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October 17, 2010

Mike Kamber: Military Censorship — (Update: Winner of POYi Award of Excellence)

Update 2/21/11: We are proud to announce that this audio slideshow, produced for BagNews by Sandra Roa, has won a Picture of the Year International (POYi) Award of Excellence in the Multimedia Issues Reporting category.  Congratulations to Sandra and to Mike.


BagNewsSalon is pleased to offer this exclusive audio slideshow interview featuring Michael Kamber, and a focused look at the issue of military censorship, including the photos he’s insisted on being seen.

Michael has been “working around the edges” of the Iraq War since 2003 as a photojournalist for The New York Times. Many of the events that took place during the war were not accessible to him. Some incidents that he was able to witness and photograph were never published. “The reality of the war versus the war that people saw in the newspapers and magazines, it’s a very different reality,” said Kamber.

Making pictures and getting them published have their own set of rules dictated by government, military, publishers and editors. The images made by the photojournalists who covered the war can reveal a gruesome reality beyond what the American media has shown us. “I think that we need to publish those photos for history even if we can’t get them in the newspaper today,” said Kamber.

During embeds with the United States military, Kamber was limited in regards to what he was allowed to photograph. One day during his time embedded, Kamber’s unit was attacked by an IED. After a quick recovery from the debris, Kamber began to photograph but the unit captain yelled out to him “no pictures!” Kamber replied “I’m here to do my job and you can take my cameras later.” The U. S. military later warned The New York Times not to publish the photos and also threatened to revoke the paper’s embed access. Mr. Kamber and his editors dug through the images from that day and tried to conform to the military’s requirements. The graphic images were left unpublished.

Now Kamber is working on an oral history project about access and censorship during the conflict. “I don’t feel that an accurate visual record of the war has really been set forth,” he said. Kamber has interviewed many photojournalists who reported from the Iraq war and they all have stories that shed light on the intricate details that went into defining what the general public was able to see from the conflict. Kamber plans to publish the transcribed interviews with the images that have been kept from our eyes.

– Sandra Roa

About the Photographer

Sandra Roa

  • Stella

    Thank you for this, and thanks to Michael for his courage. I can’t help thinking about what these men think their job is.
    No doubt the soldiers who feel justified in shooting a photographer will expect gratitude and parades when they come home.

    My antiwar feelings are intensified by this show.

    • Nancy

      It’s clear from your comment, Stella, that you do not see servicepersons as human beings worthy of basic human considerations and respect. Within the chaos of war, afraid for their own lives, asked to do the impossible, in shock over the grave injury of a friend and comrade, these soldiers were trying to protect her dignity and the feelings of her family. How can you be so blind, young and/or stupid as to not see that? How can you be such a mindless heartless ideologue?
      PEOPLE are more important than PHOTOGRAPHS when you actually know and love the people in the frame. I’m sorry for you for your ignorance.

    • Nancy

      oh yes. And I have yet to meet the war veteran (and I’ve met many) who “expects” a parade or anything from the public when he or she gets home. The veterans I know are uncomfortable with a free cup of coffee in the airport because they consider what they do their duty. As a matter of fact, all veterans know instinctively not to “expect” even a scrap of understanding for their combat experiences (let alone support) except from other veterans.

    • ptys

      It’s clear from your comment, Nancy, that you do not understand the tremendous value of the job of war correspondents like this one, for much of what you yourself hold dear. How can you be so blind, young and/or stupid as to not see that? How can you be such a mindless heartless follower? People and their lives are most important. For every undignified photo for you and I to see, countless lives can be saved if another war is not started, if you and I stop our leadership from spinning out of control and into war. War is all the injustice and suffering one can imagine bundled into one. Unless we see it for what it is, we will just cheer on or simply ignore.

  • Karen H.

    One has to wonder if the embed system can partially serve to prolong war. I was particularly interested in Kamber’s remark that photographing detainees could preserve rather than violate rights and how that and embeddedness can combine to effect transparency.

