Photojournalism, Ethics and a Trail of Blood

Chris Hondros/Getty Images, Samar Hassan screams after her parents were shot by US troops in Tal Afar in January 2005. Hussein and Camila Hassan died when they failed to stop their car at a checkpoint.

This photograph by the photojournalist Chris Hondros is one of the most iconic photographs emerging out of the Iraq War. A young girl can be seen crouching on the floor, her mouth wide open as she cries in grief. Minutes before the photograph was taken, her parents were shot dead as their car failed to stop at an American checkpoint. Thinking that the car was driven by a suicide bomber, American soldiers opened fire not realizing that, with five children in the back seat, a family was on their way home. The photograph represents the tragedy, the horror but also the confusion integral to any war. As explored in a song by the British poet Giles Watson, the crying girl in this photograph signifies the many injustices of war.

There are many elements which elevate this photograph to an iconic status. The image is filled with visual paradoxes that add to the complexity of its meaning. There is for example the soldier standing in the darkness of the night as his torch is illuminating the young girl. The image clearly evokes the dichotomy between the soldier and the innocent child. This devision is further emphasized by the girl’s crouching position, whereas the soldier is so tall in comparison that his upper body is cropped out of the image. While the girl’s identity is revealed in the image and the caption (her name is Samar Hassan), the soldier remains anonymous, masked by darkness and a uniform.

Edvard Much, The Scream

The power of the photograph partially hinges on the perception that this girl is in pain, as signified by her wide open mouth. That this scream could also signify a psychological rather than a physical pain has been explored by the Norwegian symbolist painter Edvard Munch in his iconic painting ‘The Scream’. Here, it is Samar Hassan’s gesture and her body language that signifies this psychological trauma. It is unclear however if Samar is not also physically hurt herself as she just barely survived an onslaught of bullets pelleting her parent’s car. Samar’s bloody hands raise the question wether or not the trail of blood on the floor was caused by her own injuries. Her dress has several rose petals imprinted on it which makes this distinction even more difficult. Most dramatically however, the blood also seems to be dripping, like a tear, just below her right eye. In the photograph, Samar’s tears have turned into blood. Of the many drops of blood on the floor, a single drop on the soldier’s left foot clearly stands out: it signifies that the soldier too is marked by his experience of war.

Nick Ut, Napalm Girl, Vietnam, 1972

The history of modern warfare is inextricably linked to the history of photojournalism and its often photographs with children that provoke the strongest reactions. Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of a naked girl by the name Kim Phúc walking towards him as her village was bombed by Napalm similarly represented the horror of war from a child’s point of view. In both Ut’s and Hondros’ case, the photographs also represented a public relations disaster for the US government. As the echo of Samar Hassan’s scream reverberated every time the photograph was printed in the newspapers or published and re-published on the internet, the US military immediately revoked the photographer Chris Hondros’s access to the battalion he was embedded in. Clearly, this was not the type of image that the US military wanted the world to see.

Hondros’ photograph also raises issues about ethics: it almost appears as if the soldier, unwittingly or not, is aiding the photographer as he supplies him with a source of light. This might signify the privileged position of working as a so-called embedded photojournalist. While the soldier’s torchlight, and by extension also his gun, is pointing at the girl, the photographer’s camera is equally pointing at her. As Susan Sontag has explored in her book ‘On Photography’, it is no coincidence that the photographic terms shooting a picture, taking a shot, or even a photographer as shooter, all derive from handling a gun. A group of four South African photojournalists took on the moniker ‘The Bang Bang Club’ referring to both, the violence that they photograph and the metaphorical violence involved in taking photographs of people in extreme situations.

Similar to Nick Ut’s photograph of Kim Phúc, the photograph of Samar Hassan relates to the complex issue of ethics in photojournalism. Ethics, as the dictionary tells us, is a set of moral principles. Derived from the Greek word for custom, habit or character, Ethos is one of the most difficult terms to define in existential philosophy. Yet, fundamental to the Aristotelian concept of ethos is the ethical principle of voluntary choice. In other words, the choice to take a picture or the choice not to take the picture. In seeking to overcome the vaguely defined issue of ethics in photojournalism, the National Press Photographers Association NPPA publishes a code of ethics for their members. This code of ethics reads, under section 4:

“4. Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.”

