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January 16, 2011

Big Media Sent 3 Of My Favorite War Photographers to Afghanistan And What They Brought Back Were The Near-Same Medevac Shots

What really dismays me — the Afghan war crying out for context as far as big media is concerned — is how three major organizations could send out three of the best photographers in the business and, within the space of just over two weeks, proudly publish nearly the same photo-story.

Not to take anything away from the thoroughly accomplished James Nachtwey, Louie Palu and Tyler Hicks, but what does it tell us that TIME, The Toronto Star and The New York Times all offered us powerful, dramatic and overlapping photo-stories of U.S. medevac teams saving U.S and Afghan lives via helicopter “missions of mercy.”

Is this pure coincidence? Or, does it illustrate (too well, in this case) the acumen of the Pentagon in the mediating of war access? Either way, in the aggregate this is a stunning display of American chauvinism given the intimate framing of the war in such a redundantly heroic narrative, all eyes on our warriors as saviors on high. And then, what does it mean that such high-profile redundancy can occur with hardly a notice?

Photo 1: James Nachtwey for TIME. ArticleThe Birds Of Hope: With A Black Hawk Medevac Unit In AfghanistanPhoto Gallery.  January 17, 2011. Caption: Life Struggle: The injured Marine is treated by crew members. He survived the IED blast but lost both of his legs.

Photo 2: Louie Palu/Zuma Press. Toronto Star articleFrontline medevac teams are life-savers in AfghanistanSlideshow. 01/01/2011.  Caption: US Army flight Medic SGT Patrick Schultz talks to a wounded US soldier in the rear of a medevac helicopter while enroute to Kandahar Airfield after he was injured by an improvised explosive device in Zhari District, Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Photo 3: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times. ArticleIn Wider War in Afghanistan, Survival Rate of Wounded Rises. Slideshow: Speeding the War Wounded to Care.  January 8, 2011. Caption: The number of medevac helicopters in service has risen sharply, meaning more of the war’s wounded are being saved.


Update 1/21/11: In the post above, I imply that Louie Palu was assigned to the medevac story by the Toronto Star.  Instead, they picked up a story he shot in October. When these photos were specifically taken and whether they were assigned or acquired after the fact does not alter the fact that such similar subject matter was published by three large and independent media organizations is such such close proximity.

  • black dog barking

    Asymmetrical warfare is no longer a new concept. Why we choose to live with it, to voluntarily take up our role, is a diagnostic question. These images underline the brutal truth of war: it is an unbalanced transaction. It is far easier to inflict pain than to relieve it.

    Whatever the Pentagon or (and?) the media may want us to see here, there is an obvious message we learned as children. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men …

    • Jonathan Uffman

      We don’t choose to live with it my friend. The powers that be decide to live it. This article was about the photos. Not a new concept that war is one sided. Thanks and try again.

    • flick’n'flame

      we’re all can aries in this same coldmine,and its getting… darker all the time

  • Rafael

    Asymmetrical warfare is one of those stupid concepts (like IEDs) that leak to the common vernacular from the reams of Pentagonese spewed by Generals and PO (public affairs officers).

    All warfare is asymmetrical in one or another.

  • Stella

    Glory is in the eye of the beholder. What this says to me is if war is your drug of choice, the side effects are usually pain and death.

    I imagine the message of the Pentagon is that it’s too expensive for us to use people, let us achieve dominion with machines. Drones and nukes will subjugate the world for us, so turn us loose.

  • Peter. Calvin

    My first thought when I saw these images was Larry Burrow’s Life essay, “Yankee Papa 13″ from 1965. What has really changed?

  • Alan Chin

    Remember David Turley’s most published and famous photograph from the First Gulf War in 1991? At the time there was a lot of comparison of it to Larry Burrows’s images as well. More recently, in 2004 and 2005, Thomas Dworzak embedded with a field hospital and medevac unit for months at a time, which he published as a book, MASH IRAQ.