  • Erin Siegal

    Thanks so much for this! He’s a writer too… not just a photographer! Is there a link to Kamber’s project? How can the public learn more?

    • bystander

      Don’t know about a link to this specific project, but at the end of the slide show is a link to:

    • bystander

      Correction: If you go to Mike Kamber’s website, after the introductory slide show – which you can click to opt out – there are an array of photographic “thumbnails” at the bottom under the header/banner “Projects.” Clicking on the second from the left will take you to photographs of Iraq. I’ve not scrolled through them, but there appear to be 60+ photos.

  • Brian McGloin

    The military has very strict rules ALLOWING and often requiring photographic documentation.

    Every service member who tried to stop Michael or impede him was wrong and breaking rules. It’s the same as the over zealous security guards or the proudly Ignorant NYPD in their … well, everything they do.

    This is unrelated, but it’s funny to see a comment from someone I know.

  • Nigel Lendon

    Congratulations to Mike Kamber for breaking ranks. This is the most dramatic instance I’ve seen of the pervasive and quasi-legalistic paranoia about photography that has infected our society. Here’s an instance of where “shoot the photographer” has replaced “shoot the messenger” – as if every record of an unfolding disaster is simultaneously a recognition of a series of micro-defeats, to be covered up in every way possible. I would argue that there are circumstances where a right to privacy is secondary to the circumstances of the event, which we, as the citizens who stand behind such military operations have a right to know.

    • Nancy

      Please see my comment to Stella above.

  • mlr

    I hope you received the approvals of he families of these soldiers before you put the pictures of their loved ones out likes this. Speaking as the mother of an injured Marine – I would be very angry if I saw my son’s photos laying their bleeding blasted all over the place without any warning.

    • Nancy

      Thank you MLR. I too think only of the families of these service people and totally understand the need to avoid even patches in the photos as the patches would clearly identify a unit and through extrapolation the wounded soldier.
      Imagine if that young woman died of her injuries and her loved ones were to somehow stumble across a photo of her dying? In every instance mentioned in the clip, the military “censorship” made perfect sense to me, but then I don’t sleep in a tin foil hat to protect me from the evil Military-Industrial Complex.
      No offense to the photographer — but he is not the hero here.

  • Richard Richards

    No photographer is looking to be a hero. He/she is simply there to document history as truthfully as possible. We run into problems when historic events are hidden from view. Certainly there should be rules as to when a photograph can be published and where, but denying access and forcibly stopping photographers from working is never the answer. The answer always lies in the give and take of understanding. Soldiers have to know more about why these kinds of photographs are important and photographers have to get their message out to the military BEFORE beginning to work.

    • Jon

      I agree with Nancy, and also ‘The answer always lies in the give and take of understanding’, constantly changeable with every situation. With the image of the angry soldiers and wounded comrade.. change places; surely you would react exactly the same in that situation. To think otherwise is thinking your ‘right’ to be there somehow more important. Sure you end up with an image reflecting deeper issues. You also may be hated for it.

  • Michael Shaw

    Thanks, Richard.

    Mike Kamber is one of those shining lights when it comes to professionalism, sensitivity, concern and, yes, thoughtfulness and discretion even in the way he has even presented “that which we shouldn’t see.” The trolls not withstanding, one of the first terms Mike’s words and intent bring to mind is “patriotism.”

    Given the democracy-bending and truth-defying environment Mike is working in — war propaganda as strong as ever; day-to-day public interest in these wars almost non-existent; the government – media censorship dance cemented in place through the virtually unquestioned ritual known as “embedding,” the question I ask is: if we’re barred from seeing what what Mike is seeing, then exactly what are we fighting for?

    • JCS

      My response Michael to your comment is that Mike Kamber’s photographs – by your presenting and allowing us to see what he is seeing, raises the question even more strongly “What exactly is it that we ARE fighting for?”

  • Jack Corn

    In war the first casualty is all ways TRUTH. An intersting book by that name is in libraries

  • Rafaelq

    No Nancy, you embrace the Military-Information Complex, which is sad to say the least. BTW, it was Eisenhower, former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe and President of the United States that coined the phrase.

