NEAL CONAN, host:
Most images of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are taken by photographers embedded with U.S. and Allied forces. In Iraq, it's almost impossible for photojournalists to work in many places without riding along with the troops. Zoriah Miller is a freelance photographer who began documenting the violence in Iraq last year. Last month, the New York Times reported that after he published a picture that captured the bloody aftermath of a suicide bomb that killed - among others - three Marines, he was kicked out of his embed and banned from parts of Iraq controlled by the Marine Corps.
Many in the military say publishing images of American dead is an insult to their memories, to their families, and to their friends, and can also create security problems. Many journalists say not publishing them creates a sanitized picture of the war and that the military is trying to control images of an unpopular conflict. We specially want to hear from current and former members of the military on this. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Zoriah Miller joins us now from a studio in Colorado, and nice to have you on Talk of the Nation.
Mr. ZORIAH MILLER (Freelance Photojournalist): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And tell us what happened on the morning of June 26th.
Mr. MILLER: I was on a security patrol embedded with the U.S. Marines. We were down the street from a city-council meeting in which several high-ranking Marine officials were discussing local affairs with sheiks and the mayor of the town when this...
CONAN: And this was in Anbar Province?
Mr. MILLER: Correct. This is Anbar Province, the City of Karma. A suicide bomber detonated themselves within the meeting, and within several minutes after the information reaching us, we respond into the scene. It was an extremely grizzly attack. At first, the Marines tried to block me from entering the actual building where the attack had taken place. I managed to get in, and was allowed about five or 10 minutes to photograph the scene before I was put in a vehicle and denied access from that point on to take pictures.
CONAN: And I understand, you then went back and edited the pictures. These are digital images, I take it.
Mr. MILLER: That's correct. Actually, later that day, the Marines attempted to take the memory cards away from me to delete the images. I notified them that they were not within their legal grounds to do that. I believe that they got information from their commanders that that was correct, and so at the time, it was left alone. I spent the next four days editing the images, waited until the family members of the Marines who had been killed - made sure that they had been notified.
I made sure that all of the images that I was going to publish did not display any identifiable features, any nametags, anything in which the family members could recognize these men, and made sure that I was in compliance with the media hold-harmless agreement, which is a document that you have to sign as an embedded journalist which provides certain rules for your time embedded.
CONAN: And then you decided to put some of these images on your Website.
Mr. MILLER: Correct. I actually set my website up so that people couldn't accidentally stumble upon the images. I set it up so that the front page of my website had a disclaimer, that you were about to witness graphic images that included death and, you know, portrayed this day. You could click on this link. It would take you to another page in which there was another series of disclaimers and written text about the day before you finally saw the graphic images.
CONAN: And tell us what their reaction was, first, from the Marines you were embedded with.
Mr. MILLER: The Marines I was embedded with supported me. I showed them the images that I'd had taken. I showed them the text that I had written. I showed them the blog post before it was actually published, and the ones that I spoke to all supported me. They said they could not identify their friends. They felt that I'd done, you know, a dignified documentation of what happened that day.
CONAN: And then from the chain of command.
Mr. MILLER: Several hours after posting the blog, I got a phone call from the chain of command in Camp Fallujah. They told me that I needed to immediately take my blog offline and that I had violated a rule by displaying photos of killed or injured Marines. I immediately said that there was no such rule and that I was absolutely sure of this because I'd signed all the documents. Within 10 minutes, they'd arranged a special convoy to remove me from my embed and take me back to the main base to await air transport out of the area.
CONAN: And then, eventually, you got a letter from the Marine commander in Iraq.
Mr. MILLER: That's correct. The official reason for disembedding me, they claimed I had violated a rule in which I gave information to the enemy which described the effectiveness of an attack and the American response to the attack.
I've gotten dozens and dozens of emails since this has happened from military public affairs officers all around the world who have said that this was not the intended use for this clause and that this clause was set up to prevent photographers from taking pictures of vehicles that have been damaged by IED and roadside-bomb attacks, thus giving the enemy information on the placement of their bombs and how, you know, how to better place their weapons in the future to cause the most damage, not for the situation that they applied it in my case.
CONAN: Mm-hm. Well, obviously, a suicide bomber can't return with an after-action report. This did give his controllers an opportunity to see the effect of what their weapons did.
