The nearly simultaneous publication recently of three photo essays from Afghanistan in three different publications stirred up some partisan debate last week on Michael Shaw’s BagNews Notes blog. Shaw noted that the three award-winning photojournalists who shot the stories – James Nachtwey, published in Time; Tyler Hicks, published in The New York Times; and Louie Palu, published in the Toronto Star–  had all been embedded with helicopter medavac units, and all showed them tending to wounded soldiers.

“Is this pure coincidence?” Shaw wrote, “Or, does it illustrate (too well, in this case) the acumen of the Pentagon in the mediating of war access? Either way, in the aggregate this is a stunning display of American chauvinism given the intimate framing of the war in such a redundantly heroic narrative, all eyes on our warriors as saviors on high.”

Shaw wrote that he didn’t want to “take anything away from the thoroughly accomplished” photographers, only to critique how “big media” has filtered coverage of the war. The New York Times did not respond to our requests for comment; a spokesperson for Time would say only that the publication of the three stories “is pure coincidence. To suggest anything otherwise is completely inaccurate.”

But at least one of the photographers cried foul, and passionately.

“It just makes me angry. [Shaw has] taken one photo out of an entire essay, and used it to suit his argument. What he’s saying is important, but he misused my photo” to say it, Palu says.

Contrary to what Shaw wrote in his original post (which Shaw has since amended), The Star didn’t hire Palu to shoot the story. He says he took the medevac embed last fall as part of his Alexia Grant project to document the social, cultural, and political fabric of the Kandahar region. The Star picked up his story-which included more than medevac pictures–afterwards. Part of Palu’s motive for taking that embed, he says, was to get access to civilians. And the medevac embed was one small part of a six-month trip to Afghanistan.

“I’m not defending the military or Pentagon,” he says. “Obviously, the images [Shaw selected] are good publicity [for the US military,] but I’m showing a lot more than heroic medics. I’ve shown civilians people ripped apart, and soldiers missing their legs, with no medics tending them”

In other words, he says, he’s made a lot of photographs of military and civilian casualties that don’t make the military look good at all. But photojournalists covering the war just can’t seem to win, he says. “If we cover just dead bodies and dead soldiers, we get criticized…We’re finally showing casualties, and getting criticized for showing casualties because we’re showing medics saving them.”

The Star‘s Foreign Editor, Colin MacKenzie, said Shaw’s blog post “takes us back to the beginning of the embed debate, at the dawn of time. Yeah, you’re covering your team, in effect. Implicit with the embed is, you’re with your guys, and that’s the price you pay for access.

“The images are implicitly rah rah because you are rescuing people. If it was the only coverage that The Times and Time magazine and The Star were doing, it [Shaw’s criticism] might be a fair accusation. But none of the organizations have confined our coverage to rah rah embed stuff.”

After PDN contacted Shaw about Palu’s comments, Shaw added a note to his post clarifying when Palu shot the images, but he told PDN via email, “I’m less concerned about HOW they got there than THAT they ARE there and what effect they have, once there, on the public mind and the behavior of the citizenry.”  The blog is concerned with published images and the messages they convey, he says; film critics don’t interview  movie stars before writing reviews, and he doesn’t  interview photographers.  “That’s not to say that I don’t also have a lot of opinions about the powers that be and how corporate media, the military and the government are extraordinarily sophisticated about visual messaging (by commission AND omission) in the shaping of public opinion. I do, I don’t hide it and I don’t apologize for it. “

He notes that he’s familiar with Palu’s work, and knows him as “someone who has no qualms about speaking truth to power.” But he’s concerned with the military’s control of news. “It’s the frustration over the military’s media control and censorship, combined with big media’s recent attraction to uncomplicated ‘personal interest’-type pieces.… that, I believe, has produced such a strong and confirming response to my post from shooters and citizens alike.”

Shaw adds, “I’d go so far as say that, if only a fraction of Louie’s work from Afghanistan had been published flat out (especially his earlier work from the South), and we didn’t have the media filter to contend with, the US would probably have withdrawn several years ago.”

-David Walker