From Baghdad to Paris: David Shields on the problem with New York Times’ war photography
With his new book War Is Beautiful, David Shields wants people to confront the influence the New York Times has over media and the power its images have over us.
The New York Times has been routinely criticized over the last decade for its percieved responsibility in drumming up support for the war in Iraq, particularly Judith Miller’s reporting on weapons of mass destruction. But it’s not as common to hear criticism of the Times’ choice in war photography. Photojournalists put their lives on the line every day, after all, and a photograph is less likely to contain bias, right?
Shields is the author of sixteen fiction and non-fiction books. Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity received the PEN/Revson Award. Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and PEN USA Award, was named one of 1999's ten best books of non-fiction by Esquire, Newsday, Los Angeles Weekly, and Amazon.com.
He is best known for Reality Hunger, a treatise on fair use and appropriation that was praised by The New York Times and many other outlets.
He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter where he is a Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington.
Photo by Lia Bekyan for Hopes&Fears
With his new photobook War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict, David Shields is taking aim at what he characterizes as the “war porn” routinely seen on the front page of America’s most respected paper of record. After sorting through more than 9,000 cover images, Shields has collected examples of what he sees as an overwhelming pattern to push for painterly photographs that hide the true costs of war behind a pleasurable aesthetic. Using minimal text, Shields introduces his point of view and arranges the photos into ten categories, beginning each section with a quote, and then letting the photos do the talking. For instance, the second section is entitled “Playground.” Shields says that this category promotes the idea that “War is the playground that authorizes the male psyche to exercise its passions.” The section begins with the John Hoagland quote, “Combat is the poor man’s cocaine.” And then the next few pages show troops playing baseball, climbing rope or fooling around with homemade puppets. Aside from a blurb-filled cover (designed by Milton Glaser) with endorsements from Noam Chomsky, Ira Glass, Jonathan Lethem and many others, text is kept to a minimum and the visuals handle the argument.
Shields believes that the images the New York Times chooses set a tone for the rest of the media landscape, and that they can wreak havoc when it comes to an informed populace’s acceptance of the horrors of war.
Hopes&Fears met with the author in Manhattan to discuss the golden age of photojournalism, whether an honest combat photo is even possible, and where the Times went wrong in covering the recent attacks in Paris.
Hopes&Fears: Truffaut's often quoted as saying there’s no such thing as an anti-war film because the spectacle’s just too compelling. Can there be an anti-war photograph?
david Shields: The book tries to ask the question “Who’s at fault?” Is it war itself? Is it irreducibly glamourous? The photographer Tim Page—he photographed in Vietnam—said you can’t take the bloody glamour out of a bloody war. Is the problem in us, or in the viewer, or even possibly in me seeing more beauty there than is even intended?
I think people sort of see these images as very sorrowful—or is it in the Times itself? Am I showing the glamour? Are we seeing the glamour? Or is the Times partially complicit?
I’m not sure Truffaut is totally right. There’s certainly a spectrum between hugely war-besotted movies and films that push against that, just to take an easy example, Band of Brothers and Full Metal Jacket. Are both the same thing? Truffaut is, in a good way, problematizing the question. In a way, I’m similarly hoping to worry the question. The fault doesn’t lie by any means entirely with the Times as the "big bad boogeyman" here. It’s partly the Times, partly war itself. The book is after all called War Is Beautiful, and part of the book’s argument is multi-layered, that war is beautiful and adrenalizes the senses in ways that no other human activity does.
In a way, these pieces capture the irreducible glamour of war. On the other hand, the New York Times does almost no course correction; these photos are in a swoon to war’s beauty. As Picasso says, “good taste is the enemy of great art.” And these pics are always so exquisitely tasteful, and great art pushes way beyond good taste. I think of the picture on Sunday, just yesterday, that front page pic of one broken wine glass and one unbroken wine glass in a Paris restaurant. This was their, to me, terribly tasteful representation of the Paris bombing. It was sending all sorts of encrypted cultural messages, many of which, to me, are relatively problematic. I like Truffaut's question, it doesn’t totally absolve the Times of its predictably and repetitiously patterned system of sort of war photo as corporate folk art. That pattern is utterly persistent.
