On the day the Nicoll Highway caved in, I was in a taxi on my way
to catch the award-winning documentary on Robert Capa, In Love and
The taxi driver who picked me up in Toa Payoh should thank his lucky
stars that I was not a police officer, for what he did could have
landed him in some serious trouble.
During the ride, he was on his mobile phone telling one of his colleagues:
“This one is worse than 9-11, more than 3000 will die today.”
He added that buildings around the crash area would collapse.
I regret that I did not tick him off for spreading wild rumours.
At the screening, I found it hard to concentrate. My mind was pre-occupied
with the accident and I was curious to see the first image from
Midway through the screening, a photographer friend, Ernest Goh,
who had skipped the documentary to shoot the accident, sent me a
MMS, showing a general view of the carnage.
I was “satisfied” that the incident was genuine and
happy that my young friend chose to be out there recording history.
Throughout the evening, I thought about the words of Magnum photographer
Gilles Peress: “I don’t believe in words, I believe
Photography may not have directly prevented war, but historically,
it has played a major role in showing the truth and shaping public
If George W. Bush were to lose the U.S. presidential race in November,
photography would certainly have played a role in his defeat.
Over the past few weeks, three separate sets of photographs have
dealt heavy blows to the US President’s credibility.
The first was a historic image of Admiral William D. Leahy, White
House chief of staff under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman,
appearing before a congressional panel investigating the Japanese
attack on Pearl Harbor. The image was published in The New York
Times on Nov 22, 1945.
It was historian Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11
Commission, who had unearthed the picture and faxed it to the White
The black and white image rebutted President Bush’s claim
that there was no precedence for Condoleezza Rice, his national
security advisor, to testify before the 9/11 commission. Within
days, Rice testified.
The second blow for President Bush came when The Seattle Times published
on its front page a picture of flag-draped coffins containing American
soldiers who had died in the Iraqi war.
Drawing a lesson from the Vietnam War, the Pentagon had sought to
the publication of any pictures that could turn public opinion against
the Iraq war.
This policy, which started with the 1991 Gulf War, effectively blocks
the access of news photographers to photo opportunities such as
the arrival of the coffins.
Together with pool arrangements and embedment of approved photographers
within selected military operations, the military and White House
were hoping to ensure that only sanitized images make it to the
The Seattle Times obtained the picture from aircraft worker Tami
Silicio, who was subsequently fired from her job.
Shortly after, similar pictures started appearing in a website called
Memory Hole, the result of a long lobbying and bureaucratic tussle
to get them released by the U.S. defence department.
In the first Iraqi war, some pictures were initially kept from the
public eye but were later resurrected.
One of them was the now-famous picture of an Iraqi soldier burned
to death in his tank, photographed by Kenneth Jarecke of Contact
The image of the badly charred solider, which was shot near Basra,
did not appear in U.S. magazines until much later. But European
publications had no qualms about rushing it to print when the story
was still hot.
From nowhere came Lynndie R. England, the “naïve”
farm girl from West Virginia.
What was she thinking while holding the leash tied to the Iraqi
prisoner? Some said “wrong place, wrong time”.
US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said of the abuse, “It
was inconsistent with the values of our nation, it was inconsistent
with the teachings of the military to the men and women of the armed
forces, and it was certainly fundamentally un-American."
It was an honest admission and the defence secretary should be thankful
that this, at least for now, is no match for the My Lai massacre
Ron Haeberle’s pictures of the execution of more than 300
innocent Vietnamese civilians in a village called My Lai, by gun-crazed
American G.I.s, first appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper.
The My Lai images, together with Nick Ut’s image of the girl
fleeing the napalm bomb attack, and a few more iconic images, caused
public support for the Vietnam War to decline day by day.
I do not know the name of the photographer who took the pictures
in the Abu Ghraib prison. Neither do I know the full context in
which they were made.
I wonder if the photographer who shot the atrocities was part of
the act, or did he capture the images in the hope of exposing the
acts? How did the images land in newspapers? Did someone go too
far with his boasting?
Such ponderings are secondary to the general good that the images
have done to jolt the world out of complacency and ignorance.
I am very heartened that some news organisations that I thought
had gone soft in recent years in questioning the truth, finally
reversed their course.
Such “coups” in photography have great personal significance
for me as I continue to question the validity of photojournalism,
my own photography, and the role I can play as a photographer.
I am somewhat reminded again that photography can change the world.
In his recent Financial Times column, Christopher Caldwell wrote,
“Whenever a war looms, American pacifists have a habit of
warning that the country will eventually turn against it, as happened
in Vietnam. ‘Just wait until the body bags start coming back’
has become a stock political phrase. But in order to have any impact
on public opinion, those body bags need to be seen.”
Years before his death, Blackstar photo agency supremo Howard Chapnick
wrote a book called Truth Needs No Ally.
I had never really figured out the meaning of that, but I have this
to add – Truth needs to be published.
column first appeared in Grain Magazine.