    War is ugly and if we hide the images away, then we hide the cost as well. I can understand the impulse of not wanting someone hovering over you while a comrade is wounded, but a sanitize war, especially a war of conquest like Iraq, just enables more wars like this, where more young men are fed into the grinder.

    It also goes to the double standard present here. Absolute respected and genuflection is demanded at the feet of the American “warrior” but no such respect is given to the “enemy” or civilians caught in the fight.

    Their bodies can be shown in pools of blood and packed up like deadwood with no problems and no pangs of anger, pain or frustration. After all they are not “Us”.

  • MHmedia

    Respect to you Michael – I’ve seen and heard more of the truth about the war in Iraq in under 4 minutes than I’ve heard from our public-facing national media in months. Stay safe!

  • http://none jose

    I wonder about those photographers and videographers who gave THEIR LIVES to document WAR from the Civil WAR t o Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. What did they die fo? S owe today can sit around and critise the fact that a Combat photographer speaks about his tretment and rules laid down by the militaty. Military combat photographers (every branch of service has them ) have stringent rules to follow and do the best not to break them. Noone wants to open a newspaper or magazine and see their son or daughter lying there bleeding or dying or dead. Do u write the family and say your child is dead in this street or on this beach. Can i photogrph them? NO< you take the damn picture, it is your job, then get it cleared at a later date. After the family has been notified. Of course soldiers, etc. think of their comrades first. Does not make it legal ( under the rules of combat) to shoot someone whether u do it or not. But many a shave tail officer has succumbed to lead poisoning by his own troops. And more than one civilian photographer has perished in the line of combat trying to get that one perfect shot.
    I wonder now about the Life photo of the first American dead soldiers being washed around in the sand on a beach in the Pacific or the Viet Nam photo of a suspected Viet Cong having his brains blown out by a Viet police chief. In print a few days after the events.
    There was no outcry then as there seems to be here.
    The thing is is that these guys are getting paid to do a job the same as the soldiers. It, unfortunately is a two way street

    • ceowens


      This is bagnews. Do a little research on that Vietnam photo.

  • Bob

    Many thanks for this.

    I can empathize with the comments above, about soldiers’ families not wanting to see their loved ones wounded, injured or suffering, but that’s part of what they signed up for. Not allowing that to be shown is merely an excuse which simply feeds the sanitizing of war. That’s what the military wants, but that’s not the job of journalists.

    • Stan

      Soldiers sign up for having their families see them injured or suffering? Pure nonsense. There is no morality in war at the end of the day. Soldiers, Marines, Sailors or Airmen sign up to do a job that may cost them their lives, and sometimes in the process things happen that are just not convenient for a photo shoot. While preserving snapshots of the war is necessary and beneficial, still I think the fewer media in combat the better. Better for our efforts to win, and winning is what matters in war, not being fair and not photographing anything a journalist wants. It’s a delicate balancing act for an photo-journalist, but they are there by permission of the military and their presence is always discretionary. Write all you want, but be careful about the images and their impact on those who see them.

  • Rafael

    Winning is the thing, eh Stan?

    So it doesn’t matter if the fight is right or wrong?

    Or that people don’t know what the heck is going on?

    And why should photographers be “by permission of the military?”

    They should be there because that is their job.

  • louboutin

    Nazi. He is dressed as a Nazi, not in lederhosen. Obama was dressed in traditional garb.

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  • gardner740

    It does sound like the unit was breaking the rules for impeding journalists. This could have been for many different reasons. It could have been that they were doing something wrong and didn’t want to be photographed or it could have been that they simply didn’t like him. If a group of soldiers don’t like a journalist they are going to do everything in their power to stop them from telling their story.

  • normalady

    “but, uhm, y’know, we try-to-balance -that- with doing-our-jobs…” (Follow Exit-to-Grand Guignol)

  • Stan B.

    We should have also censored all photos of 9/11 that showed dead or wounded because of how family members might’ve reacted, and like photos of all natural or man made disasters for the same reason, and like photos of…

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