TWO MONTHS BEFORE my husband, John, died of secondary bone cancer, I asked him if it would be all right if I took a few pictures of him in bed. I was not looking to add to our collection of photographs of us as a couple. I wanted permission to photograph his primary tumour. In his calm way John consented to my request, and with what upper body strength remained he propped himself up as straight in bed as his besieged spine would permit.
When we think of someone being in bed, we tend to imagine the person lying down. But John's primary tumour bulged from his sacrum like a loaf of ciabatta, and for months lying on his back had been impossible. Due to the spread of metastases through his pelvis and femurs, he had gradually lost the use of his legs and was no longer able to walk. His right thigh, swollen out of all symmetry with his left, billowed in front of him like a sail.
Despite almost constant pain from the tumour pressing on the nerves in his spinal cord, John shifted onto his left side, and I took a handful of pictures that captured the distortion of his lower back and right leg into an exaggerated S-shape. I remember being struck by how sanguine he was about my desire to look at him through a camera lens. He stared straight ahead, asked no questions as I clicked the shutter.
My sudden need to take these pictures surprised me. We had plenty of framed photographs of us in healthier times scattered around our home. Perhaps my impulse masked my accelerating distress, and I hoped to slow the march of John's disease by capturing its most obvious sign within a viewfinder. I was looking to record the evidence of the foreign invasion of John's body, of the destroyer attacking bones, and lives. That cancerous mass of tissue in my husband's back was slowly twisting him towards death, and all I could do was take its portrait.
Most disturbing was my suspicion that, while John still breathed, I was using the camera to help me begin to think about him in the past tense. He seemed to understand and accept that I would need these photos. To look at them in the days to come, when they would exist and he would not. In my distress, I took the photographs in the belief that the proof they provided would help me make sense of the extraordinary. That they might help me tell myself the story of what had happened – to him, to us – and that I might understand it.
When my husband and I looked on the computer at the images I had taken of him, our respective reactions could not have been more different. John was curious to see for the first time what to now he could only feel. He had accepted what was happening to him, and saw the pictures simply as proof of the reality of his disease. But I, who saw his tumour every day, felt only shock and shame. Despite my familiarity with John's body, the act of framing it exaggerated his frailty. Using my privileged viewpoint, I had inadvertently transformed my husband into a medical subject. The photographs made John look to me – the person who knew him best – in the same way he might appear to one of his specialists. I had anticipated feeling more distant, relying on the camera's ability to keep me simultaneously close to and remote from my subject. I had hoped that taking photos would somehow help ameliorate my fear. But my tactics failed miserably. I achieved the distance I sought, but it only reinforced my helplessness and rage at what was happening to my husband's body and, by extension, to our life together. Suddenly I felt not like a wife but a voyeur, and ashamed.
EMBEDDED WITH AMERICAN marines in Afghanistan's Helmand Province in August 2009, the Associated Press photographer Julie Jacobson took a picture of Lance Corporal Joshua M Bernard shortly after a rocket-propelled grenade mortally wounded him. Jacobson, approximately twenty metres away from the injured marine, photographed the moment when members of his unit ran to his side to help him. Although evacuated within minutes, Bernard died of his wounds the same day.
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged the AP not to release the photo for distribution, and Bernard's family twice asked for the photo not to be published. The New York Times was one of a few news outlets that chose to publish the photo, which was titled 'Death of a Marine' even though Bernard was still alive at the time it was taken. The response was immediate, and it polarised into the usual camps – one defending the newspaper's right to publish images that depicted the reality of war, the other protesting the right to privacy of the dead Marine's family. The public debate was so heated that it led to a tweaking of official military policy for embedded media.
I saw 'Death of a Marine' for the first time in late 2010, when I read that the photo had won Jacobson the 2010 Galloway Award for military reporting, one of photojournalism's highest accolades. The photo is blurry, and taken from an understandable distance with a telephoto lens, but there's no mistaking Bernard's near-severed leg or the profuse bleeding as his fellow marines rush to his aid. The Galloway Award judges described her photo slideshow and accompanying narration as a 'gripping tale of combat' that showed flying bullets and the efforts of Bernard's comrades to keep him alive.
On the AP blog Jacobson wrote of her experience: 'I shot images that day well aware that those images could very possibly never see the light of day. In fact I was sure of it. But I still found myself recording them...I was recording his impending death, just as I had recorded his life moments before walking the point in the bazaar. Death is a part of life and most certainly a part of war. Isn't that why we're here? To document for now and for history the events of this war?'
