April 25, 2004
Weekly Column By
'Almost Every Night We Send Them Home'
This is a picture you are not intended to see. It is of a subject the media are not allowed access to. It was taken by a civilian contract worker who worked the night shift at the U.S. military section of Kuwait International Airport, south of Kuwait City. It shows U.S. casualties from Iraq being shipped to Germany in the cargo hold of a transport. "So far this month, almost every night we send them home...it's tough, really tough."
The photographer, Tami Silicio, said she intended to show the great care with which the corpses of the fallen are treated, and the honor that is accorded them. "The way everyone salutes with such emotion and intensity and respect...the families would be proud to see their sons and daughters saluted like that."
It's not for me to tell you what to feel about this picture. You might interpret it as an anti-war photograph. You might interpret it as a paean to patriotism and noble sacrifice in the service of the republic. You might feel sadness and loss. You might feel anger. It's up to you. I merely think it should be up to you — that government censorship is un-American, and bad for democracy. To act as effective citizens, we must be informed. To me, the picture is a reminder that what we photographers do is to bear witness to what we know and consider important...whether it's nature's beauty, or our children as they grow, or the realities of war.
On Thursday, the photographer who took this and her husband were both fired from their jobs as a result of the release of this picture and others like it...even though it was the Air Force that released the pictures in the first place. The Air Force later decided that it had violated its own policies. The photographer worked for Colorado-based Maytag Aircraft Corp., a subsidiary of Mercury Air Group Inc., a Pentagon contractor. The Pentagon denied it had any involvement in the retaliation against the Silicios. You can decide what you think about that for yourself, too.
The Pentagon said that more than 700 American military personnel have been killed in Iraq, more than 100 so far in April. More than 3,000 more have been seriously injured or maimed.
(Thanks to Art Elkon.)
— Mike Johnston
Addendum/correction/amplification: This is a breaking story, and still evolving. The photograph above, taken by Tami Silicio, was not released by the Air Force. As best I can reconstruct at 2:00 EST Saturday, the above photograph was taken "for training purposes" (according to the Seattle Times) in Kuwait. Subsequently, the website memoryhole.org made a Freedom of Information Act request for photographs of Iraqi war dead, and the Air Force released a number of pictures taken at Dover AFB to them. Memoryhole is currently down due to heavy traffic, but there is a mirror of those photographs here: http://warblogging.com/mirrors/www.thememoryhole.org/war/coffin_photos/dover /gallery.htm
As if that weren't confusing enough, there is a memo published at nasa.gov from one "Bob Jacobs" (otherwise unidentified in the memo) stating that the first 17 rows of these photographs were in fact of the Space Shuttle disaster astronauts taken in February 2003. While that seems dubious, I have no certain evidence to the contrary.
The picture above was evidently e-mailed privately by the photographer to a friend, one Amy Katz, who then leaked it to the Seattle Times, which published it. The Seattle Times contacted Ms. Silicio, who discussed it with them "reluctantly." Ms. Silicio did not receive any payment for the photograph and, according to the Newspaper, did not have any control over the decision to publish it, which had already been made when she was contacted. What this means is that Ms. Silicio and her husband were fired because she e-mailed the picture to her friend privately. Subsequently, Ms. Katz has retained an agent to help disseminate or sell the photograph, but either she, or Ms. Silicio, or both, have claimed that any revenues generated will be donated to charity.
If I receive any other pertinent information indicating that what I've written requires correction, I will update the record next week, and we will add the correction to this file for future viewers. — MJ.
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Mike Johnston writes and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine called The 37th Frame for people who are really "into" photography. His book, The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.