How much of what we know about the human costs of war do we let in to impact us in profound ways?
Although there are remarkable and powerful images of war to remind us of the unthinkable horrors human beings continue to suffer, it appears that for the most part we rarely truly learn from them.
Although we appear fascinated by the sacrifice people endure for a cause, noble or ignoble, most of the pictures that remind us of those sacrifices seem all about ignored.
The pictures we see of dead and wounded civilians and soliders in times of conflict become social artifacts that may or may not stir our emotions or move us to action.
In recent times, we have seen how Joe Rosenthal's picture of a band of Marines raising a flag on a tiny island in the Pacific could mobilize millions of Americans in the war effort during WWII.
Later, we have seen how another image could have just the opposite affect, as Nick Ut's picture of a young girl running naked down a road after she was burned in an aerial attack on her village by the South Vietnamese Air Force, with U.S. support.
Images such as those by Rosenthal and Ut remain embedded in our collective consciousness because of how often they are repeated and recollected in our visual culture. When we speak of patriotism and sacrifice, or, of so-called the "good war", the Iwo Jima flag raising image seems to always come to the forefront of our common discourse. When we speak of atrocities and failed U.S. foreign policy, so too, do we find referencing the incident at Trang Bang, Vietnam, where a little girl and nations were changed forever.
Recently, a photographer in Southern Illinois has made an image, or a series of images, that should become emblematic of what critics are beginning to call the current quagmire in Iraq.
The picture by Nina Berman of Redux, is a wedding portrait of a Marine who had been burned over much of his body. Although badly disfigured from a bomb blast in Iraq, his facial features all but melted away to bone, Ty Ziegel lives to tell his story to the world.
The picture, as simple as a picture can be, makes us want to listen. The picture makes us cry out in empathy, muster hope in the presence of such incredible human spirit and strength, or simply cringe in disgust. In the end, however, it is the couples resolve that makes us want to listen.
In a recent article in Salon.com, photographer Berman suggests, "What makes pictures interesting is that they provide the space for the viewers to contemplate."
Contemplation is a form of listening to our innermost feelings about the things we see. Contemplation, if given space, moves us to act on our feelings. To contemplate the explicit and implicit meaning of Berman's image means to imagine our own lives transformed by war as Ty Ziegel's life has been.
Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer, once observed that "True contemplation is inseparable from life and from the dynamism of life--which includes work, creation, production, fruitfulness, and above all love. "
"Contemplation is not to be thought of as a separate department of life, cut off from all man's other interests and superseding them. It is the very fullness of a fully integrated life. It is the crown of life and all life's activities."
Berman's wedding portrait has received acclaim in photojournalism. In fact, it won top honors in the portrait category of the World Press Photo competition this year. But it is not the picture, as an object or artifact, that should be admired and remembered. What should be contemplated here, first and foremost, is that the judges recognize the saliency and value of the content within the frame. The space Berman speaks of here moves beyond the rancor of congressional debates and presidential pomposity. The space Berman speaks of gets to the core of some of the most essential qualities of being human -- love, loyalty, hope, and reconciliation. Can a picture evoke the "big" ideas expressed here? Apparently so.
How will history remember Ty Ziegel's wedding picture? How could this unassuming portrait of a wedding couple become the next Iwo Jima or Trang Bang in the collective memory of wars past and present?
What distinguishes the pictures is less a matter of aesthetics and more a more of politics. For the Iwo Jima picture the U.S. government adopted the image as mass marketed it as the embodiment of the "good war." In the case of the Trang Bang picture, the anti-war movement of the 1970s embraced symbolism of the moment as proof of the so-called "dirty little war."
Pictures, in iconic terms, extend beyond the meaning of occurrences in several ways. Iconic pictures, such as the hooded prisoner of Abu Ghraib, signify ideological bench marks in history -- turning points -- in the cultural memory of American society.
It is only through the assimilation of an ideological benchmark image into our visual culture as a form of a larger societal discourse that an iconic permanance can emerge. Although the Berman image has been seen now by ten of thousands of web-watchers, it will not be until we see the picture on billboards, war posters, and TV screens that its status as an iconic image will endure as a product of social consciousness.