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Afghan battle photo: Iconic or irresponsible?

July 6, 2011 |  3:54 pm

Kabul-hotel

Nothing catches a reader’s eye quite like a striking picture on the front page of the newspaper. Such was the case with an AFP / Getty Images photo (above) published Thursday of “foreign forces” leaving the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, after an attack by Taliban militants.

The accompanying article described the attack on the upscale hilltop hotel, where elite troops from New Zealand were credited with helping quell the violence that left 19 people dead. The troops are part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

Several readers questioned the decision to run the photo by Pedro Ugarte of Agence France-Presse, fearing that its publication could put the soldiers at risk. (The front-page photo was cropped into a vertical image and included only the three men to the left; it ran as a horizontal with all four men on the Framework blog.)

“The photo on the front page Thursday should never have been published,” wrote Edward Grant of Visalia, Calif. “Did you want to paint a target on their chests? Three soldiers who have just been in combat obviously don't want their faces in the paper. … Will you be happy to publish photos of their bodies if the Taliban manages to find and kill them using information from your article?”

The photo was published by many other major news organizations, including the New York Times, Seattle Times and the Guardian in London. The Guardian, however, took the extra step of blurring the men’s faces.

Steve Stroud, deputy director of photography at the Los Angeles Times, said the photo was selected because of “the weary, bloodied appearance of the soldiers that spoke volumes about the five-hour gun battle that pitted NATO and Afghan forces against the well-armed Taliban militants who had stormed the hotel.”

Though the photo caption did not identify the soldiers as from New Zealand -- and Stroud said their nationalities were not known -- readers made that inference. 

A1-6.30 “That was a very interesting front page photo,” wrote Gary Goldman of Los Angeles. “Your article said ‘elite’ New Zealand troops were involved.  I'm going to bet that the long-haired fellow in the camouflage fatigues with the wound on his face is a member of their Special Air Service -- he's wearing his gear like a total professional, and the choice of the suppressed 9mm submachine gun in his bloody hands gives him away. These operators don't like to have their photos on the front pages of newspapers, which might explain the expression on his face.”

An online reader in New Zealand had concerns as well.

“Shame on your media [for] publishing pics [and] details of New Zealand special forces in action in Kabul,” emailed Robert Young of Christchurch. “You have placed these men’s, and New Zealand citizens’, lives at risk. With friends like you, who needs enemies?”

Stroud said there had been no request by either the photographer or his agency to not publish the photo -- “a request we would likely have honored.”

However, Stroud also said the Los Angeles Times would not have considered blurring the faces, as the Guardian did. “That would have violated our photo ethics policy that clearly states that the content of any news photo cannot be altered in any way,” he said.

“Our selection of the photo is in keeping with our intent to honestly and fully portray the ongoing war, much of which takes place outside the view of photographers and hence our readers,” Stroud added.

Other readers found the photo compelling, even iconic.

“The photo accompanying the piece on the Taliban attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Afghanistan is eloquent. A foreign fighter, haggard and bloodied, confronts the camera, while the apparent Afghan ‘fighter’ to his right hides his face, perhaps fearing he'll be recognized by his fellow ‘citizens,’ ” wrote Michael Jenning of Van Nuys in a Letter to the Editor published Monday.

And James A. Webster of Santa Barbara likened it to another famous war photo.

“I believe this photo is as representative of our war in Afghanistan as the one of our Marines raising our flag over Iwo Jima is representative of our war in the Pacific,” Webster wrote. “It is an amazing photo because it says so much.”

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Foreign troops leave the Intercontinental Hotel at the end of a military operation against Taliban militants in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Pedro Ugarte / AFP / Getty Images

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