The front page of the Sunday New York Times, November 15, 2015
In this handout photo from the U.S. Army, Gen. David H. Petraeus explains security improvements in Sadr City while giving an aerial tour of Baghdad Monday to Sen.'s Barack Obama, Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel.
H&F: To throw another quote at you, NYU professor Sheril Antonio has suggested that a film gets closer to being anti-war if it can present the tragedy for both sides. Is there an example of a photograph that you believe has accomplished that?
SHIELDS: That’s great because it shows the useless tragic comedy of it. That’s a brilliant point. There’s a great history of war photography - Matthew Brady’s Civil War photos, Robert Capa’s World War 2 photos, Eddie Adams and Tim Page's Vietnam photos. No picture comes blithering to mind right now. I do think of that photo that Colin Powell saw in a New Yorker portfolio of photographs that moved Powell to endorse Obama against McCain in 2008. It was a whole sequence of New Yorker photographs—they ran a series of about 12—several years ago, including a really powerful photograph of a U.S. Soldier who had come back from Iraq or Afghanistan with an unbelievably disfigured face.
It was a powerful photo of a woman looking with utter trepidation at her husband to be. He was in full Marine dress and she was in a wedding dress, and she was about to be married to this man with an utterly—his face was just blown to shreds. If that doesn’t show you the cost of war... Even the Times has a history of great combat photography through Vietnam—through a whole series of economic and cultural and social and political reasons. It seems to me that the Times has moved increasingly away from any picture that might afflict the comfortable or comfort the afflicted.
There must be many that show both sides. Can you think of any?
H&F: The Civil War example is great because there’s no clear delineation between the two sides.
SHIELDS: Yeah, they would look identical. Sometimes brothers fighting on different sides. I do think between the embedding of journalists and the ubiquity of the web, and the decline of print journalism, the Times’ attempted to hold on to its power with the readership and the government. This series of reasons have pushed the Times as a test case. I’m not interested in the Times per se, I could have done it about Time magazine or something, but the Times is a unique brand that is the most influential newspaper in the English-speaking world.
Hf: Given your history as an advocate for a more liberal approach to fair use, primarily with your book Reality Hunger, I’m curious if you retained permission to re-publish these photographs?
SHIELDS: I think you’re definitely right or wise to connect this book to Reality Hunger. The publisher bought, through the photo agencies, the rights to the pictures so that fair use issue was relatively mild.
But the book is connected to Reality Hunger in that a lot of the book’s argument or critique is that the photographs suffer from a bewildering dearth of hunger to capture reality. A lot of my critique of the pictures is precisely that they err on the side of swooning beauty rather than attempting to observe some sort of reality. They’re instead trapped in these western pictorial tropes of Pietá or combat photo as a war movie or combat photo as Modernist painting. A lot of my critique is, where’s the reality here? These pictures have no hunger for the real. They’re very much in bed with the kind of vacantly beautiful. So I think the connections are really interesting.
H&F: You quote Gore Vidal saying that the Times is the "Typhoid Mary of journalism." Do you see the Times as this sort of viral agent infecting everyone? Do your observations apply to American journalism, in general, not just the Times?
SHIELDS: It’s a famously punching quote of Vidal’s, but the idea is that the Times doesn’t get sick or doesn’t get blamed. I’m using Vidal to articulate my point because I can’t improve on what Vidal said, but it’s a powerful metaphor that the Times disseminates a kind of toxic jingoism, imperialism, flag-waving, cheerleading military parade, but the Times weirdly stands above the fray as the imperial arbiter, "the paper of record," "the news that's fit to print," "the first draft of history," and somehow that disseminates an ideology that gets reprinted in the Kansas City Star, the Des Moines Register, and to a degree the LA Times, network news and cable news and in a way NPR. They kind of set each day's 24-hour news cycle in American journalism. And so that’s the argument, that the Times never gets typhus, but everyone else gets the Times virulent.
