Half the truth is not enough

Nyani Quarmyne is a Ghanaian/ Filipino/ Australian photographer. He is spending 2009 traveling in North America in support of a personal project. Visit his website at http://www.nqphotography.com. This essay was published in the BusinessWorld’s September 28, 2009 edition, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Photographer Julie Jacobson recently captured an image of Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard moments after he was fatally wounded by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade. The photo was shot from a distance, apparently while Jacobson herself was under fire, and is somewhat blurry. Yet it is clear enough to convey the carnage that has been wrought, and the squalid ditch in which the dead man fell. In fact, the blur of motion in the photo serves to focus the viewer’s eye on the part of the image that is sharpest—the stricken soldier’s motionless torso and hauntingly vacant face. The photo also depicts the valor of the slain man’s comrades, who are a blur as they rush to his aid, an element of the story that much of the writing I have seen on the subject fails to note.

Not surprisingly, controversy is raging around the photograph in the US media. How could the Associated Press (AP) release this image? In fact, how could the photographer even shoot such an image? How could the AP and the photographer be so disrespectful of the slain soldier’s family and memory? Don’t they know he was someone with loved ones for whom such an image must cause untold anguish? Even US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates weighed in to request that the image not be released.

On the other side are those who assert that it is the media’s role to tell the truth, and the truth is that war is ugly and that this is what happens to American soldiers in a war. If we’re going to tell the truth, they ask, then shouldn’t we also be honest about all the innocents who are casualties of American munitions? Furthermore, say those who support the photograph’s publication, if we think that this image of an American soldier should not be published out of respect for his loved ones, then how can we not accord the same respect to slain opponents? Don’t they also have loved ones who grieve?

I support the image’s publication, and in fact I’m disappointed that most media chose not to run it. Not because I think that people should have to look at the horrors of war, but because I’m disappointed that the questions it rightly provokes are not being more widely asked. Questions, I guess, that the media which declined to publish the photo are unwilling to ask. I believe, naively perhaps, that the role of the media is to inform, and that to show the reality of war in a one-sided way is to tell a propagandist half truth.

My greater disappointment, however, is that the focus of the controversy is whether or not the image should have been published, rather than whether or not Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard should have been there to be blown up in the first place.

Most of us fundamentally want the same things—a roof over our heads, peace and safety, the chance to improve our lot in life, the opportunity for our children to flourish, the right of self-determination. I love to travel because it allows me to explore, celebrate and understand our differences—cultures, histories, cuisine, music, philosophies, approaches to life. And I love to travel even more because it allows me to explore, celebrate and understand our sameness.

There will always be people, however, who will try to convince us that our differences outweigh our sameness. They will try to subvert causes and beliefs to further their own agenda; will trade morals, values and empathy for gain, power, perceived security, whatever. They will try to convince us that the path to the freedoms we want must be forged at the expense of others. There will always be people like that. But, damn it, do we have to let them play us?

Photographer Ami Vitale was asked whether or not she thought Americans and Muslims could find common ground. She said, “[American] journalists are giving this narrative that our life, our values are somehow isolated from the rest of the world, like, America is a different planet with different values. It’s copyrighted and nobody shares these same values. Actually, there are more similarities than differences between religions and humanity. The way to common ground is by seeing yourself in others.”

If more of us in the world thought this way, perhaps we would not feel the need to impose our collective will on others; maybe we would not feel so threatened by those who are not outwardly like us. Maybe if more of us thought this way, we would not allow ourselves to be played.

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