    Part of the reason why photographers will get these images in the current moment is the nature of the war, and the embed system. You have to embed with one unit at a time. So you think, who do I want to embed with? You can pick an infantry unit that has high casualties and a lot of contact — but even then, weeks or months might go by without much happening — or it does, but the situations are quick and dangerous, and you may or may not get images that truly convey that reality. Every one of the photographers showcased in this post have done plenty of those embeds too.

    So then you embed with medevac. Helicopters are fun. They get you places fast and beautifully. And medevac being what it is, you’re going to be frightfully guaranteed some images of taut drama and tragedy, while your own risk seems comparatively limited. There’s no way around it. What does this mean for the coverage?

    Ultimately, there are a number of things that happen in war. The visual depiction of them has only so many variations. That’s why David Guttenfelder’s underwear-firefight image was so widely seen — it seems different from what is expected — but most of the time, it’s boredom, death, and frantic (even if well-trained) responses.

    Nine years into these wars, there’s very little that we haven’t seen before. Photographers have to continue to cover it, for the historical record.

    • Wayne Dickson

      Words worth heeding, given your record, Alan.

      I’ve read and heard lots of debates about which is the iconic photo of this or that war. Not long ago I visited the Pulitzer Prize show at the Newseum. Great individual photos, many of which have been imprinted on my mind for many, many years.

      Two of those photos are from the Vietnam War: (1) Adams’s shot of General Loan summarily executing an alleged Vietcong prisoner. (2) Út’s shot of the children fleeing a napalm attack. Military inflicting violence. Innocent children suffering violence. Two of the many facets of armed conflict. How can any of those individual photos begin to capture the complexity of what’s happening?

      That’s why, for reportage, I prefer a photo essay to an individual shot. For a full essay one can include the “embedded” (demeaning term if you think about it) stuff, but also the stuff the military doesn’t want you to see, the “collateral” damage, etc. Perhaps even the view from one or more of the other sides.

      Absent that? The old adage about the blind men and the elephant. But to show the whole picture (sic) is dangerous and potentially costly. Remember Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man? When the narrator (read photographer) is instructed to show Mr. Norton (the American public) only what Dr. Bledsoe (the military/political elite) wants him to see?

      The narrator allows Mr. Norton to see truths that are supposed to be hidden from him. And the narrator pays for it, big time.

    • Batman

      To all you conspiracy theorists out there who expect a bunch of civilian casualty photos before you believe the war is being properly documented, here you go:

      As you can see this photo was taken by an Army photographer, hosted on an Army website and it is public domain which allows for redistribution, only requesting you credit the photographer by name. While it’s not the most spectacular image, it is the government, not only NOT concealing civilian casualties, but publishing civilian casualties for the world to see and redistribute as they please. There is no agenda. There is no conspiracy.

      The fact of the matter is photographers go with the images they can get. Even with months embedded with an infantry unit, there’s no guarantee of any action, any collateral, any wounded or anything newsworthy. It’s a gamble you’re most likely to lose if you go looking for the action. The best way to get powerful photos is to get on a medevac because you KNOW something is happening every time a medevac is called. You have a problem with it? Go to war yourself and try taking photos, otherwise, respect the work of these great men and women, journalists and servicemen alike.

    • tinwoman

      Batman: not a conspiracy theorist, but the link provided doesn’t work.

    • Ivyleaves

      The link works for me, but doesn’t appear to be anything to do with civilian casualties. It shows a soldier looking at the discolored wrist and forearm of a child with another child looking on. No caption, but it could be a skin disease, or a burn injury that has already healed from long ago. Hardly noticeable as anything but everyday conversation and relationship-building and definitely not the intended rebuttal.

    • Harrison

      Batman, really? A soldier looking at a scrape…in a “we’re sensitive and caring” photo no less…is your idea of the army being forthright and open about civilian casualties? Really?

  • Julia Grey

    The first black and white photo reminded me powerfully of similar photos we got from Vietnam when I was in my late teens. Powerful heart strike.

  • Andrew

    Spelling error in your post: “Toronto Sun“, when you mean Toronto Star.

    • Michael Shaw

      Fixed. Pardon my “US centricism.”

