One Night in Tal Afar
In 100 Photographs: The 100 Most Influential Photographs of all Time, Time Inc. attempted, and probably would be considered to have succeeded by many, to assemble the 100 ‘most influential photographs ever taken’ (Goldberg, 2015, p11). The 100 photographs selected are all iconic, and led, in the words of the editor, ‘to something important’ (p11).
In the chapter called Evidence, the editor and his staff chose the image below, taken by the now deceased Chris Hondros, as one of the 100.
Chris Hondros, working for Getty Images at the time, was embedded with the US Army unit that was manning the checkpoint at Tal Afar, and was present when the unit opened fire on a car killing the parents of this little girl, Samar Hassan. This picture was one of a series, but it was this picture that became iconic, led to the US military revising its checkpoint procedures, and more importantly, according to the editor, it compelled an already sceptical public to ask why American soldiers were killing the people they were there to protect.
Wells (2015, p83) notes that ‘streams of images revealing the death, injury and sorrows of the people of the Vietnam war was a major factor in the public’s eventual repugnance for the war’ and one can see the parallel with the impact that the photograph of Kim Phuc, taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, had made on the American people.
Time Inc. implied that the immediacy of Hondros’ photographs was a significant factor in the effect that the photograph of Samar had, and that may be true, but as noted by Lewinski (1978, p12) it is since the Korean war that the immediacy of war photographs began to have significant effect.
Perhaps more interesting questions are, not why iconic photographs have the level of impact on the public, but why this image over another in the series, or this girl over another subject in the same photograph or series of photographs became iconic?
Is it because the image is “great”, and can we even define what “great” is? Wells quotes Griffin (1999, p123) ‘The enduring images of war are … those that readily present themselves as symbols of cultural and national myth’ concluding that there are ‘no unequivocally great photographs, only those that structure or re-enforce feelings already extant within a particular culture’.
When we look at the photograph, we see Samar screaming, just as we see Kim Phuc screaming, and we, without the benefit of Hondros bearing witness, can imagine that Samar is injured or perhaps she has seen someone else been injured. This interpretation is supported by a streak of red on her face and the spots of red in the foreground, which all connote blood, and the muzzle of an assault rifle, which we can imagine, has been fired. Even the red flowers on her dress, which was certainly not arranged so, emphasises blood and injury in our mind. Of course, Samar could just be scared and the soldier could be being protective or could be attempting to calm her down, but the crop does not allow us any further glimpse of the soldier (and we are left to assume, without witness, that he/she is American) to deduce any more. Whatever the reality of the situation, the emotion transmitted in the photograph is almost visceral, and would, it can be argued, engender sympathy from a public that was already tired of the war.
We know from Hondros’ account in Testament (2014, p86-87) that the unit that he was embedded in had experienced running ‘hour-long’ gun battles and that with daily car bombings in Iraq, the soldiers were understandably nervous of approaching cars, and as a matter of procedure did not let approaching cars breach foot patrols. On this night one of the soldiers shouted that there was a car approaching, warning shots were fired and then within a few seconds a ‘cacophony’ of shots were fired into the car window. We can see the scale of damage done in the picture below:
‘Then came the sound of crying children from the car. A teenage girl with her head covered emerged from the back seat, wailing and gesturing wildly. After her followed an injured boy, who left a pool of blood in his seat. More children – six in all – emerged crying, their faces mottled with blood in long streaks.’
The driver (and father) was so riddled with bullets that his body had collapsed. His wife lay dead beside him. There was no picture. The boy, Rakan, that left blood on the back seat, was initially assumed to have no injuries, but later determined to have a spinal injury.
The images and testament by Hondros were originally published in the Fort Collins Weekly in January 2005. The story is moving and reading it one can almost imagine being present. The situation was tragic, even if unavoidable. The story continued to run, following not the girl, but the boy’s recovery and eventual death in 2008.
One could argue that the pictures of Rakan should have been the more dominant, especially as the narrative was more significant because of his injury, recovery and eventual death. The pictures of Rakan should be stronger in reinforcing the negative feelings about the war (paraphrasing Griffin), but it is Samar’s scream we were presented with (by Hondros, by Goldberg and later by journalistic editors) and subsequently remember. Was it chosen because the subject was a small girl and so obviously an innocent civilian? Was it because the American soldiers could be represented as the oppressor alongside Samar, where they are seen to be helping Rakan in the other images? Or is it because coincidentally there is so much red in the frame? Was the photographer and the editor trying to shape the narrative to lead public opinion away from the war? All of these must be part of the truth. However, in the final analysis I would argue against Griffin; there are great photographs, and the picture of Samar is one of those and deserves a place in 100 Photographs.
Hondros, C, (2014). Testament. Brooklyn, New York: powerhouse Books.
Goldberg, B (ed.) (2015). 100 Photographs: The Most Influential Images of all Time. New York: Time Inc. Books
Griffin, M. (1999). The Great War Photographs: Constructing Myths of History and Photojournalism, in B. Brennan and H. Hardt (eds) Picturing the Past: Media, History and Photography, Urbana: University of Illinois Press
Lewinski, J. (1978) The Camera at War, London: W.H. Allen
Wells, L (2015). Photography: A Critical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge
Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills
(Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills)
This is probably not relevant to this assignment.
Quality of Outcome
(Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, with discernment)
I am reasonably content that I managed to convey my original intent, and that I was able to provide some references from my research.
Demonstration of Creativity
(Imagination, experimentation, invention, personal voice)
(Reflection & Research)
My research soon resolved itself around searching for an iconic photograph. War photography is a rich source and I was soon able to gravitate towards the picture of Samar by Chris Hondros.
I had a choice to either discuss the content of the image, essentially following the course text, or try and say something about the wider context of the image and generally war photographs at the same time. I chose the latter as it seemed more substantial and meaningful.
I am not sure that 1000 words is sufficient to achieve my objective, but at the same time, I am sure I could have been more succinct.
On reflection I am satisfied with the choice of image and my approach, even if the quality could be improved.