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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 August 2006, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Images of victory
By Peter Caddick-Adams


The photographer of this enduring image of war has died. A row ensues over whether it, like other iconic photos of victory, was staged. Does it matter?

What photographs spring to mind if you think of World War II?

The death of Joe Rosenthal reminds us of one of the most enduring images of that war, the raising of the US flag on Iwo Jima - a photograph taken by him on 23 February 1945.

Rosenthal - then aged 33 and working for the Associated Press agency - was excused military service on account of his poor eyesight, yet found himself in the middle of the Pacific War's fiercest combat zone.

He followed a US Marine group up to the summit of Mount Suribachi, a volcano on the southern tip of the island, and whilst the fighting was ongoing he snapped six men raising the Stars and Stripes.

But it now appears this was the second flag raised on the spot, a smaller flag having been erected three hours earlier. Rosenthal's picture won him instant fame and many awards, but a strained relationship with the US Marines who had raised their flag earlier.

A thousand words

Enormous controversy arose as to whether the image was staged or depicted a genuine snapshot, a "freeze-frame" during the battle. The incident produced a book in 2000, Flags Of Our Fathers by James Bradley, the son of one of the original six flag raisers.

Soviet soldier raising the Red Flag over the Reichstag after Allied forces entered Berlin
Staged in daylight
Now switch to some other iconic images of war. The next is the raising of another flag during WWII, this time over the Reichstag in Berlin. Arguably as well-known, and representing Victory in Europe, it was shot by Soviet photographer Yevgeni Khaldei on 2 May 1945, as the last Nazi forces resisted in Berlin.

But it, too, is surrounded by controversy. The German parliament building was stormed and taken on 30 April, when a flag - specifically set aside for planting on the symbol of Nazi power - was held aloft that evening.

Khaldei's image, with a snapshot vitality about it (again with a specially-made flag) was staged a couple of days later in daylight. Even that had to be retouched as at least one of the Red Army soldiers had been on a looting spree and was wearing several wristwatches.

Readers will remember the toppling of Saddam's statue in central Baghdad on Wednesday 9 April 2003. I was in Qatar at the time and well remember the feeling of jubilation and relief amongst the local Arab, media and military communities - a sense of "it's all over now".

Toppling Saddam's statue in Baghdad
Image 'surrounded by controversy'
Again, the event has become surrounded by controversy. We now know most of the pictures and film were made with narrow camera angles, concealing the fact there were actually very few people in Firdus Square at the time.

The statue was pulled down by an American M88 armoured recovery vehicle, quite a rare beast in central Baghdad just then. Also, the crowd seemed to include Ahmed Chalibi and some of his Iraqi forces militia, last heard of in exile overseas. One photographer snapped an Iraqi waving a banner which read "Bye Bye Saddam" in English.

These three enduring images of victory turn out to have been staged, or at least were not the initial, spontaneous portrayal of events they seemed to be.

Risky business

There is no suggestion here that the pictures themselves were doctored - apart from the removal of a looted wristwatch or two - just that they "don't do what it says on the packet". The question we have to ask is, does it matter?

Still from BBC drama about Robert Capa
Robert Capa's efforts documented in a BBC drama
In some ways it does offend sensibilities that we may have been gently hoodwinked. On the other hand, consider who the images are for. There are many "stakeholders" in a war. The soldiers fighting it, their loved ones at home, war workers, neutral nations, political leaders - and the enemy.

The images of Rosenthal, Khaldei and from Firdus Square communicated a different message to all these important groups in a way print or the human voice could never do. Particularly to the enemy, the message was loud and clear - throw down your weapons, you've lost.

This is exactly what businesses, sportsmen and politicians do, confirm they've won with an appropriate picture, whether sporting a rosette, waving an outsized champagne bottle or cutting a silk ribbon to open a new headquarters. And in war, capturing the essential moment is often extremely hazardous. So if the message is "assisted" in its composition, should we be surprised or offended?

Many of the famous war photographers of the 20th Century, including Robert Capa, who caught the agony of the assault troops on D-Day, and Larry Burrows, who worked in Vietnam, died in combat, camera in hand. Not to mention the many journalists who have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the pursuit of news and images.

This is not a suggestion that professionals compromise their integrity by doctoring images, that would be lying in celluloid, but as we are the consumers, we need to applaud the bravery of the Joe Rosenthals of this world for being there in the first place.


In the case of Rosenthal's famous photo, I believe that was actually the second flag raised because the first flag was too small. Approximately 6800 servicemen lost their lives taking that island, a large number of them after that photo was taken. The photo was symbolic, on the home front, that the war was perhaps just a little closer to its end. Whether or not the photo was staged, the troops had to be in possession of that hill top to take it. The effect of these photos is to boost the morale of the societies that staged them. Hope for the future keeps one going through the toughest of times. Rich Hagen
Richard Hagen, Chicago, United States

You do a disservice to Rosenthal and the US Marines by calling the Iwo Jima photograph "staged". The second flag on Suribachi was raised not to create a photo op, but because the first flag was to small to be seen by the Marines still fighting below. That is an important distinction.
Rob Bell, London, UK

One of the most iconic war images of had to be the picture of the young girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam. No way this could have been staged and for that reason alone evokes more emotion than any other 'staged' photo could.
Owen , Stevenage, Herts

I remember when the statue of Saddam was pulled down, an American soldier initially covered the statue's head with the Stars and Stripes, before removing it and replacing it with an Iraqi flag. I seem to recall a certain amount of controversy around the incident, and the American soldier in question was disciplined. Surely if this event was staged for the cameras, none of that would have happened?
Giles, London UK

There is absolutely nothing wrong with staging a photograph, doctoring is a whole different ethical issue(looted watches aside!) It is down the the viewer to "read" the image and take from it what they will regardless of the photographers intended message, however other than interpretation the viewer must be confident that the event(s) depicted are real and not something somebody has created with retouching brushes or Photoshop
Clintarris, Cambridge

With respect to the Iwo Jima flag raising. I understand all of the soldiers in the picture died in combat. i think that fact gives the picture a powerful poignancy regardless whether it was staged or not.
Patrick, faversham

Of course, it matters if the photos were staged. Memorable photos create strong emotions among people and can influence their future decisions strongly. A picture like that could create the impression that the indigenes of a country were in support of military action. Nobody would be the wiser until things started going wrong. Anyone who suggests otherwise would be treated as an "enemy of peace" or in today's terms a member of the "axis of evil".
Chinedu, Manchester, UK

So according to the writer, it's OK to pass off propaganda as history, spin as reality. No wonder we've got Blair and Bush.
Malcolm Fraser, Chicago. IL

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