09 August 2014

War Photography - The Impact of Images?

"It’s hard to calculate the consequences of a photograph’s absence. But sanitized images of warfare, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf argues, make it “easier … to accept bloodless language” such as 1991 references to “surgical strikes” or modern-day terminology like “kinetic warfare.” The Vietnam War, in contrast, was notable for its catalog of chilling and iconic war photography. Some images, like Ron Haeberle’s pictures of the My Lai massacre, were initially kept from the public, but other violent images—Nick Ut’s scene of child napalm victims and Eddie Adams’s photo of a Vietcong man’s execution —won Pulitzer Prizes and had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the war."*
I can understand how the My Lai images could've impacted the prosecution of the war as evidence in or impetus to a legal proceeding. But I regularly here people say that the Ut and Adams images had a major impact on the prosecution of the war. How? I'd like to be persuaded. But I'd also like to have some way of justifying the claim. Did those images impact public opinion in a discernible way? Did they simply scare elected officials who thought they might lose their jobs for supporting (or not opposing) the war?

I happen to agree with Friedersdorf's claim about diffuse consequences for public discourse. But the more specific claim about the Vietnam images , while maybe plausible, seems under-supported. (note that the latter claim is empirical and causal.)

If we cannot cash out the claim that actual images have impact on politics, it is difficult - maybe impossible - to think how we can make the counter-factual case - namely that withholding images somehow has a specific impact.
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* This is a passage from this important piece at The Atlantic.

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