Mr. MILLER: There actually wasn't any information in the report that I made that had not already been reported by the major media outlets. Just hours after the bomb blasts, it was reported by New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters. There was no strategic tactical information, and this has been confirmed by many people in the military who have written me and said that they've reviewed my photos and my posts personally and that there is no information that they could find in it that would be of any use to the enemy and no information that really was new information, nothing that had already not been described. I mean, the death toll had been described, the scene had been described in detail, by other news reports.
CONAN: We did today try to reach spokesman for the Marine Corps and for their response. We did not hear back in time for the broadcast today. The - we mentioned that response that was published in the New York Times quoted Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hughes, a Marine spokesman, as saying, specifically, Mr. Miller provided our enemy with an after-action report on the effectiveness of their attack and on the response procedures of U.S. and Iraqi forces.
So, there is another response that was published in that article, and I wanted to get your reaction to that. This is from Captain Esteban T. Vickers of the 1st Regimental Combat Team who knew two of the Marines killed at Karmah and said photographs of his dead comrades displayed on the Internet for all to see desecrated their memory and their sacrifice. Quote, "Mr. Miller's complete lack of respect to these Marines, their friends, and families is shameful". Captain Vickers said, how do we explain to their children or family these disturbing images just days after it happened?
Mr. MILLER: Well, all I can say to that is that I have, since this incident, been in touch with friends and family of these men, and I can tell you that they don't all feel the way that a lot of people believe that they would feel. I think there's a lot of different ways of looking at the subject, and I think not everyone believes that showing images of someone in the way in which they died desecrates their memory or does anything other than respect and honor the sacrifice that they gave for our country.
CONAN: There have been some who are angry with you, though.
Mr. MILLER: That's correct.
CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. Again, we're talking with Zoriah Miller, a freelance photographer, with us from Colorado. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's begin with Dominic, Dominic with us from Trevors City - Traverse City - excuse me - in Michigan.
DOMINIC (Caller): Yes, I am.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
DOMINIC: Hello there.
DOMINIC: So, I was a photo correspondent for the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1969. And we only had one rule, and that was no photographs of dead, dirty, or wounded GIs. It was the only rule they gave us. We could photograph anything we wanted. And - it was a war. There's dead bodies everywhere. I mean, photographing dead bodies is sort of disrespectful, but it's - I know it's dramatic, but it's sort of a cheap shot. I mean, dead men tell no tales. The real story is with the guys who are alive. It's - anybody can photograph somebody who ain't moving. Then, if you have - that's my comment. If you have anything else, you know, I'll listen off the air.
CONAN: All right, Dominic. Thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: And I guess, Zoriah Miller, I guess he's saying there is a degree of sensationalism to such photographs.
Mr. MILLER: I very much disagree. I mean, I'd been covering the situation in Iraq for a number of months. I've covered the way soldiers live, what they eat, where they sleep, what they do in their daily lives. I've covered the Iraqi people's situation, the security situation, and to not cover death during a war is just - it's not true journalism. To ignore something just because it might upset certain people I don't believe is a fair representation of the truth.
CONAN: Do you think that this was an attempt at censorship?
Mr. MILLER: Yes, I do.
CONAN: In what way?
Mr. MILLER: Well, they, you know, they removed me from my ability to report in Iraq. It seems, you know, a very kind of plain and simple way of making sure that the information that they do not want the public to see does not get seen by the public, at least, you know, never again.
CONAN: And the TIME story that - about your case said they had done an extensive search for images of dead Americans and found only four or five other examples, this after five years of war, and obviously many thousands of Americans have been killed, and that in every case they could find the photographer had been disembedded just as you were.
Mr. MILLER: Correct. And I think another really important thing to look at is the different ways in which they can prevent images from being seen by the public. I mean, the first kind of commonly used approach is trying to make sure that photographers and journalist don't end up in areas where major attacks will happen or, you know, they don't end up on major military offensives. If they do, the other line of response is to try to keep you in a vehicle or to keep you from accessing the scene to take pictures. If you end up there, like I did, to take pictures, they can attempt to take your memory cards away from you, and then if you finally get the pictures out to the public, they can make sure that you're not able to report again.
CONAN: We're talking with Zoriah Miller about censorship and respect for the dead. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get another caller on. And this is Mark, Mark with us from Grangeville in Idaho.
MARK (Caller): Hi. How're you guys doing today?
