The Gulf War had a great deal of TV coverage, but it was heavily restricted. Supposedly this was to protect sensitive information from Iraqi military tuned to CNN but the Pentagon also feared a Vietnam redux. The top military brass felt the war in Indochina was lost because of the press’s unrestricted access to the war. To reduce the number of reporters working on ground, the Iraq war was conducted under a pool system, where any press organisation that was a member of that pool had access to everyone else’s work. On the other hand, the Pentagon tightly controlled the pools with government approved reporters and provided military escorts for any field reporting.
Just a few hours before the 1991 Gulf war ceasefire, photographer Ken Jarecke was heading back to Kuwait from Southern Iraq. Jarecke came to cover the war for Time magazine twelve hours after the air campaign began and ended up staying throughout. Now, his journey nearing its end, Jarecke came across a single truck burnt out from airstrike in the middle of Highway 8. It was a place remembered as the “Highway of Death”, where the Allied aircraft pulverized the retreating Iraqi troops.
Jarecke told his military escort that “If I don’t make pictures like this, people like my mother will think what they see in war is what they see in movies”, and went over to the burnt tank and took the above photo. At that time, it was an image challenged the prevailing notion that the Gulf War was a ‘clinical’ attack avoided ‘collateral damage’.
Jarecke’s photo was sent to the AP office in New York. The AP thought that the photo was too sensitive and too graphic even for the editors of the newspapers that are part of the co-op, and that the decision on whether or not to print the photo should not be left for the editors. They pulled it off the wire. Because of AP’s decision, the photo was unseen in America (although AP staffers made copies for themselves and privately distributed it among the photo circles).
In the UK, the London Observer and the Guardian published it, and public debate was not only on “Is this something we want to be involved in?” but also on how graphic pictures should be. Jarecke responded: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.”
Harold Evans, the editor-in-chief of The Times of London wrote a strong essay on why photos (and graphic photos) matter, over the moving documentary photos in 1997:
It was a solitary individual in the transfixation of a hideous death. In the absence of a photograph of this power, it had been possible to enjoy the lethal felicity of designer bombs as some kind of Video game. It had been possible to be caught up in the excitement of people rushing to escape the Scuds. There was no escape from the still silence of the corpse in Jarecke’s photograph. Once seen, it has a permanent place in one’s imagination. Anyone who can replay moving images in his mind has a very rare faculty. The moving image may make an emotional impact, but its detail and shape cannot be easily recalled. Anyone who saw that still photograph will never forget it.