David Shields breaks down the ways that the New York Times front page makes war "beautiful" into 10 categories
Read the explanations here.
Left: U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman HM1 Richard Barnett, assigned to the 1st Marine Division, holds an Iraqi child in central Iraq, March 29, 2003. Photograph by Damir Sagolj/Reuters. Middle: Pietà (Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna) 1460 by Giovanni Bellini Right: Ali Hadi, a professional body washer, prepares the body of a bombing victim for Muslim burial as the man's relatives watch in Najaf, Iraq, on March 3, 2004. Photograph by Joao Silva/The New York Times
H&F: As you mention, you break the photos down into 10 different categories. One of them is God, and you suggest that the images portray the military as commanding the globe. Is this a uniquely American approach or do you observe it in other countries?
SHIELDS: Just as the Times stands in weird relationship to the rest of the American media landscape, it seems to me that America stands in the same relationship to the rest of the western world as the one imperial power. Almost any time the president becomes president-elect, the Times almost always runs a photo like this [points to image of Obama surveying Iraq from a helicopter]. Obama was president-elect at this time, or it’s possible he was only the Democratic nominee, and that’s David Petraeus before his fall from grace, and he’s giving Obama a tour of, I think, Baghdad. That pic to me is doing serious and important cultural work. I’m trying to teach myself and, in a way, the reader and viewer to read against the picture. This pic is saying “Finally, all is right with the world. The commander-in-chief is the commander-in-chief of the globe.” It’s such a god’s eye view and it’s an amazingly glamorous picture. Obama looks like James Bond; Petraeus looks like he has it all figured out.
I could show you many pictures like this, every time a president-elect is about to assume office almost this same picture runs. That kind of visual trope is really interesting. A kind of reassurance is being sent. The point being that the Times runs this pic because the Times in a way, in its own imagination, is the only paper that counts. And America, in its own imagination, is the only country that counts. Or at least in each case they’re the one imperial, hegemonic, agenda-setting entity. America sets the agenda for England, France, etc, and the Times in a way sets the agenda for the Denver Post. The Swiss army isn’t going to send that photo of their commander in chief; it would be absurd because the Swiss army doesn’t command the globe.
h&F: You used Vietnam as an example of great war photography. What changed and why?
SHIELDS: One is the brilliant military move of keeping your friends close and enemies closer. Basically, the government embedded journalists and photojournalists with combat troops so, on the one hand, you’re gaining access, but on the other you have huge amounts of censorship and self-censorship. Starting with the Gulf War, you see the Times’ war photography move from more ambitious Pulitzer-prize winning photography by Eddie Adams in Vietnam—the famous pic of the girl running naked through napalm—those pics seem to me increasingly less likely, almost impossible in the current times ecology. I think another factor is right wing propaganda machines are on the lookout for any organization whether it’s NPR or the Times to show any kind of left bias.
Right wing think tanks are pushing things towards the center, or the center-right, I think you can’t overestimate the ubiquity of the web so that pics can get disseminated immediately from a foxhole to the Times and back within a second. Therefore, pics can effectively be vetted by the very troops that the photographer is embedded with.
I think that this kind of odd intersection of military industrial media complex in which the Times tries to hold onto its brand by having the ear of the government, and part of the courtship of the government so that the Times can gain access is, to me, whether consciously or unconsciously, to run pics that are problematically respectful, dignified, noble, airbrushed. Yes, on page 38 at the end of a story there might be a paragraph that talks about the cost of war, but boy that lead picture is going to frame the whole discussion as an essentially dignified and noble and above all worthy sacrifice. From 1974, '73, '72 they were running sometimes astonishingly visceral Vietnam pics. Then, they started to run color as of '97, pushing it toward a more pictorial tradition. Hickey points this out really well: “Basically flying dirt of World War II became flying paint of abstract expressionism." All of these photographers have gone to school with all of these modernist masterpieces. Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg, Pollock, Rothko, and all of these photographers and photo editors have been hugely schooled in the last 40 years on 20th-century pictorial masterpieces or master artists. The photographers are running footnotes of these paintings. In my slightly paranoid reading, they’re no longer sort of seeing what’s on the ground. They’re trying to find a picture that looks like a faint copy of a Jackson Pollock.
