The Image that Changed a War and Ruined a Life

Katy Helvenston has had the same nightmare for seven years. Every night, she sees the image of her son’s charred and decapitated body hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq, as locals cheer in celebration.

This controversial photo, taken by Khalid Mohammed on Wednesday, March 31, 2004, appeared in newspapers and television reports around the world. It was one of the first images portraying the violence and brutality of the Iraq War. (Khalid Mohammed/The Associated Press)

The nightmare is very real. The image is a nightly reincarnation of a moment captured on Wednesday, March 31, 2004 by Associated Press photographer Khalid Mohammed.

“It took me five years before I could sleep,” Helvenston said. “Now I take medication to sleep and I wake up and I feel so drugged. Those images, they never leave me.”

Helvenston’s son, Scott, was one of four Blackwater civilian soldiers intercepted by terrorists while driving through Fallujah. The soldiers were shot, their bodies burned and decapitated by a large crowd, and were hanged from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

The next day, images from the brutal attack appeared on the front page of hundreds of newspapers around the world. The Palm Beach Post, in Helvenston’s home state of Florida, carried the photo on the front page, above the fold.

The nightly news showed Mohammed’s photo and others—some altered to obscure the grisly details, others untouched. Helvenston saw the images on television and in the newspapers before she realized her son was one of the soldiers in the photos.

The Greater Good

A single photo can contain so much information, so many emotional elements, that it can change minds and change lives. The same elements of Mohammed’s photo that made it haunt Katy Helvenston also made it resonate around the world.

“The photograph told it all,” said John Bartosek, who was then managing editor of The Palm Beach Post. “It was an example of a photograph being worth a thousand words. It was brutal and it was ugly.”

Before the photograph was published, few images from the Iraq War had shown the violence that was a regular part of life during the conflict. Mohammed’s photo captured the grave reality of the Iraq War in a single frame. The disfigured bodies hanged in the background, but in the foreground of the image was a crowd of cheering Iraqis. Most prominently captured is a single man, arm raised, mouth open, chanting in a moment of pure elation at the death of American soldiers.

“When you have a strong photographic image that has that kind of intense emotional content, I think there is an overriding reason to present it to public on the front page,” said Michel DuCille, photo editor at The Washington Post.

Despite DuCille’s stance on the photo’s emotional impact, The Washington Post did not publish the Mohammed photo. Instead, a less graphic photo by Reuters photographer Ali Jasim ran on page A11 of the Thursday, April 1, 2004 paper.

“Sometimes we do the right thing and sometimes we don’t,” DuCille said. “I think in this case, we should have run the Mohammed photograph.”

Not an Easy Decision

Whether a paper chose to publish the photo on the front page or bury it on page 11, the editorial process was rigorous and every issue was considered:

• Are the images too graphic?
• How will readers react?
• Which picture should be used?
• Should it be cropped?
• What page should it run on?

At The Washington Post, one of the key points of discussion—and what led to the paper deciding to run the less graphic Jasim photo—was whether the Mohammed photo was too much for readers.

“It is often said and felt around [The Washington Post] that our newspapers land in the homes of our readers and we’re a guest,” DuCille said. “We have to take into consideration that children might see it or readers might feel it is over the top.”

That is exactly the response Bartosek got from some readers of The Palm Beach Post.

“The next morning, there were a number of calls from our readers and there were a number of letters to the editor,” Bartosek said. “I think we saw the reaction you would expect.”

Despite the reaction of some readers, Bartosek believes the paper made the right decision by providing readers with the news of the day, unedited. DuCille believes that The Washington Post erred by not presenting the image on the front page.

Both say they considered what the family of those killed might feel, but it was outweighed by the larger importance of the photo.

“I’m very empathetic to family members who have to go through this, but when you have a situation of this magnitude there is a reason to run a photo like this,” DuCille said.

Media critics agreed. Mohammed and a team of Associated Press photographers who captured the attack in Fallujah earned a Pulitzer Prize for their images. That provides little solace for Katy Helvenston.

“I don’t think any reporter thought that I would not have a good night’s sleep in seven years,” Helvenston said. “I keep thinking you have to get past this. But those images were so vivid.”

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