Fallen Marine's photo shows a more human war

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:40 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

"Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised." – Susan Sontag

It is hard to believe that in this age of hyper-realistic violent imagery that a blurred photo of a mortally injured Marine can be so shocking. And yet, there was a national response to The Associated Press photo that ran in the Missourian and other papers across the world on Sept. 4.

Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard, all of 21 years old, was the injured Marine in the photograph. The image was made soon after he was struck in the legs by a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan. It depicts fellow Marines rushing to Bernard’s assistance. It is blurred, but there is an ominous pool of red amid the blur. Bernard died during surgery the night the photograph was made from a blood clot in his heart.

On Sept. 4, I picked up a copy of the Missourian and, after examining the front-page image of a Mizzou football player, turned to page 3A. The photo, by embedded AP photographer Julie Jacobson, ran three columns wide and was the newspaper equivalent of being pushed into Lake Michigan in December. I had to look, and look again and then again to be sure, but that blob of blood red on the page was undeniable.

The story, by Jacobson and AP reporter Alfred De Montesquiou, that accompanied the image was descriptive and in my mind as graphic as the photo: "Bernard lay on the ground, two Marines standing over him exposed, trying to help. A first tourniquet on Bernard's leg broke. A medic applied another.

'I can't breathe, I can't breathe,' Bernard said. Troops crawling under the bullets dragged him to the MRAP, the mine-resistant armored vehicle that accompanied the patrol."

And this is really what bothers me about the public reaction: The photo is unacceptable — even unpatriotic — to publish, but the words are not to be so censored. Bernard’s parents talked with reporters at their home in Maine and spoke of Bernard’s love of literature and his faith in God. But John Bernard found the image to be disrespectful of his son’s memory. Defense Secretary Robert Gates even asked the AP to hold the photo back.

War is ugly — about that there is no doubt. In the Missourian, you are far more likely to encounter images of press conferences, festivals and football games than images of war from far away. The photo of Bernard’s injuries is painful, breathtaking and, unlike so many other stories and photographs in the newspaper that day, it was stunningly immediate and emotionally real.

"Images transfix. Images anesthetize," critic and author Susan Sontag wrote in "On Photography." “An event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been if one had never seen the photographs.”

The AP released excerpts of Jacobson’s journal entries. In them, she wrote of the image: “Death is a part of life and most certainly a part of war. Isn't that why we're here? To document for now and for history the events of this war? We'd shot everything else thus far and even after, from feature images of a Marine talking on a SAT phone to his girlfriend, all the way to happy meetings between Marines and civilians.”

Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard is one of 807 Americans killed in Afghanistan since 2001. This is an agonizing statistic. Because the agony of Bernard’s death should really be felt 806 times over.  I saw the photo. I read the story. And I felt it.

Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and current page designer for the Missourian. She is also a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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