'Civil War' shows importance of photojournalism


I ventured out to the movie theater and saw “Civil War” last week. I enjoyed it, but not because I'm super paranoid about another civil war happening in the U.S., or even particularly because of the plot. I liked it because I'm a narcissistic journalist. There, I said it!

But really, I thought the film was very interesting in its decision to portray the war quite literally through the lens of a photojournalist, played by Kirsten Dunst, and another who is essentially her intern (do those exist during civil war?) played by Cailee Spaeny.

So, I will not be taking any stances on good guys or bad guys. To be frank, those often don't exist in war – typically it comes down to who is better and who is worse. Better can be bad. Worse can be evil. The lines are blurred.

I remember the first time I saw a photo captured during war. I was probably a toddler, or slightly older, when my parents were watching the news and I caught glimpse of a photo that is forever etched in my brain. There was a soldier who was hanging onto his leg, which was swinging by a thread, as his fellow soldiers were doing their best to comfort him and get him to safety.

I don't even remember what conflict it was from – if I had to guess, I'd say it was taken in Iraq. But I knew that my great-grandfather had lost his leg in World War II, and I wondered if that's also what he looked like when it happened. That kept me up all night.

As I got older, I saw more and more photos, both past and present. The Holocaust. Vietnam. Starving African children. I'm sure many of you can close your eyes and think of a photo taken halfway around the world that struck a chord with you.

And they're supposed to. They're supposed to make you stop and think, and maybe even ask questions. “Why are these Vietnamese children screaming and crying and running away from the smoke in the background?” And the answer is that their village had been napalmed. The hard-hitting photo taken by AP photojournalist Nick Ut of young Kim Phuc running naked in the middle of the road outside of her village is a war photo that instantly comes to mind for me, and I'm sure plenty of you know what I'm referring to.

In a 2015 Vanity Fair article written by Mark Edward Harris, Ut looked back on the iconic photo he took in Vietnam.

“First there was a grandmother carrying a baby who died in front of my camera,” Ut is quoted as saying in the article. “Then I saw through the viewfinder of my Leica, the naked girl running. I thought, 'Oh my God. What happened? The girl has no clothes.'”

“...I took almost a roll of Tri-x film of her then I saw her skin coming off and I stopped taking pictures,” he continued. “I didn’t want her to die. I wanted to help her. I put my cameras down on the road. We poured water over this young girl. Her name was Kim Phuc. She kept yelling 'nóng quá' (Too hot). We were all in shock.”

Ut also recalls the girl continually screaming through tears, “I'm dying!” After taking her to the local hospital, Ut said, no one wanted to help the girl because of the multitude of injured soldiers and civilians already occupying beds. After being asked if he could take all the children to the hospital in Saigon, Ut is quoted as telling them no, because the girl was going to die any minute. He showed them his AP media pass and said, “If one of them dies you'll be in trouble.” After that, the girl was taken inside to be treated first.

Now, would the world be a different place if that photo hadn't been taken? I think so. What about the “Tank Man” photo at Tiananmen Square? The raising of the flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima? The mushroom cloud above Nagasaki?

These photos all forced us to stop and ponder the situation each respective image pertained to. Sometimes that prompted a feeling of solidarity, and other times it prompted a feeling of immense guilt and shame.

And that is why photojournalism is so important. We don't know what we don't know, and in these cases, we don't know what we don't see. Would Americans collectively have grown more and more cynical about involvement in Vietnam if it weren't for the photos? On the flip side, would we have felt as much pride in the WWII effort if we didn't have the photo at Iwo Jima to share for generations upon generations?

Most importantly, would we even ask questions at all, or just go along with whatever we're being told by the powers that be? I guess we'll never know. And that's thanks to the brave people who stick out their necks to inform folks back home. Hindsight is 20/20, but we can also see clearly what is put right in front of our faces.