What is important is how our understanding about conflicts are actually shaped by the availability of images. If images are not available events go under or unreported, or sometimes the side with the best images gets to control the narrative.
Two of the key images from Vietnam that galvanised public opposition to the war are Nick Ut’s shot of a naked young girl (Kim Phuc) running, burnt by napalm, and Eddy Adams’s picture of the prisoner being shot point blank in the head by a police chief. It should be remembered that there was also movie footage of both incidents, but it is the still images that are best remembered.
Because of the power of such photographs and the effect they had on public opinion, the portrayal of war has become much more controlled. After Vietnam, governments ensured photojournalists were ‘embedded’ within military units or as McCullin found in the Falklands War, were denied access to the conflict zone altogether. Without independent journalists to witness what is happening abuse or deception may be more likely.
Although the ‘wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan are in the eyes of the Western forces over, the fighting continues and is still being documented, not in the main by photojournalists, but by people taking part in the fighting. Many of these are on the ‘opposing’ side, which partly explains why these images and these stories are not being seen here. Terrorist groups have proved to be media savvy and understand that creating visually strong images gets their name, if not message across. The growth of 24 hour news and its immediacy and constant repetition has added to this.
An internet search would find many such images, probably high on horror and low on aesthetics. McCullin himself has thought deeply about the question of aesthetics when portraying such subject matter. There is something troubling about beauty in war pictures and war pictures in galleries.
There have been hardly any photographs of dead or badly injured U.S. or British troops published in the mainstream media, as editors found their readers and advertisers criticised such images as being disrespectful. Closing down debate by invoking “patriotism” and “respect” was discussed in me and Cat Gregory’s documentary ‘The Trouble With Icons’. Terrorists themselves understand that whilst very graphic images may spread terror or morbid interest mainstream news outlets will sensor such images, so instead they stage events, use props such as dressing hostages Guantanamo Bay stye orange jumpsuits and let the outraged news presenter’s descriptions suffice. New media outlets such as the puerile Vice do publish graphic images.
In Romania the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu was filmed and shown to convince the people he and his wife were really dead. However it had been thought that this was too voyeuristic, so actors had been used to re-enact the execution and this dramatised version was the one broadcast.