November 29, 2004

A Symbolic Look at the Iraqi Army: Who’s Watching Who?


Lately, I’ve been reading through the literature on the semiotics of news photographs. Among a long list of criteria by which to analyze a news photo, one consideration involves the extent to which subjects actually pose for the camera.

This shot in yesterday’s NYTimes is a strange one. The caption reads as follows: “An Iraqi soldier helped detain several men after a raid yesterday on a mosque in Mosul. The man at left holding a child was later released.”

There are two soldiers in the left side of the photo, facing away from the camera, seemingly involved in an engagement. There is also a cut-off portion of another soldier at the extreme right of the shot, apparently facing to the right.

Given the action taking place, the Iraqi soldier standing guard and the “supposed” detainees look remarkably nonchalant. Examining the scene further, even more questions arise. For example, unless there are additional Iraqi guards that are out of view, it doesn’t appear that anyone is actually guarding the “detainees.” Notice the guard is against the “facing” wall, while the “detainees” are around the corner from him.

Of course, someone else might be guarding the “detainees.” However, the posture and positioning of the civilians on the long wall don’t seem to bear this out, either. If he was being guarded, why wouldn’t the man with the baby be standing against the wall, or holding the baby in a more protective way? The other man against the wall also appears much too at ease.

Then there is the question of the action taking place. If there is some kind of combat-related activity going on (as suggested by the soldiers in the left side of the image), why do the civilians appear so casual and seemingly oblivious?

Here are a couple other things to consider: If, according to the caption, the Iraqi soldier in the foreground is merely “helping” to detain other Iraqis, is it possible that the soldiers “in action” are Americans? If so, is it possible that the Iraqi soldier (who doesn’t seem that concerned with guarding the “detainees”) and the “detainees” themselves (who don’t appear to be that apprehensive or apprehended) are basically posing or “making a show” for the (most likely, American) photographer?

To go a step further, if this image can be seen (as any news photo can be) as a metaphor for the U.S. engagement in Iraq, what does it say about the reliability and loyalty of the nascent Iraqi army? As a symbolic representation, can we assume that the uncertainty and unreliability reflected in the photo might actually reflect the level of ambiguity (and the level of “posing”) on the ground.

(On the other hand, given the image is so hard to square with the caption, could it be that it’s primarily the caption that’s unreliable?)

You can see a larger scale version of this photo here.

(photo: Shawn Baldwin/NYTimes)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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