Should Photographers Be Allowed to Photograph the Flag Draped Caskets of Killed US Soldiers?

Clifford“I think it’s very dangerous for a free society to have all the information distilled and packaged by our government and given to us. Do we know to this day who we killed in Iraq? I don’t think so. If bringing war into the living room means that we as a people will say we don’t want to do it that way anymore we want to figure out other ways to solve these conflicts, then I would say that photography and television have done us a great service.”

– Michael Deaver, former Deputy White House Chief of Staff

An interesting article in the NY Times yesterday about photographing the coffins of fallen U.S. soldiers. According to the NYT, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered a review of a military policy which prohibits the media from photographing the coffins of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen.

From the NYT:

“He said he was ordering a review of the military policy that bars photographers from taking pictures of the return of the coffins, most of which are coming from Iraq and Afghanistan and go through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. He also set a “short deadline” for a decision. The military has said the policy is meant to protect the privacy of the families of the dead soldiers and maintain dignity. But skeptics, who include some families as well as opponents of the war in Iraq, say that the bodies in the returning coffins are not publicly identified, so privacy is not an issue, and that barring photographers is a political maneuver meant to sanitize the war.

The policy was put into place in 1991 during the first Gulf war and was renewed by the Bush administration as recently as a year ago when, Mr. Gates said, he raised the possibility of changing it. He said he was told — he did not say by whom — that allowing photographers would put undue pressure on families to go to Dover themselves and that in some cases that would be a hardship.”

My own personal opinion on this one is that you have to put the privacy of the families of these soldiers up against the broader rights to a free press and free speech. Given that there is no identifying information being photographed on these flagged draped caskets, I’d probably lean towards having this rule by the military overturned.

One thing that has been troubling to me about the war in Iraq is how restricted a free press has been. The quote above comes from former Deputy White House Chief of Staff Michael Deaver. Deaver said that in the documentary “American Photography, A Century of Images.” In that documentary Deaver talked a lot about how restrictive photography has become for war reporters.

Many cite the gut wrenching imagery coming from the Vietnam war as being a large part of what eventually ended that war. Even more than video, still images can evoke a power that is unmatched. A naked napalmed girl running down a road. A Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire, Eddie Adam’s famous image of an execution of a Viet Cong. These images leave an indelible imprint on our emotions and thinking.

Having learned how the opposition to the Vietnam War used these images, the current U.S. Military has been far more restrictive with photography in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to prohibiting photographs of things like caskets, the U.S. Military has been even more restrictive on the battle field.

In an article by Michael Kamber and Tim Arango in the NYT, they dig deeper into the pro-censorship policies of the U.S. government asking the question why are there 4,000 U.S. deaths and only a handful of images. In that article they report on the story of Zoriah Miller, a war photographer who took images of marines killed in a suicide attack and then faced tremendous professional repercussions from Maj. Gen. John Kelly who worked to have Miller barred from all U.S. military facilities throughout the world.

From the NYT:

” “It is absolutely censorship,” Mr. Miller said. “I took pictures of something they didn’t like, and they removed me. Deciding what I can and cannot document, I don’t see a clearer definition of censorship.”

The Marine Corps denied it was trying to place limits on the news media and said Mr. Miller broke embed regulations. Security is the issue, officials said.”

Seeing coffin draped caskets may make us all feel uncomfortable. But sometimes that’s what good photography is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. What do you think? Should the U.S. Military begin allowing photographers the ability to photograph flagged draped caskets of U.S. soldiers?

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  1. Filsinger says:

    Unsure what a solider is.

  2. Thomas Hawk says:

    Good point Filsinger. Thanks for catching that! 🙂

  3. Filsinger says:

    I’m a game tester, i notice stupid stuff like that all the time.

  4. Absolutely. It makes people uncomfortable? Gee, that’s too bad. Guess what? Life is not all sunshine and puppies and unicorns.

    They are falling back on the same old “security threat” excuse to cover up things that they don’t want people to see.

  5. Lucas Cobb says:

    Of course they prohibit the photographing of coffins so that the general public can’t put a picture to a number. Yeah, 4000 dead sounds like a lot, but imagine if there was an image tagged to each of those 4000 caskets. Seeing is believing and pictures speak louder than words. I see a photograph taken of a casket paying homage to the fallen soldiers and their families. It puts a face to the event and helps everyone understand the broader picture during war time. I say overturn the policy and allow the photographing of coffins.

  6. Kenton says:

    There was a lot of debate over a similar policy here in Canada when the first Canadian soldier’s bodies came back. Eventually the government relented and allowed TV and still photography. I think they still have a fairly closed ceremony for the family when the coffins first arrive on Canadian soil, but then after that photos are allowed.

