The 10th anniversary of a photo that changed the Iraq War

An image from Fallujah and its consequences
March 30, 2014

(Khalid Mohammed)

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.”


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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.

Photographs are the way we experience the physical reality of a war fought on foreign soil. They’re our most potent totems of a war’s purpose and meaning. They’re the way we know what a charred body looks like hanging from a bridge, the way we know what a famine victim in Somalia looks like (an image considered a factor in the US decision to intervene in that country’s tribal wars), and the way we know what a Marine looks like being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu (an image many say precipitated the US decision to withdraw). In a sense, they’re the way the American public knows most concretely that we are even at war.

Michael Kamber, who photographed the Iraq War over the course of seven years for The New York Times, told me the attack on the contractors might barely have registered were it not for the photographers and videographers on the scene. “Four Americans killed. That’s significant, but how many days did we see headlines that said four Americans killed and there’s no photo and it’s no big deal. The numbers just don’t mean anything to people,” he said. “That photo is what changed everything.”

Of 172 US newspaper front pages archived by the Newseum, only a handful of small-town papers did not publish some photo of the incident. Some chose to run Mohammed’s photo on the front page, others ran it inside, in black and white. For those who didn’t run it, its very existence challenged them to publish at least some graphic photo from that day. CBS was the boldest of the television networks, prominently showing the contractors’ bodies. Like most other networks, though, it blurred the images for certain broadcasts.

When deciding how to handle graphic or violent photos, particularly on the front page, newspaper editors often subject images to what they call “the breakfast test.” The notion of a morning newspaper sitting on the breakfast table next to a bowl of Cheerios was becoming antiquated in 2004, but the fact remained that newspapers faced the choice of whether to print images of mutilated bodies that could be seen by children or even families of the victims. Leonard Downie Jr., then the executive editor of The Washington Post, decided against running Mohammed’s photo on the front page of the paper, saying his primary concern was that readers considered the Post “a visitor in their homes.” The attack on the contractors was significant, but if he could find a way to inform readers about it without offending them, he should do so.

Michel duCille, the Post‘s photo editor at the time, disagreed with the decision. “My argument was that you don’t want to use a photograph like this every day, but when you have such a strong image, with such significance behind it, the breakfast test is overridden by the public’s right to know and to not have the reality of the situation filtered,” he told me. “I left that situation feeling that we had not done our readers the best possible service.”

Bill Keller, then the executive editor of The New York Times, made the decision to publish the photo very large in color on the front page, with the bodies of the contractors clearly visible. In an email, Keller told me that he didn’t recall the discussion surrounding whether to publish the photograph. He was sure it involved similar “breakfast test” considerations, but, like duCille, he felt such concerns were overridden by the power of the image.

“To me, and I expect to a lot of readers, the picture posed a question about what kind of a war we were in,” Keller wrote. “That’s what the best journalism does. It doesn’t make a statement. It isn’t propaganda. It delivers reality and poses questions, including unsettling questions.”

The images from Fallujah prompted the media to suspend their normal reluctance to show graphic images of American casualties. Because the power of the image helped break this metaphysical barrier, it became a news event in its own right. This part of the discussion was less about men dying badly somewhere far away and more about the political consequences of these deaths, about the power of photographs to change history, and whether this one might. The 2004 presidential election was seven months away, and many wondered whether this might be President Bush’s “Somalia moment,” as the Denver Post quoted one media expert as saying. The photo instantly gained iconic status.

The images editors selected, blurred, or otherwise debated were Khalid Mohammed’s daily reality. A native of Baghdad, Mohammed was conscripted into the Iraq-Iran War as a sniper at the age of 16. He refused to fight and spent six months in jail before returning to his studies. He told Kamber that looking at people through a riflescope presaged his passion for photography. Because Saddam Hussein’s regime controlled who could become a journalist, Mohammed couldn’t work for a newspaper. He sold his photos to other photographers to be published under their bylines.