    • Andrew

      Thanks, there is a Toronto Sun too, but it’s a sensationalist rag (as most Sun papers tend to be).

  • Peter. Calvin

    I read an interview with a photographer after the invasion of Iraq (was it David Leeson?) who said a war photographer wants to make the image that shows the true horror of war in such a way that people won’t want to make war, that it would end war. Part of the comversation was about whether or not it was worth one’s life to find and make that image. W. Eugene Smith thought his war images were a failure, that they couldn’t stop war. And Robert Capa said his goal was to be an unemployed war photographer.

  • Nina

    All three are great dramatic images but don’t elevate the conversation beyond, our boys are dying, we are trying to save them, and it’s very painful. For the DOD that’s a good thing. Take the story away from Afghanistan and Afghans, and emphasize our American heroes instead. The pictures function very differently from the two Vietnam photos mentioned in an earlier post which are memorable, not only because of their content and composition, but because of the political ramifications of both images. The Eddie Adams photo showed the world that our South Vietnamese allies were cold blooded executioners at a time when the U.S. public was reeling from having been told, victory was just around the corner, and then getting smacked in the face by the Tet offensive. The Ut picture showed what U.S. napalm does in a way that was so horrifying and morally obscene, it became hard to talk about hearts and minds. That the AP ran the picture, despite its policy on showing nudity (there was a debate on the picture desk before it was released) was a clear message that in 1972, the media was done with any whitewashing of Vietnam. I believe we are still waiting for a picture out of Afghanistan that comes anywhere near those two images, despite the presence of excellent, world class photographers, like the three in this post. In my opinion, whatever that photo is, it won’t be of wounded US combat troops in helicopters.

  • Aurora

    Christ-on-the-Cross photo framing? how come?

  • Margo

    “Either way, in the aggregate this is a stunning display of American chauvinism given the intimate framing of the war in such a redundantly heroic narrative, all eyes on our warriors as saviors on high.”

    Such a shame to me this morning that your excellent points above on reporting war, needed to be downplayed with your shocking comment, as quoted here. You were on your way to perfect reporting and derailed into personal opinion. For what use?

    • Jim Johnson

      Does your notion “perfect reporting” require checking one’s critical capacities at the door? Part of the problem with the American journalistic ethos is that that seems to be the case. The convergence M points out in this post cries out for comment – not just about the intentions of photographers but about the framing of the war more generally.

  • Yves Choquette

    Three perfect example of “Merchant of misery”. Like someone else said here, nothing new in this photo. And, for sure, you don’t need to be a what you call “top photojournalist” to take these shots. Anyone from the Joe schmo to a well experimented war photographer would have take the same pics no matter the gears he’s carrying.

    Where are the photos of Afghans victim of war crimes by the militaries?

  • Jim Johnson


    This is a nice post. I had noticed the Nachtwey, but not the other two spreads. There seemingly is only one story in Afghanistan after all!


  • Michael Shaw

    Thanks, Jim. Nice to see you over in this neighborhood.

  • Joe Molieri

    “I believe we are still waiting for a picture out of Afghanistan that comes anywhere near those two images, despite the presence of excellent, world class photographers, like the three in this post. ”

    This may have something to do with how dangerous it is to cover this war with out going embedded.

  • daniel

    Talking of overlapping: The guy in the third picture is also Patrick Schultz.

  • Tom White

    The main issue for me with most war reporting in the mainstream media is the one-sided practical and logistic fact that photographers are sent over, embed with troops and photograph their work. I do believe that this needs to be done, that even if we have seen it a thousand times, as long as it keeps happening we need to be reminded. The problem as I see it is that there is absolute minimal coverage from the other side. I long for more information on the people who are shooting the U.S. soldiers (as do the U.S. Soldiers most likely..) and to see the effects of this war not just on the U.S. Military but on all sides. To be fair, there is some reporting on civilian casualties, the life of an ordinary Afghan etc but often it is a glance, or to do with some other horrendous situation such as opium addiction.

