Jul/Aug 2004 Nonfiction

Man With Gun: Photographing Violence

by David Graham


It sometimes seems, in these days of cable news and instant access on the internet to almost every dark thing, that whatever proprieties and taboos once held for the mass media have long since been deeply eroded, if not obliterated. But as I write these words two stories dominate the news, both from the war in Iraq, and both having to do not only with photographing violence but also with the propriety of what may and should be shown to the public. As everyone now knows, a group of American soldiers photographed themselves abusing and sexually torturing Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad; and, explicitly in retaliation for such abuse, a terrorist group released a gruesome video of an American civilian hostage being decapitated.

And, of course, everyone from the President on down recognizes that these news stories simply wouldn't be stories in the same way if they had not been unforgettably recorded visually.

When these stories broke I thought almost immediately of incidents in Vietnam, a generation ago, when I first became aware of the role of the mass media in the body politic. Very likely we will be debating the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam for another generation or more. What follows is my meditation on these issues, taking as touchstone one of the most horribly indelible images from that conflict.


General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnamese police chief, was driving around the streets of Saigon one day in February, 1968. It was the time of the Tet Offensive, and the capital city had been infiltrated by guerrillas, who had captured and blown up a radio station. They had also killed a number of policemen and some civilians. Since General Loan was known as a particularly ruthless cop, I suppose he was a good person for photographers to follow, and they did. His mission was bound to be photogenic.

An Associated Press photographer as well as an NBC cameraman thus chanced to film and photograph one of the most memorable images of the war—perhaps only the photo of the screaming, napalmed girl running naked toward America is more famous. In any event, I imagine everyone knows this scene: a Vietcong prisoner was marched up to General Loan, hands bound behind his back, wary look on his face. He was wearing black shorts (at least in the still photo and on my black-and-white TV set) and an untucked plaid sports shirt. A skinny, ordinary looking man, he might have been 18. General Loan pulled out a snub-nosed revolver, placed it without hesitation against the prisoner's temple, and pulled the trigger.

The man flinched and crumpled to the street as General Loan casually packed his gun and walked off. Presumably one of his subordinates hauled the body away. No doubt the TV cameraman and still photographer felt at that moment a perverse surge of joy, even as it was mixed with horror at this wordless brutality. They couldn't have helped knowing they had found a great image, which is to say, an unforgettable one. Very likely General Loan did not mind the event being filmed; perhaps he even wanted it recorded as an example of his efficient justice and command. The event soon became world famous, in any case, not because it was more brutal or shocking than others, but simply because it had been well photographed.

Along with millions of others I saw the TV footage on the news the next night. The televised scene, I realize now, was hardly more informative than the single still shot now found in many books on Vietnam, though more grisly. For here was a drama without exposition: we simply saw a man, frightened-looking and helpless, shot down without warning or explanation by a dour gunman dressed in fatigues. The prisoner had possibly been caught in the act of some other no less atrocious act, but as I recall, the TV announcer gave no such explanation. (Maybe there was some mention of context, but even if so, it could hardly compete with the power of the naked image.)

There are other distortions as well. The film I saw, as I only came to understand later, must have been edited to eliminate the spurting blood, the exploding fragments of bone and flesh that surely were visible in the original footage. (In a similar way, the Zapruder film of President Kennedy being killed was normally shown in edited form.) The man simply grimaced and sat down, dead without the intervening stage of dying, gone without mess, like a Hollywood hero. Is it this unreality that makes the image particularly terrible?