Jacobson's comment about her desire to 'record...his impending death' startled me, because I realised that was exactly what I was doing photographing John's body. But my act was private and domestic, the result of a relationship of intimacy and trust. I could be certain that my photos would never be published, because they were mine to choose what to do with. Jacobson, employed by a global press organisation, has no such power. The photos she took were not hers to publish or to keep to herself. Similarly, I tried to give John as much dignity as the circumstances would permit. War photography admits no dignity for its wounded subjects.
I wondered whether the New York Times would have published the photo if Lance Corporal Bernard had somehow survived the attack. Or if he was lying in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, alive but with multiple amputations, disabled and striving with daily physical therapy to regain some autonomy in his life. And if so, whether Jacobson would have won that award. Every photo records loss – Roland Barthes saw death in every photograph he looked at – but it seems that photographs of war casualties are easier to process if the subject is dead rather than disabled. A photo of a dead soldier reminds us that it cannot change anything, that it cannot conjure life out of death; but it is somehow less confronting than a picture of a 'wounded warrior', a living casualty of war. I suspect that, whether in public or in private, suffering and sacrifice are more palatable and admirable in retrospect.
In public, images of suffering are mostly confined to art museums, where the statues of the Pietà define the genre. In the media, pictures of disabled or damaged bodies are generally permissible only as images of conflict or destitution, from remote corners of the world. In Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag argues that we have become so accustomed to this strict media diet that we expect to see pictures of diseased or injured bodies only from distant places: the Congo, Darfur, Libya, Iraq. Digital pictures of anonymous civilian bodies suffering the wounds of famine, epidemic and war, rather than the bodies of soldiers sent by the governments we elected.
Fewer than half a dozen graphic photos of dead American soldiers were published in the first five years of the US invasion of Iraq, despite there being more than four thousand Coalition fatalities during the same period. Three years later, with the Coalition body count at more than seven thousand, the number of wounded soldiers in their tens of thousands, and a tally of civilian dead that defies belief, the pictorial censorship of our current wars continues. Gail Buckland, a professor of photographic history at Cooper Union in New York, told the New York Times that our limited access to pictures of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan means that we are 'more impoverished today than Americans were in the nineteenth century', when battlefield photographs by the earliest 'embedded' journalists such as Mathew Brady and Timothy O'Sullivan documented the domestic atrocities of the Civil War. The Vietnam War was the most photographed conflict of the twentieth century, due to the unprecedented access granted photographers. But in our current wars a curious paradox seems to be at work – on the one hand, the proliferation of media channels all competing for viewers, readers and advertisers with a relentless parade of images; on the other, a striking absence of photographs and video of those dying and killed in combat. Despite editorial guidelines that regulate but hardly inhibit such photographs, newspaper editors seem loath to publish pictures of the gruesome truth of war.
Two examples cited by Clark Hoyt, then Public Editor for the New York Times, illustrate the ambivalence towards published photographs of the dead and dying. In January 2007, the photographers Robert Nickelsberg and Damien Cave were embedded with an army company helping an Iraqi unit search for weapons in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant Hector Leija, to whom the photographers had been talking to minutes earlier, was shot in the head. The two men helped evacuate Leija, and Nickelsberg followed the stretcher downstairs to an armoured vehicle, taking pictures. Leija died that morning. Four days later, when Leija's family had been notified of his death, the Times published a photograph of him on the stretcher with another soldier's hand covering the wound. Leija's family was distressed by the coverage, and the army threatened to ban the photographers from embedding with the military. In stark contrast, João Silva's 2006 photographs of Lance Corporal Juan Valdez-Castillo, a marine seriously wounded in Karma (near Fallujah) and rescued by Sergeant Jesse E Leach, led not to threats and outrage but to a medal for Leach.
Leija died, and Valdez-Castillo lived. Does the different response to the published photos boil down to the difference between life and death? Rescue and survival is a story with a hero, but death is not much of a story at all.
Photojournalists and historians alike remind us that photographs will help prevent us from forgetting, but I wonder if that's partly just a convenient defence against the inevitable waning of public attention to the stories of individuals and groups who will always remain strangers to us. No one who has lost a friend or family member to combat, disease, accident or plain old age ever forgets that person, though some details –the timbre of his voice, the exact shade of her hair colour – might fade. Photographs of those we love trigger feelings and memories, but not always. Sometimes, as Barthes discovered during his famous search among his photographs for a 'true' picture of his mother's face after her death, they don't even do that for us. Images of fallen and injured strangers occasionally outrage but rarely haunt us.