It’s ok if you’re running a sort of swooning beauty of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller center to make tourists come to New York. Ok, no harm was done.
But when you’re essentially selling, moving lambs led to slaughter, this is how consent gets manufactured. That’s real and that counts and the Times has a megaphone responsibility and capability that the Des Moines Register doesn’t have.
A Palestinian youth stands in front of a burning vehicle during clashes between rival Fatah and Hamas in Gaza City, May 14, 2007. Photograph by Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images
H&F: Do you think that citizen journalism is a possible solution?
SHIELDS: A lot of the best war photography comes from people who have smuggled images out on their own blog or special website or camera phone, and they tend not to be from journalists embedded within huge institutions whether the military or New York Times. I do think that’s part of it. Another part of it would be not to look towards the Times…for us just to be an educated, skeptical republic of citizens who would basically learn to read against these pictures and the agenda-setting that these photos do, whether it’s the wine glasses on the front page Sunday or the photograph a few days ago of four astonishingly beautiful Syrian women burying their dead on Thursday.
There’s also us as citizens learning to read against the cover of the New York Times as any kind of agenda setting. Learn of the agenda that gets set, and learn to be terribly skeptical. People like Jon Stewart and Colbert have taught us to be skeptical consumers of media, whether it's Fox News or CNN. But I think the Times weirdly avoids such scrutiny as some sort of weird pseudo-neutral arbiter above the fray.
Third, I'm trying to challenge or push, perhaps naively, the Times to reconsider its pictorial choices and to challenge them to stop being kind of a consultant to the government and pseudo-neutral authority.
I don’t know if the Times is aware of this. I suspect that they are; it's an open question. Is this my paranoid reading? Is the Times highly aware of these patterns and happily executing them?
The thing I’m arguing about is what happened when 60 Minutes ran the feature on the difference between the rhetoric of the Reagan administration visuals and what actually happened. The Reagan admin was actually delighted because, as they knew, no one pays attention to the actual words, but people pay attention to the images. A Times pic is worth 1,000 mirrors, it resonates and ripples throughout the culture. Say on Sunday, when the New York Times runs a photo on A1 upper left corner, full summary of the Paris attacks with a crystal wine glass that had gotten shattered and one that hadn’t gotten shattered, to me, my reading of it as a relatively educated viewer, it did evoke the [Night of Broken Glass] which was essentially the beginning of World War II. That was an unmistakeable echo.
That’s what that picture says. It is Paris rather than Berlin, but Paris isn’t that far from Berlin, and also the civilization of France—vive la France—is well worth preserving. You don’t want to have to stop drinking your beloved Burgundy do you? It was sending powerful [messages] ... there is civilization, there is the destruction of civilization. It was basically echoing France's statement that this is an act of war. It looked like a relatively neutral picture, but in my reading it was carrying encrypted cultural messages.
H&F: It also came just days after President Hollande said that he wouldn't have an official dinner with Iran because they wouldn't allow wine at the table. A clash of cultures he couldn't tolerate.
SHIELDS: The picture looks like it could as well be a picture for an advertisement for fancy wine. I’ve seen pictures of this Danish blogger who took photos of the Paris bombing that are considerably different, which the Telegraph in the UK ran, this picture of just naked blood. I think the relationship of color photography, and that most people would see the photo on the web, and that it can be disseminated worldwide, that picture sort of has to live everywhere, and I think it’s pushed the Times increasingly toward a pseudo neutral picture that is nevertheless doing huge amounts of cultural work. What you said about the prime minister not sitting down for dinner and what I said about [what the photo symbolizes], those are all congealed there, and perhaps the Times was aware of that, but it’s good to point that stuff out.
COVER PHOTO: A severe sandstorm blanketed a convoy from the Headquarters Battalion of the 1st Marine Division north of the Euphrates River in Iraq, on March 25, 2003. Original editors’ note: Photo has orange overcast because of sand storm — do not color-correct. Photography by Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times.