For many individuals, reading the news is a vital part of the day. Whether as a morning routine or an evening relaxation, we look towards the news to stay informed about the world around us. For Americans, the reference remains the New York Times: a newspaper which in its 164 years of existence has won 117 Pulitzer prizes (well more than any other news outlet). Its reputation is beyond reproach for many of its loyal readers—which once included the celebrated American author David Shields.
But recently, Shields began to grow uneasy with his fascination for the front-page photographs of the beloved paper. Over 30 years of loyal reading, Shields recounted how the headline pictures have left him feeling, alternately, stunned, enraptured and sickened. This range worried Shields, “I questioned, why are these photographs gorgeous? Is it an orange sunset that I’m looking at or is it twelve bodies that have just been decapitated?”
His latest book, War is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict, attempts to make sense of his ambiguous sentiments in the face of the combined violence and beauty that many of these images conveyed. This book challenges the indisputable authority of the paper by claiming The Times has sanctified, eroticized and glamorized warfare. In Shields’ words,
“These photos are photojournalistic but in my view, they are military recruiting posters that have no business on the front page of the most influential English-speaking newspaper of the world. […] These pictures lead America toward war. The phrase that kept coming to mind is one of the Department of Homeland Security: ‘If you see something say something.’ That’s what I did but from a different direction. I saw this and felt compelled as a writer to say something.”
Reluctant, at first, to denounce the nation’s most respected news organization, the author decided to be methodical with his approach. With the help of his research team, Shields looked at the front-page of every single New York Times newspaper published between 1991 to mid-2014. Of the thousands of images he saw, Shields noticed that the front-page pictures fell into repetitive thematics. Shields presents his argument in War is Beautiful by focusing on sixty-four photographs neatly arranged into ten thematic categories. Some of these include death, pietà and beauty.
In his introduction, Shields offers a second-degree analysis for each theme and imagines what the New York Times’ aesthetic goals are. These are short, yet quite lyrical, in their analysis, touching upon Romanticism as much as hard-boiled analysis.
For instance, the chapter “God,” features images captured by John Moore and Staff Sgt. Lorie Jewell. Shields draws a comparison between God and the U.S. Army, explaining that “the military commands the globe. The Times surveys and imagines the battlefield from a vantage point high above the field of play; everything is under the control for the creation of a new world.”
Shields also constructs archetypes around individuals: Men are mostly represented as heroic and consecrated to sacrifice because “a male soldier’s combat death is as close as he’s ever going to get to birth.” Meanwhile, women are depicted as occupied or displaced; children as faux-father figures who are there to serve as substitutes for their recently deceased forebears.
War is Beautiful also pushes us to question whether photojournalists themselves should be equally implicated in the promotion of warfare. In an interview published in Shields’ book, the war photojournalist John F. Burns explains that his most exhilarating assignments have been on war: “they pose the essential questions—questions of life in its darkest form. But essential also because the subjects bore so heavily on the interest of the United States and of my newspaper, an American newspaper.”
Obviously, war photojournalists are courageous and brave for documenting war-time realities—however there seems to be something inherently perverse in their continual quest to photograph these situations. Soldiers and war photojournalist are both driven by a similar enthusiasm during warfare. Both are armed: one with a gun, the other with a camera. They are both on a quest “to shoot” and as Susan Sontag suggests in her essay On Photography:
“there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder.”
So is the act of photographing inherently violent in itself? Shields doesn’t answer that question, but he is open to addressing the problematics from many angles. Even his own role comes into doubt. At points in the book, Shields reflects on the subjective lens he brings to his own writing—and the challenges caused by his interpretations. “I chose the New York Times as a case study of how we’re all lead as lambs to slaughter. But to some degree, I hold myself responsible—after all, I do find these pictures stunningly beautiful. I blame myself for not pulling off the covers from my eyes sooner: it took me too long to read against these pictures. I really love the war porn…”
Given the complexity and ambiguity of his conclusions, what does Shields hope to get out of this book, in the end? Will it stop war? Can it put the Times out of business? No, no—but his goals are still lofty and important to note:
“Next time, people can cast a more skeptical eye; that would be the idealistic hope. Finley Peter Dunne, an American journalist from the 19th century said, ‘the role of a journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ That’s how the New York Times has failed in their duty—and this book is an attempt to do exactly that.”
War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict*
by David Shields
Publisher: powerHouse Books
Hardcover: 112 pages