Difficult questions are raised here. If the purpose of showing the film in the first place was to shock us—and who could deny it?—then why not go all the way? If the TV producer's intent had been to avoid sheer sensationalism, I would surely remember at least an attempt to put the scene in context: statements by the General, interviews with bystanders, list of the prisoner's alleged crimes, something. No, what we were given was mostly pure sensation, brutality unmoored. So why the decorum of editing away the blood? We had seen blood before, in many film clips, in some Life photographs, not to mention the copiously spilled stage-blood of film directors like Sam Peckinpah. We knew well enough (or would, given thought) that when a gun is fired point-blank into someone's skull, there is going to be a mess. Yet I wager we all would have known instinctively, just as the TV producer did, just where to draw the line in 1968. To the extent that he rationalized his decision at all, it must have been in terms like these: "we'll show the violence and cruelty," he might have said, "but we won't wallow in it. We must spare the feelings of our viewers, consonant with our obligation to report what happened." Or so I imagine a high-minded producer may have argued; more likely, he simply knew that the scene would shock and arouse, and therefore was good footage. In any case, the decision to edit would have seemed entirely proper and normal—just as, a generation later, news outlets around the world mostly chose not to show viewers the actual decapitation in Iraq, just the prelude to it.

Yet I think there is a fundamental sense in which you can't have it both ways: the producer may have been cynical or high-minded, but not both, because one cannot simultaneously act to spare the audience's feelings and also to arouse them. And in fact, it seems that most television, especially documentary and news programming, has as a main function arousal, not merely the conveying of information. If this were not true, news shows would be immune to competition for high ratings. We would have more thirty-minute segments on economic policy, and fewer clips of airline crashes, terrorist violence, all the predictably photogenic aftermath of freak accidents. Public television would not need taxpayer support.

Was I aroused? Of course I was, and not just because I was an impressionable and naive fifteen-year-old in 1968. I enjoy the scene at more than one uncomfortable level, even today. For one thing, the scene is clearly pornographic, in that we see another person being humiliated publicly, his suffering exposed to the world, his humanity denied, his last moment transformed to gruesome theater. I am shamefully drawn to this scene because it is forbidden, because I am not the man being humiliated but can imagine it. Photography has many and various powers, but chief among them is what Roland Barthes called each image's "certificate of presence," which explains the fascination we feel before photos of all kinds, but especially those that portray the forbidden, the strange, the hideous and uncanny. This fundamental pull toward unfamiliar reality links such apparently dissimilar uses of photography as news photos, tourist postcards, pornography, and microscopic imagery.

The potential perversity of photographic imagery is nowhere more aptly illustrated than in the collection of Pulitzer Prize photos entitled Moments, an anthology of news photographs dating from World War II through Vietnam. With surprisingly few exceptions, the award-winning images are appalling, frequently recording fatalities. General Loan's murder is included, as are a dismaying number of other violent occasions, including assassinations, battles, traffic accidents, racial brutalities, riots, and plane crashes. The few nonviolent images—a baby's birth, a candidate with a hole in his shoe—stand out as welcome exceptions. The editors are aware of this bias, though they remark rather ingenuously that although there is violence aplenty in their book, it simply reflects "the violence in the lives around us," and that nevertheless we also see "bravery, compassion, dedication, joy, and so much more of the day-to-day human qualities that surround us." The fatuity of their uplifting language here very nearly masks the completeness with which they beg the question: why are prize-winning photographs so uniformly miserable? Why not record moments of unadulterated joy, dedication, and compassion, rather than always seeking these qualities within disaster?

A particularly ghastly sequence from 1976 shows a Boston woman and her child trying to flee their burning apartment. The fire escape they stand on suddenly collapses, sending both of them plunging down toward the lucky photographer in the street. He is able to capture several shots of the two in mid-flight. The woman died on impact, the caption rather needlessly informs us; but it turns out that this information is merely the prelude to a further grim twist: the fact that the child survived its fall by landing on top of the mother. A miracle. Clearly the purpose of this caption is to allow us to savor the full shock of the moment, both from the woman's and from the child's perspectives.

Not to mention the perspective of the photographer: the text throughout Moments records more about the photographers' feelings than it does about the events themselves. Their luck, skill, and excitement at finding themselves in the right place at the right time are continually emphasized. More than one photographer expresses a certain unease at being so close to violence and yet remaining unscathed, but the deeper implications of this unease are barely touched on. And it is striking to note that several of the photographers make the same sort of remark about the murders they have recorded. As Eddie Adams put it, describing the taking of his photograph of General Loan's summary execution, "When he fired, I fired."

