Power of Images

CASE STUDY: The pulling down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, April 9, 2003

In April 2003, the world witnessed the toppling of the Iraqi government in Baghdad by U.S. troops during one of the most strategic photo-ops in recent history.  As American troops marched into Paradise Square in the center of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, they were greeted by cheering Iraqi men, children and women, some thanking them for their help and even pledging alliance to President Bush. The group marched toward Saddam Hussein's illustrious statue, located in the middle of the square, intending to pull it down. A couple of Iraqi men climbed onto the statue and hung a noose around its neck but were not able to pull it down. American soldiers took control, one climbing up and wrapping Saddam Hussein's metal head in the American flag. The statue was tied to a tank, and with a tug, was brought down. As soon as it hit the ground, several civilians started kicking it with their shoes, cursing and spitting on it, eventually breaking the head off and dragging it around the city.

The next day, the world witnessed the event second-hand through various pictures presented by media outlets everywhere. Newspaper editors had a multitude of pictures to choose from, but the selection was not easy since most pictures were taken from a close angle and barely showed the sparsely populated square. Many newspapers used a picture of the bent statue with an American soldier in the foreground and in the background, a handful of Iraqis watching. Other pictures taken from different angles were also shown, including a single long-shot image of the whole square with all its elements. This picture was perhaps the most revealing of all.

The first picture (statue, soldier and Iraqis) was used by several newspapers around the world, including The Washington Post, Al-Nahar (Lebanon) and The Guardian (UK), who published it as the primary image, among other smaller pictures.

The second one is cropped image, showing the statue as it fell from its pedestal with a mosque in the background. BBC Middle East correspondent Paul Wong said about this picture: "It was the single image which came to define the war..." (Wong, Paul, The day Saddam's statue fell, BBC News, April 9, 2003).

Le Figaro (France) showed the third picture; an American marine draping the face of Saddam Hussein's statue with the American flag. This picture only presented the American; showing a U.S. soldier using the American flag to cover the statue's face can be viewed as a representative of the American victory.

The Independent Media Center captured an aerial picture (long shot) of Paradise Square showing surrounding area, including a part of town, the mosque, the roads leading to the square and the citizens and military personnel present during the toppling of the statue. It is most obvious in this image that there were not many people in the square at the time of the event. This picture was later annotated and commented on (refer to exercise 2 below).

Maariv in Israel published (image 5) a close-up of the statue, with no visible Iraqis or Americans; however, they overlapped a smaller picture of an Iraqi boy kissing the cheek of a U.S. soldier, probably as a sign of gratitude.

This selection of images shows that different newspapers from different countries tried to convey unique messages through the pictures they chose. The photographs showing the U.S. soldier in the foreground and the Iraqi people in the background have a clear connotation: the soldier symbolizes the American victory while the Iraqis in the background appear to be helpless onlookers. Furthermore, the fallen statue depicted in most of the pictures reminds the reader or viewer of the fallen government; as the BBC put it: "2003: Saddam statue topples with regime."

Yet, we cannot be sure of the media's intent in choosing a specific image unless a very clear caption or headline accompanies the picture. This practice is "what journalists ought to do -that is to provide as much info so that the reader or viewer could form an informed opinion" (Emily Brown, lecturer at the 2008 Salzburg Global Seminar on Media and Global Change). One might expect the different elements of the pictures to be interpreted according to the photographer's identity or affiliations.  However, since the newspapers' editors made those choices, the selection reflects their opinions and serves as a vehicle for news messages they intend to disseminate. "You can also go as far as saying that pictures are editorial," says Costanza Mujica, lecturer at the 2008 Salzburg Global Seminar on Media and Global Change. Taken in this perspective, images are indeed powerful tools that not only accompany a headline, an article or a story, but foremost, pave the way to a certain interpretation or conclusion the reader is expected to reach.

Video and news clip images can also have the same effects as still pictures; they can strongly influence news messages. View the following clip from BBC. Mute your speakers and watch it without sound. Do these images influence you to take a certain side? Do you think these images are vehicles for certain messages? Depending on the clip's content, what word comes to your mind to describe the American soldiers, on one hand, and the Iraqi people, on the other? Do you think that if the video were Iraqi-made, the same content would have been broadcast?