After the invasion, Mohammed began working as a stringer for the Associated Press and other news wires. Eventually, he became a full-time stringer for AP, producing some of the war’s most memorable photos. In 2005, he was one of six Iraqis on an 11-person team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography. His photo at the bridge and another, of a daytime execution of two Iraqi election workers in the middle of a Baghdad street, were in the prize-winning portfolio.

In conversation, Mohammed’s tone transitions from gregariousness to quiet sincerity when he discusses the pain so often depicted in his photographs. He moves to dark humor when he describes his macabre daily routine. (“Get in touch anytime!” he told me when we first spoke. “If you see me on Skype that means there are no car bombs, and I am available.”) Not long after photographing the last departing US troops in December 2011, he became the AP’s chief photographer in Iraq. When I spoke to Mohammed via Skype this January, as violence again flared in Fallujah, he was finishing his 11th year of photographing conflict in his home country.

“I hope it will end, but the wars bring war,” he said.

On the day he took the photograph at the bridge, Mohammed and his driver were on the streets of Baghdad when they got a call about the attack in Fallujah, about 40 miles to the west. Mohammed estimates it was less than 30 minutes before he arrived at the site of the attack, where there were still small flames coming from the contractors’ SUV. He asked some in the crowd what had happened, and they repeated a misconception about the identity of the civilian contractors, one that no doubt helped to fuel the mob, which in turn created the scene.

“We killed the CIA,” they told him. “You can find them hanging on the bridge.”

There is only one bridge in Fallujah, not far from the site of the attack, part of a busy neighborhood near the city’s main market. Mohammed arrived to find a giddy crowd of young men shouting and laughing beneath the bodies. He had photographed car bombs and other carnage before, but never anything like this. His only thought, he says, was that he had to document it. He told his driver to keep the engine running, and he got out of the car to move closer to the crowd.

His presence there was brief. Like his camera, Mohammed saw only a glimpse of the scene, a moment in time. He took a few photos, and then jumped in the car as members of the crowd began to threaten him.

Mohammed points out that the attack that day “happened in front of the eyes of media everywhere.” International media had kept a close watch on Fallujah, which had been a symbol of anti-American sentiment in Iraq ever since 17 people were killed there by US soldiers during a protest just after the invasion. The attack on the contractors came to symbolize anti-American sentiment throughout the country, particularly among Sunni Muslims. Mohammed knew coverage of the scene would have an impact on a global audience but didn’t think his photo would be the one remembered. Particularly after returning to Baghdad and seeing photos taken at the scene, he realized how late he was. Some had captured the entire sequence, including the contractors in their burning car. You could see the celebratory nature of the scene in some photos, others captured the intense hatred, and still others captured the gruesome treatment of the bodies. No photographs, however, captured all of these elements as powerfully and succinctly as Mohammed’s.

The crowd understood the power of an event witnessed by international media. One young man can be seen holding a misspelled sign meant to read: “Fallujah, cemetery of the Americans.” He appears, holding his message high for the camera, in the far right of Mohammed’s photograph and also appears in other photos taken throughout the incident.

“At the time, there were a lot of journalists going to Fallujah,” Mohammed told me. “People would come with banners after an attack, because then they’d be more likely to see themselves on TV that evening.”

Iraq was a “24-hour war.” It could be weeks before photos of Vietnam were published on the home front. Photos from Iraq could make it onto television and the Web in a matter of hours. As a consequence, both the Americans and the insurgents were keenly aware of the power of a strong news photograph.

Unknown to journalists in the states that were comparing the scene in Fallujah to Somalia was that the people who hung the contractors from the bridge intended to evoke that very comparison. When conducting interviews for his book Photojournalists on War, a collection of interviews with photographers who covered Iraq, Kamber spoke with Mohammed Khodor, a native of Fallujah who was taking photographs for Reuters as a stringer. Khodor heard the gunshots when insurgents opened fire on the contractors, who were traveling in unarmored SUVs through Fallujah’s main highway on their way to deliver cooking supplies. He arrived within minutes of the attack, while the contractors were still in their vehicle, their bodies burning, and took photographs as several men (he believed the attackers had left the scene) incited the gathering crowd to take the bodies of the “infidels” and “occupiers” and drag them through the streets to the bridge.

