Khalid Mohammed, a photographer for the Associated Press, took a picture 10 years ago of two charred American bodies hanging from a bridge and surrounded by a crowd of cheering Iraqis. His was far from the only photograph depicting the killing and mutilation of four civilian contractors on the streets of Fallujah on March 31, 2004, and the attack, while horrific, was far from the most militarily important event of the then one-year-old war. At this point, the number of Americans dead in Iraq was nearing 600, including five killed the same day as the contractors in a separate incident. But the power of Mohammed’s image and others like it—each a presentation of a visual spectacle invented by a mob—drove coverage of the attack, making it one of the most significant events of the war.
The horror of the image is multilayered, dawning rather than immediate. The composition draws the viewer to the smiling face of a young Iraqi man in the foreground, his arm raised in celebration. A viewer following the limb up to the outstretched fingertips sees a gruesome and at first unidentifiable black shape framed between the slant of his wrist and the bridge’s pale green girder. On the left side, there is a matching black shape, and this one is shockingly human, suspended upside down, with clearly defined legs splayed above the jubilant crowd, and a head and torso not quite obscured by a living, cheering index finger pointed skyward. From a caption, the viewer learns that the bodies are those of US contractors ambushed by insurgents and left to be mutilated and dragged through the streets to the bridge. The image draws its power from the contrast of celebration amid horror, American bodies amid the Iraqi people and landscape, burnt and missing limbs amid intact and outstretched ones. The photograph begins in mystery, which then becomes horror, which then turns again to mystery. How could anyone celebrate this? How did this happen to American civilians? What are the people in the photo, who posed the bodies and gathered beneath them, trying to communicate to us?
The photograph draws power from its contrast with the official narrative of the war at the time. When the image reached millions of viewers around the world, it had been almost a year since US troops seized Baghdad and helped Iraqi civilians tear down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. And it was coming up on a year since President Bush was photographed on the aircraft carrier with the “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background. There was a growing wariness in the media and among the public that the war was turning into something more complicated than a limited engagement, but a new narrative, with attendant imagery, had yet to take hold. Press briefings maintained that Americans were being greeted as liberators by the Iraqi people, a view Mohammed’s photograph challenged succinctly, albeit implicitly, and brashly, albeit silently.
Mohammed’s photo told a different story, and did so in a single frame. It opened a new front in the war of public opinion for the Bush administration. For a time, it became the new face of the war and influenced not only the way the war was discussed but the way it was fought. Ten years later, it remains among a small number of images by which we’ll remember the Iraq War. As Eddie Adams, who took the iconic photo of a South Vietnamese general executing a Vietcong prisoner on a street in Saigon, said to his colleague Nick Ut, who shot the famous Vietnam photo of the girl seared by napalm running toward the camera, “After the whole history of Vietnam is written, it’ll just be our photos.”
Some war photos capture the zeitgeist, others transform it. Alfred Eisenstaedt’s World War II photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square may be the most famous example of the former, and Adams’ execution photo, taken in 1968, is one of the best known examples of the latter. According to journalist Godfrey Hodgson’s book, America in Our Time, Adams’ Vietnam picture “was arguably the turning point of the war, for it coincided with a dramatic shift in American public opinion, and may well have helped to cause it.” Hodgson’s argument is that Adams’ photo showed the brutality of the war in Vietnam so powerfully that Americans questioned whether they wanted any part in it. Mohammed’s photograph threatened to be its generation’s equivalent.