Perhaps I expect too much from photographs – or too much from myself when I look at them. Whether looking at 'Death of a Marine' or the photos of my husband's cancer-ravaged body, I feel a range of useless emotions: anger and helplessness, pity and enervation. I wonder if through the act of observing I have exploited, or am colluding in the exploitation of, these differently wounded bodies; if the photographs are in some way pornographic; if they can ever be more than a monument to their own futility, and to the futility of the conflict or the disease they respectively represent.
I was relieved to find Sontag so generous on this point: 'It is not a defect that we are not seared, that we do not suffer enough, when we see these images,' she writes. 'Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalisations for mass suffering offered by established powers.' But in the universe of private suffering, there is no rationalising, no governing logic, no lesson to learn.
One photojournalist who wants more from her work than a photo essay in a magazine is Nina Berman. She had heard reports from Iraq about soldiers being wounded, but realised she was seeing no images of them. Nor could she could find any listings of the wounded from the Department of Defense or anywhere else. When she approached magazines and newspapers to suggest a story, they weren't interested. Believing that mainstream news media had ignored its responsibility to cover all aspects of the experience of war, she decided to do it herself. Berman photographed soldiers seriously wounded in Iraq when they returned to the US, mostly in their homes, but also at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The result was the book Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq (Trolley).
Until Berman's book was published, in 2004, the website of the Wounded Warrior Project, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to 'honour and em– power wounded warriors', contained no pictures at all of its constituents. A representative approached Berman for permission to use her photographs on their website, to help raise funds for their programs for injured service members. In exchange, the organisation created (and still maintains) Berman's website. Their collaboration raised more than $100,000. 'The greatest casualty is being forgotten,' waves the tagline like a flag across the top of the Wounded Warrior homepage.
Purple Hearts confronts the taboo on looking at pictures of bodies in pain. Berman's photographs actively resist the 'narrative of recovery' that all too often accompanies photos of disabled bodies in order to ease the viewer's own discomfort as she regards the suffering of others. Such narratives provide a context that might be acceptable to us, if not to the subject of the story. Thus, a soldier is typically filmed 'recovering' from his injuries in a physical therapy clinic, busily 'overcoming' his newly acquired disability. Images of wheelchair users are more acceptable if they belong to muscular Paralympic athletes who are trumpeted as having 'defied the odds' or 'conquered' their disability (always conveniently in the past tense), and now parade their medals as a 'triumph of the human spirit'.
In every story of this type, the subject moves beyond personhood, becoming 'a hero' or 'an inspiration' to others, both exalted by his suffering and kept at a safe distance from the conscience of the viewer. A body in the process of 'overcoming' is a story that has no beginning, no end and no guilt by association. That Berman's photographs were co-opted by the Wounded Warrior Project epitomises the mixed cultural messages about disabled bodies. The phrase 'wounded warrior' both elevates and sanitises the real struggles – physical, psychological, bureaucratic – of newly disabled soldiers with its soothing alliteration and lack of any specific war or government complicit in their wounds.
An effective antidote to claims of exploitation and 'amputee porn' is Berman's accompanying text in Purple Hearts – not the photographer's own narration (as in Julie Jacobson's award-winning example) but the soldiers' own words, transcribed from interviews with the author. Far from embittered, the soldiers mostly speak of their pride in having served their country, and of how they miss their mates back in Iraq. 'It was the best experience of my life,' says a combat engineer who lost his sight and one leg to a bomb. Specialist Jose Martinez, who suffered extensive burns to his face, head and body when the Humvee he was driving hit a landmine, and who spent his first year back from the war in and out of surgery, says without irony, 'I'm this great picture of the army.'
PICTURES OF UNHEALTHY or damaged bodies, bodies in pain and bodies that suffer, remain taboo. But unlike the images of war or religious suffering that are sanctioned content for art museums and the public sphere, images of diseased, disfigured or disabled bodies are largely deemed a private atrocity, the province of the personal and domestic space. The messy realities of death and dying mostly remain the sombre privilege of carers and families, sequestered in private homes and public institutions.
There was no 'overcoming' my husband's cancer, no triumph over his terminal illness. John died a few weeks after I took those photographs, and he remains the only other person who has seen them. They were – they are – part of my mourning, and remain private, however quaint that concept has become. I never made prints of them, and have looked at them only a few times on my computer screen. They are too upsetting, for they remind me both of John's suffering and of my own, very different, distress.
But as the years pass, I still cannot bring myself to delete the series from my computer. They are a silent reminder of how I participated in the process of his dying; how I used technology to help me document it and to distance myself as he slipped away; how helpless I was to alter the inexorable course of events – or to stop looking.