Khodor followed the crowd to the bridge, where he told Kamber that one of the instigators “started telling the people a story about how they did such a thing in Somalia. They attacked Americans, and burned them, and hung them, and the invasion left the country.”

“‘Let’s do it just like Somalia,” Khodor recalled the man saying. “We want the occupier to leave Iraq.”

I asked Mohammed if he felt manipulated by the mob courting media attention. Was the photo somehow less truthful? Regardless of the mob’s intentions, he said, the photo showed “the reality of war.” And it does, in all its layers. It shows what war casualties look like after being dragged from a burning vehicle. It shows that war is one side cheering the death of the other. And it shows that, with the world’s media such a constant presence in Iraq, cameras are an element of the battlefield.

Despite the power of Mohammed’s photograph, experts debate its effect on public opinion. In his book, Photojournalism and Foreign Policy, David D. Perlmutter, Dean of the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University, argues that famous photographs of conflict or famine, which he calls “icons of outrage,” have been inflated to an almost mythical status in the public imagination, and they don’t have nearly the effect on public perception that activists hope or politicians fear.

The photo’s effect on the execution of the war, however, was immediate and far-reaching. In his memoir, Wiser in Battle, Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq at the time of the bridge incident, says the “media frenzy” surrounding the attack made a forceful military response the “top priority at the White House.” Embarrassed by the images and comparisons to Somalia and Vietnam, President Bush and top White House officials argued for the Marines to invade Fallujah in a show of force, a complete reversal of strategy, which the Marine commanders strongly opposed. Bush overruled the commanders on the ground, ordering them to commence Operation Vigilant Resolve, which became the largest battle and first street-to-street fighting by the US military since the Tet Offensive in Vietnam–the same battle that produced Eddie Adams’ iconic photograph.

“To say that the Fallujah offensive angered the Sunni Muslims of Iraq would be a gross understatement,” Sanchez writes. He blames the battle in Fallujah for setting the course of the war for years to come. “Our actions had undeniably ignited a civil war in Iraq and the ongoing insurgency had gained unprecedented strength.”

Less than one month after Mohammed’s photo was published, the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib became public. Like Mohammed’s photograph, the photos from the prison were both documentary and symbolic. Perhaps the image most remembered in the US depicts the “hooded man” forced to balance on a cardboard box in a Christ-like pose with wires attached to his fingers. The photo most remembered in the Arab world shows a smiling female soldier giving the thumbs up while standing over the body of a beaten prisoner who died in US custody–an image strikingly similar to the Fallujah bridge photo in its contrast of celebration and horror.

I asked Mohammed if, 10 years later, his photo at the bridge had as much significance for Iraqis as it did for Americans. “Educated people tell me this photo had a huge impact,” he said. “For most people, though, this was just another day of meat on the asphalt.”

The statement puts what we ask of photography in an intriguing light. We ask too much of it, really. Not only do we ask photography to bring the reality of war to our homes, we ask it to do so in a way that makes it acceptable at the breakfast table. We ask a handful of images to serve as the memory for an entire war. We ask not only that photography change the world, but that it change the world for the better.

As happened with Eddie Adams and Nick Ut’s photos, Mohammed’s will accumulate significance even as it loses its context, becoming a reflection less of the events of that day than of the Iraq War in general. It’s a reflection of reality, and also a symbol. But despite what the attackers who created the scene hoped, or the media speculated, or the American government feared, it is a symbol whose meaning is indistinct, impermanent, and beyond our control.

Michael Canyon Meyer is a freelance journalist and former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.