It is clear from these NPPA guidelines that several factors in fact apply to Hondros’ photograph. The girl in the photography clearly is a ‘vulnerable subject’, a ‘victim of a tragedy’, and in a ‘private moment of grief’. Yet as the NPPA also points out, the code of ethics does not apply if the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see what was being photographed. What this formula effectively refers to is that the photograph is justified as long as people want to see the photograph. In other words, the code of ethics hinges on the viewer, not the photographer. Here it is important to realize that the photograph is not just brutal, violent, horrifying or tragic. Rather, the uncanny formal beauty of Hondros’ photograph establishes that aesthetic concerns have likely affected any ethical considerations an invasion of Samar Hassan’s privacy might have provoked. Five years after the image was shot, Hondros’ photograph represents the complex encounter of ethics and photojournalism with a trail of blood that is only getting longer.

Please read about the after life of Chris Hondros’ photography, in my follow up post.

For more on this topic, please read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

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3 thoughts on “Photojournalism, Ethics and a Trail of Blood

  1. Thank you for featuring my song and painting. Both were an immediate, visceral response to the photograph by Chris Hondros, and since then, I have felt haunted by this particular story. You are right that it “signifies the many injustices of war”, but it is the particularity of it which is so impossible to ignore – and afterwards, the thought that there are thousands of such individual tragedies. The postscripts to the story of this photograph are just as devastating. The measured, thoughtful response in your blog is much appreciated.

  2. I was contacted by one of the soldiers involved in the shooting of Samar Hassan’s parents, and his response caused me to remove my song from the internet. He said that the shooting did not occur at a checkpoint, as reported in the British media. I also felt very bad about the verse about “thugs in khaki”, which was my initial, unthinking reaction to the picture, and I apologised to the soldier as best as I could, but he didn’t reply. Still, this does not change the rest of my response – rather, it enhances it – and the news about her brother is all the more distressing. My soldier correspondent may feel that we who sit at home looking at such images have no right to comment, but I don’t think that I really can respond with silence when faced with Hondros’ picture. Knowing a bit about how the soldier feels just makes it worse. So, I have re-written the song, and made it available here:

    I would be really grateful if you could replace the link above with this. Thank you once again for featuring my work, and more importantly, that of Chris Hondros, whose book of photographs, I see, has just been published.

  3. Samar Hassan

    She had roses on her dress
    And roses at her toes;
    He held his gun as if to bless
    The blowing of each rose.

    She had roses on her dress,
    A blood-rose on her cheek:
    Her parents’ blood, and not her own,
    Her cry was shrill and bleak.

    When the gun dropped from his hands
    His eyes were dark and haunted;
    His mouth was clammed; he could not tell
    The truth we never wanted:

    We ply one tyrant with our guns
    And turn to bomb another,
    While Samar turns to see her own
    Are murdering her brother.

    We think they’re only pixels,
    A simulated dying,
    The pictures on the evening news
    Edit out her crying,

    And from the comfort of our chairs
    We’re deaf to all her pleading;
    The scapegoat soldier coils in pain
    While human hearts are bleeding.

    Our taxes pay for blood and loss,
    For war knows no recession.
    We pay, and let the children scream
    And never learn our lesson.

    Poem by Giles Watson, 2010; revised 2014. The picture is my crude initial response to a photograph of a grieving and terrified child, scribbled out in crayon and darkened with paint applied with a toothbrush. Samar Hassan’s parents, Hussein and Camila, were both shot by U.S. troops in Tal Afar in January 2005. Soldiers on a dismounted patrol gave two warning shots to stop an approaching car, and when Hussein accelerated rather than stopping, they assumed that the vehicle was carrying an improvised explosive device, and fired into it. An early version of the song provoked a pained response from one of the soldiers involved in the incident, and whilst he may still not agree with the politics of it, I hope he feels that this new version is a more accurate representation of the way such tragedies bear upon soldiers as well as civilians. The British media at the time reported that the car had failed to stop at a checkpoint, but his personal communication denies this. This revision also takes account of what happened afterwards to Samar’s brother, who was injured in the incident and flown to America for treatment. His case was given widespread media coverage in the USA, and because of this, when he returned home to be with his sister, he was murdered by Iraqi insurgents. Chris Hondros, the photographer, was later killed whilst covering the Libyan war in Misrata.

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