January 13, 2009 ·

Mike Johnston

Arguments, Strife, and Polemics: More on the Killing of Mazen Dana

It’s never been my intention to make this column into a general forum, and I’ve made a conscientious effort to keep politics and polemics out of it. Like many people, I have lots of opinions and views about a lot of things, and I enjoy expressing them. But I understand that people read this column — indeed, they read most of what I write— because of my thoughts on the subject of photography, so I do my best to stick to that.

Whenever my personal beliefs on matters non-photographic leak into the column, however, I get mail. This past week, the mail was the worst it’s ever been in this regard. I think it’s pretty obvious that many of us are pretty upset about the situation in Iraq, which we each express in varied and sometimes complicated ways; for instance, I got negative mail from people to the left of me who felt I had timidly "hidden" my views and didn’t state my disapproval strongly enough, as well as from people to the right of me who objected to what they felt was innuendo and a lack of patriotism.

For the record, my position onthe matter of Mazen Danais the same as that of Reuters, stated as follows:

"[Reuters Group Chief Executive] Tom Glocer has written to the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, asking for a detailed, fair and comprehensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana." —Reuters statement.

I do believe that the soldier who killed Dana should be court-martialed for manslaughter — or tried in whatever the appropriate court may be on the most serious charges that can properly be brought. However, it’s not for me to opine about his guilt or innocence; that’s up to due process. My feeling is simply that due process ought to have its day.

Let’s be fair: there’s a good chance the soldier was acting in perfectly good faith, and believed he was in mortal danger and doing his duty when he shot Dana. And let¹s also be realistic: regardless of his level of culpability or lack of it, the military will find his actions justified. It can hardly do otherwise.

But killing an unarmed journalist iswrong, no matter how it happened. So what I want is for there tobean investigation — I don’t think it’s reasonable for there not to be. I think there should be a sense that shooting an unarmed cameraman in broad daylight is a serious mistake, and that it leads to repercussions.

Some of our soldiers in Iraq are dying, and the rest of them are risking their lives. Who you blame for this depends on your politics, but, from their point of view, their country has asked them to make these sacrifices, and they have answered that call. I can only respect them for that. My neighbors — fellow Wisconsinites, I mean — are in Iraq. I sympathize with the families who have sons and daughters and husbands and wives over there. How could I not? At the same time, I still deplore Bush and Rumsfeld’s "Instant Viet Nam" (not least because all our neighbors in uniform are now there open-endedly, which they and their families are also objecting to). These two positions — supporting those in uniform while objecting to the political policies that mandate their deployment and activities — are not mutually exclusive.


Photographers Unite

All that is simply one man’s opinion, and not of much significance except to me. None of it would normally have a legitimate place in this column, because it doesn’t have much do with photography. The bottom line about my comments last week about Mazen Dana, though, is that I write my column for photographers. My sympathies lie with photographers. Many photographers now and in history have been photojournalists. And many photojournalists have repeatedly placed themselves in grave danger to try to bring home evidence of the truth independently. In some wars, reporters have given their lives in greater proportion to their overall numbers than American soldiers have. One hundred and thirty-five photographers died in Viet Nam and Indochina.

This is not collateral damage, and it’s not a foolish risk on the part of those who do this important work. Freedom of the press is a crucial element of the American political ideology of liberal democracy — the same liberal democracy that our soldiers also die to defend. This is simply empirical. Look around the World and look at history, and you see what governments do when they¹re left to their own devices with no checks on their impulses and no accountability to their laws or their people. Our founders knew this. The free press in the U.S. constitutes a constitutionally established and vigorously protected means of conveying independent information directly to the governed, and thus, of holding our leaders and our military responsible and accountable. I could make the argument that what journalists are trying to do in Iraq is as important to freedom and democracy as what our soldiers are doing there. Given the ambiguity of our military mission, just possibly more so.

Certainly, as the regrettable death of Mazen Dana makes clear, their risks are no less. In my view, they also have died in defense of freedom.

Next week, back to photography.

— Mike Johnston

See Mike Johnston’s website Also, check out his monthly column in the BritishBlack & White Photographymagazine! (Usually available at Barnes & Noble bookstores.)

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Mike Johnstonwrites and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine calledThe 37th Framefor people who are really "into" photography. His book,The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.

You can read more about Mike and findadditional articlesthat he has written for this site, as well as aSunday Morning Index.

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