This identification of camera with gun remains disturbing, however commonplace it has become in books on photography. So an even less admirable reaction to the Vietnam photo derives from my identifying not with the dead man but, through the camera's lens, with General Loan. I cannot help my questions: how much did the gun weigh? What were his thoughts as he pulled the trigger? Righteousness? Secret glee? Self-satisfaction? Weariness? Or, worst thought, nothing at all? My own worst thought, I suppose, is simply the thrill of the absolute: imagining that satisfaction, its casual deployment in ending life. Bang-bang, you're dead. News photography not only allows a viewer to engage in this sort of shameful daydream; I suspect that in its very nature it encourages such thinking.

I suspect but cannot prove this point. The larger issue is context, however, and it seems inescapable that there are significant dangers involved when photographs and films of violence are objectified, removed from their original situations. A full accounting would demand more information than any book like Moments is prepared to offer. For example, what happened to General Loan? The last I heard he was living in exile in the United States, had started a restaurant business and a new life, and was unrepentant. It seems useless to judge him now, unless we know the full circumstances surrounding his act, unless we recognize how many other brutalities went unrecorded, and unless we fully admit our own guilty attraction to viewing his action. Yet I imagine that something even less pleasant than judgment has descended on the General. For as the still photo of his murder has of course outlasted the film footage in popular memory, it has become a shorthand symbol for a whole complex of feelings about Vietnam with which he can hardly be expected to agree.

For instance, in one of Woody Allen's movies (Stardust Memories, I think), we find that Allen's character has hung a huge blow-up of this photo in his apartment, along with other frightful scenes. His point is both humorous and not, an example of his character's (and probably his country's) showy neuroses. As I understand it, Allen must be both expressing and criticizing liberal unease over the War, the guilt of those who did not go, especially those whose social status protected them. I don't expect that anyone but an American who has lived through the Vietnam era would completely understand the complicated levels of irony in Allen's black-comic use of those photographs. The untethered cruelty of the original scene has further escaped its own context to become, in Allen's hands, a crudely effective symbol for an entire social and psychological malaise. Thus we may say that by now this photograph, taken for commercial and documentary purposes, has passed through its role as propaganda to become, finally, art. The photographer, after all, won a prestigious award.

This tendency of shocking photographs to lose their potency and eventually beautify all manner of ugliness has troubled many commentators. Photographer Robert Adams, in his book Beauty in Photography, comes to the rueful conclusion that, with notable exceptions, "the static visual arts are not well suited to the direct exploration of evil. Various media can report on evil, but a single painting or sculpture or photograph rarely resolves our feelings about it into that balance of emotions toward which art has traditionally been understood to progress." He continues, asserting that "the arts that do the best job with evil as their avowed subject are the narrative arts such as drama and fiction; good and evil are important to us finally as matters of choice, and to show the reality of choice requires that time pass, time for decisions to be made and paid for."

If we have a legitimate complaint about the way television news is presented, it lies here: by focusing so doggedly on shocking moments, even film manages to approach the static quality of a work of art. Of course, there is good art and bad art. The problem with both still photo and televised scene lies not in the images themselves, but in the way they are shown. The film footage of General Loan, so long as it is shown without appreciable commentary, will remain more symbolic than documentary—an effective figurative indication that war is indeed hellish, but not much of a specific commentary on the Vietnam War itself. In other words, as time passes, the very real differences between the two forms of this scene (film and still photo) will inevitably diminish.

Thus General Loan, whose version of this event will never, even if known, attain the currency of the photographic image, is in a sense trapped. Just as the film footage I saw removed him from context, the still photo has in turn replaced the film's action with utter stasis. He will eventually be stripped of all his virtues and faults except one—he will be the man with the gun. And the blood that was edited away, which he may also have cropped from his recollections, will gradually vanish even as possibility, leaving only this eerie tableau: an extended arm, sun glinting on polished steel, a man's head recoiling from the bullet that we don't and won't see, only feel.


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