CONAN: Very well. Thanks.
MARK: Hey. I am retired Navy. I retired in 2000. Now, I didn't retire as an officer. I'm an enlisted guy. So, maybe I didn't get my political signals correct, but I'm one of those who believe that this kind of thing, conflict, war, needs to be documented and needs to be documented as fully as possible. That includes photography, especially photography, because, you know, the picture can say 1,000 words.
I am curious if your guest has any opinions or has received any input - I'm curious about the politics of this. Do you get different people - do you get responses from different families based on whether or not they agree with fighting this conflict or not? Whether they agree with the current administration or not? I'm just kind of curious what your thoughts on that are from, and again, someone who believes that documentation of this sort is absolutely necessary.
Mr. MILLER: Sure. I've gotten just an incredible variety of responses. I mean, I've gotten emails from family members of soldiers that are currently serving that specifically give names, and ranks, and divisions, and they say, you know, if my son is killed in action, please take his photo, and I would hope that this would help bring troops home sooner. I've had people that are extremely angry. I've gotten threats. I've had an incredible amount of support from soldiers and Marines who feel like the U.S., and the world at large, doesn't have any idea what they see on a daily basis and what they experience on a daily basis in Iraq, and they feel like I've done them a service by showing one of the many things that they go through.
MARK: And again, I agree with that. This type of documentation and seeing what these troops and what this fine people go through, as you said, on a daily basis, in my opinion, is absolutely critical, and I appreciate your work.
CONAN: Mark, thanks for the call.
Mr. MILLER: Thank you, sir.
MARK: You're welcome.
CONAN: Interestingly in the Second World War, there were no pictures of dead Americans published, I believe, until the invasion of Tarawa in 1943, and it was a very conscious decision to publish them at that time to explain, to help explain, to the American public the degree of sacrifice that was going to be required for the remainder of the Second World War.
Anyway, here's an email we got from Adam in Charlotte, North Carolina. As a past resident of a town near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, I had many friends who returned from the first Gulf War with many photos of a personal interest, among them, photographs of the dead. I must say, my perceived reality of that conflict changed dramatically, and somehow felt more personal, when I could see those images through the eyes of my friends involved.
And that's another aspect of this. There are a lot of members of the Marine Corps and the Army in Iraq who have cameras of their own.
Mr. MILLER: That's correct. I mean, one of the first things that happens when I begin new embeds is that a lot of the soldiers come up to me with laptops and show me photos that they've taken, some of which, you know, make the photos that I took that day look quite benign. I mean, it's - you know, there's an incredible amount of violence and horrors that these men had witness, you know, like I said, on a daily basis.
CONAN: Let's get Mike on the line, Mike with us in Palo Alto in California.
MIKE (Caller): Hello. OK, 4th 502nd infantry. I was in Berlin. So, I've got a little bit of credibility, not a whole lot, not as much as your Navy guy. But my point is twofold. First, interesting, the last time I heard this topic discussed it was as a slam on Al Jazeera, and their point was, hey, listen, you show our dead all the time. Why don't - why can't we show your dead? And I believe that was during Somalia.
But anyhow, my main point is that perhaps the time to show the American public, those of us who have not been desensitized to death and destruction like, you know, the Marine infantry and the Army infantry, et cetera, have, is before we make the decision to fight, because we train these guys to kill and destroy, and we do that for a purpose, so that we can win wars.
War is a sick and disgusting thing, and once we've pulled the trigger, I don't think it's appropriate to have it now - have it then be played on a daily basis in the court of public opinion when those people that are voicing their opinions have not gone through the training and the desensitization - excuse me - that these people who've been trained to do that job have. Any comments?
CONAN: And you'll have to keep it quick, because we're just running out of time. I'm sorry, Zoriah.
Mr. MILLER: It's - I think I need a little bit of more explanation of that question. I didn't really get exactly what you are after.
CONAN: Well, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there because we are out of time, and I think, very quickly, he was saying, you know, the time to publish those images is before the war. Obviously, you don't have the images before the war, but nevertheless...
Mr. MILLER: But these could be before the next war. We never know.
CONAN: Zoriah Miller, thank you for your time today. Appreciate it.
Mr. MILLER: Thank you so much for having me.
CONAN: Zoriah Miller is freelance photographer, and he joined us from a studio in Colorado. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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