootless Vegetable

    I agree with donna & mamayaga. The pictures taken by Chris Hondros at that Tal Afar checkpoint on January 16 2006 perfectly encaspulates the Iraq War.
    Meaningless death at a meaningsless checkpoint. This is meaningsless tragedy of Iraq, the real one; not the atocities like Haditha and Abu Ghraib (which, to be sure, are just the tip of an iceberg), but this kind of death, multiplied by the tens, hundreds, thousands of time in Iraq, and in the millions in every other war that has ever been found.
    It is unique only in having been documented (and is just the Iraqi pictorial synonym of the Vietnam Napalm Girl).
    Death in war is almost always senseless (and the few and far between times it makes sense, it is trivial compared to the cost of a lost life), but wars for the sake of war, like the Iraq War, reach a wanton destruction so futile that it becomes so absurd as to be mind-boggingly unfathomable.
    The Nuremberg Charter has not defined premeditated war of aggression as the highest crime of war for nothing: it is the crime that opens the door for all the other crimes, rapes, murders, tortures, that are simply bound to hapen in any and every war.

  • steve talbert

    what is interesting to me is that in the other photos it gives the impression of the US being the agressor, or the people who’s side we are supposed to be on being the bad guys. In the Iraq photo, it is the opposite. Although gruesome, I don’t think it will be remembered in the same light as the others. I think it will be lumped together with images such as the victims of the holocaust, etc,, it is showing how bad our ‘enemy’ is.

  • Stan Banos

    Must say, the majority of commenters are much more on the ball than Mc Nally on this. The aesthetics and composition just aren’t there to make this an “icon,”
    and you really have to search out the “dramatic content matter” within the (way too busy) frame- even then, it’s not very revealing without the aid of
    narration. “Iconic images” hit you in a visceral, gut level because of their content, and remain in your consciousness because of the dynamics of their composition. Strange how a photo editor got it so wrong; this aint nowhere in the “icon” league.

  • Gray Lensman

    Chris Hondros’ photo of the little girl is the one that always stops my heart. The babies are the real victims and we will pay for that for decades.

  • Siberian

    I have to agree, Chris Hondros’ photo of the little girl is more iconic then this one, you have to look at this one too long or even have the the bodies pointed out to you. The Abu Ghraib hooded prisoner is a close second for me.
    Both the little girl and the Abu Ghraib photo are instantly jarring and generate an immediate impression, much like the older war photos shown here.

  • Cocoageek

    I agree with much of the discussion and dissection above. I’m guessing a (the?) primary reason why McNally chose the Fallujah bridge photo was because, like the others, it was snapped by a *professional* photographer. The (iconic) photo of the hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner was taken by U.S. military personnel who AFAIK were not professional photographers.

  • Kija

    Photos I would choose as iconic:
    1) The man in the hood on a box from Abu Ghraib
    2) The pulling-down of the Saddam statue — with a frame wide enough to reveal its stage-management.

  • jawbone

    Comparing the Iraq War photo to the rest, the composition struck me immediately as being much too busy, with no real central focus other than the raised arm of one demonstrator.
    The others have the central figures dominating the photo, the backgrounds have enough open space or fuzzy resolution to set off the central figures, and the important figures are gripping. No need to search for what is going on–it hits you immediately. The napalm burned little girl also has been cropped to bascially only her figure, which is totally stunning. This uncropped version, however, gives her greater context.
    The Fallujah photo has so much going on–it’s a good news shot, but it does not become symbolic. I have a vague recollection of some of the photos of the hanging charred bodes being more dramatic.

  • ciao!ciuck

    Also iconic: the lone man standing in the street in Tiananmeng Square confronting the tanks, here.
    The Iwo Jima photo shown, the classic, is not the re-enactment; it is the first and original, a picture you see happening right in front of you and only have a chance to get a frame or two. (for details, see here.)
    Likewise with Eddie Adams’ photo. I saw a documentary about him with a film clip of the event. Adams barely got his camera up in time.
    And Nick’s picture? wow.
    An icon from the current ongoing war has yet to appear, I suspect, although all of the ones mentioned above are far, far better than the bridge photo, I believe.

  • superpower=corruptempire

    Given the mind-body-and-soul-numbing human sacrifices each of these photographs merely gesture towards– at this point in this illegal, unjust, and immoral US War on the World, I just don’t care about the aesthetics. I just want and need it to end.

  • Eric Jenkins

    Great comments from everyone!
    I think icons have very distinct aesthetic practices, tracing even back to iconographic painting. The main characters are completely immersed in the scene, not engaging the camera. The perspective is frontal, presented to the viewer. The background matters little. The viewer’s attention is focused. The icon is for the viewer’s contemplation of the moral lesson. The moral lesson is embodied in the image-character, i.e. they are in the act of being penitent, etc. In the older photos, we have icons of sacrifice for country (Iwo Jima), of trauma (Napalm Vietnam), and of militaristic violence. These lessons are actually present in the image — there is trauma, sacrifice, and violence. The bridge photo lacks all of these characteristics. There is no clear moral lesson taking place in the photo. We are not sure where to focus or who to identify with. The image makes us look into the image rather than projecting out into the viewer’s wolrd (known as inverse perspective in iconography). Some of the people engage the camera, rather than the moral lesson of the moment. And what moral lesson are we to draw — it has to be implied from the image. The lesson is not in the image itself. This image is not memorable like icons because it lacks all these features.

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