  7. matt says:

    where is my comment??

  8. matt says:

    it’s a private moment. it’s a personal moment. why is this even a debate? to think that the families of these heros, ok, the majority of which would probably say, no, get the hell out of my business – it’s a personal moment. sure, go ahead and photography them during every other aspect of military life, but that’s sacred moment that should be up to the family and that person’s loved one.

  9. Mike says:

    How are these in the least “private” or “personal” moments (let alone sacred)? These people died in public service and employ, implementing and as a result of public policies; their remains are returning on public (government) aircraft and vessels to public (government) bases wrapped in the public American flag; and their deaths are necessarily part of public analysis of and debate about the wars. Even if the photographs and presentations showed faces, names and other personal information, these subjects are absolutely public and of the highest public interest.

  10. Dave says:

    I was at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and I saw this great piece of art by Emily Prince. Photographers may not be able to photograph the coffins but artists can use the Military records to illustrate the point.

  11. […] Thomas Hawk – Should Photographers Be Allowed to Photograph Flag Draped Caskets? "Seeing coffin draped caskets may make us all feel uncomfortable. But sometimes that’s what good photography is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you feel uncomfortable." (tags: photography) […]

  12. Well I can see it from both sides to be honest, of course people should be aloud to photograph and report on things like this. On the other hand, it can be difficult to fight a war if you have the public getting on there high horse every time a soldier gets killed.

  13. Mike says:

    >>it can be difficult to fight a war if you have the public getting on there high horse every time a soldier gets killed<<

    Well, yes, precisely. That’s why we *need* photographs of dead soldiers – why the public must be presented with the butcher’s bill. Wars that the public cannot stomach probably should not be fought. We need a ranch full of High Horses, to ride herd on the generals and presidents who all too easily send soldiers to die in secret and for unworthy causes – we need it to be difficult to fight all but the most necessary wars (and we haven’t had one lately).

  14. furiousennui says:

    Who precisely is being protected by censoring these images? As unidentified coffins, certainly not the families of the deceased.

    From the perspective of someone outside of the USA, and who has lived in the USA, this is yet another example of the dangerous combination of hypocrisy, hubris and ignorance that the rest of the world sees when it looks into the heart of the USA.

    The only things “protected” by this form of censorship are the political careers of those who allowed this farce to perpetuate, the bottom lines of the vast military-industrial complex that bankrolls a plutocratic US system of government, and that needs to test it’s latest weapons of mass & specific destruction in order to assure future funding and sales, and the misbegotten concept of the USA as “world policeman” (self-appointed, and no objection brooked, lest they send troops to your country to “restore order”).

  15. Jon says:

    As a soldier, and a photographer, I can see the issue in both ways. Granted, I don’t think coffins draped with flags are an invasion of a family, though it definitely can be if the photographer attaches the name of the deceased to the photo.

    As for the comment of people on a high horse, and the fact that we need a herd of them. Anyone remember the Vietnam war, and the soldiers that were spit on and ridiculed for partaking in the war regardless of whether they volunteered or were drafted? Yes, please, I want to come home to my country and have a lot of high horses attacking me as they don’t see any other way to protest a war than by making the lives of soldiers difficult. A lot of people don’t agree with the war, personally, I have lost quite a few friends as it is, and there were a bunch of high horses at the funeral of these soldiers – protesting the funeral, and saying it is “God’s” will that these men and women die as they fought in an unjust war. From that, yes, I believe that taking pictures of coffins can be a security risk, not necessarily for the Government, but for those that are fighting, and their families. If people could properly channel their anger at the war, or that young men and women are dying it it so that it didn’t actually hurt those who swear the oath to defend the country that we all live in; then yes, by all means, honor those that die by taking a photograph in their memory. But I do believe the media has done their share in blemishing those that serve already as I walk down some streets and get an enormous amount of swear words flung in my direction because I swore an oath to defend those that I sometimes have doubts of deserving it.

    For those that may read this and disagree with what I say, I offer you, walk a mile in our shoes and you will see how the media has affected the perception of the Soldiers that defend America. When you realize the perception, will more photo’s of coffins help or hurt the soldiers?

  16. […] photography and the military; imagine that, I have an invested interest in both.  Read the article here.  I posted my thoughts about the subject on his blog, but here it is for those that don’t […]

  17. Anonymous says:

    I was raised in a Marine Corp family and have had family and friends over in iraq. I find it a totally disgrace for our soldiers to have picture takin of them coming into dover or on their way home to thier family. The government honor those men and women all the way home. we know what is happening over there and if you dont your stupid. we dont need picture to see it. I want to thank all of those over there or have been and that my prays are with you and the families of those.