    I understand how difficult this must be to do – I for example would probably get myself into all sorts of trouble if I showed up in Afghanistan and tried to be an ‘objective observer’ of the Taliban fighters, or insurgents, or Jihadists, or whatever you would wish to call them or they themselves. How easy do you think it would be to find, let alone persuade a group of Afghans fighting the Americans that you just wanted to ‘tell their side of the story’?

    I do wish that someone would take the photograph that would end all war (in my mind I think we’ve had several candidates already, but then as someone who sees no need for this kind of violence I guess I am biased).

    It’s possible there is even a Taliban Jihadist out there with a camera recording the everyday life (they certainly seem to be able to produce propaganda videos).

    The question is how will we ever see it. I do not knock the risks and hard work undertaken by many journalists who go to war and the severe consequences many of them suffer in order to bring back images and reports to those of us sitting in the suburbs, but is there anyone out there giving out cameras for people to tell their own stories? Are there any ‘non professionals’ out there recording and reporting? There has to someone who is not working for a U.S. Media outlet… If someone knows of any please share.

    To re-iterate, I do think we still need to see the U.S. Military at work. I do also think there are untold stories out there and there are ways to tell them. I do hope that one day they are told.

  • Lucas Mulder

    Perhaps it’s time to find some new favourite photographers, I hear there’s lots out there.

  • Yves Choquette

    This debate “world best photographers” vs the “other photographers” is always interesting and pathetic at the same time. Who decide that this photographer is one of the best and this one is not so good? Most the time, I mean 99,9%, it is his peers for whom he’s an idol.

    Is their decision is so good, why there is so many from the public that don’t really like their photos? What make the guys at Magnum more relevant to evaluate photographers work than the guy at a local agency in a no man land? Both are human kind with emotion, agenda, perspective, vision of life, etc.

    I really like the work of HCB but, some of my friends when I show them his work, their reaction is “Oh ya, well, ya! ya! not bad, not bad at all…” Does that mean they are stupid? Ignorant? Have no taste?

    No it just mean they have different taste, agenda, vision of life than HCB and friends…
    For me what make HCB great, it is his devotion to it’s art, his personal vision of the world surrounding him.

    I’m sorry, but put any minimum trained photographers in the helicopter, give him a camera (any decent one) and tell him to shoot. I would bet nobody here would ever make the difference.

    It is easy to say that this runner is the best of the world because he’s fastest than everyone else and win mostly all the time. Their is no subjectivity, just the fact, he’s amazingly fast, that’s all… But when it come to show your vision of the world that’s another story…


    A series of questions that no US news journalist will answer, yet any common person will answer, reveals how easily the US government “facilitates” news journalists into parroting the government line.

    The number 1 US news story in the last century is what the US news media will never report, that is, the process by which US government “spokespersons” (previous professional news journalists) unlawfully made “copy ready news releases” the source of over 90 percent of the daily news about government-involved issues.


  • Popsiq

    Then there are some pictures it is preferred we wouldn’t see.
    Afghanistan’s ‘destroying something to save it’. Part of this summer’s ‘demolish the south’ strategy.

  • Max Oden
  • Patrick

    Seeing as how Im the guy in two of the photos, I think they’re good shots, but perhaps Im biased, :)

    • Max Oden

      @Patrick- Thank you for your service. Seriously… You all are doing fantastic work over there. Keep it up. A good friend of mine is a dustoff pilot with the 2-227th and will be in country late this summer on his first deployment. Looks like he’s in good company.

  • Lea

    I’d like to mention how remarkable–at least to me–the second photograph, by Louie Palu, is.

    It reminds me of some kind of twisted Pieta: the beautiful man, stripped to the waist; the tender embrace of the anonymous, black-helmeted and black-gloved medic; the soldier’s vulnerable, exposed neck.

    There’s something both beautiful and (dare I say it?) sensual about it–and also something chilling and horrific in the contrast between the naked and wounded soldier and the covered-up, high-tech and anonymous military medic.

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  • Private Zydeco

    It’s easier to relieve pain than inflict it.

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  • can you do my homework

    Wow. This is very good article. It’s great to see that people still write about serious things. Thank you.

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