Public/Private Interventions

February 13, 2007

The photo-narrative – Todd Heisler – photojournalist covering the Iraq war – on portraying emotion

Filed under: Contextual References — mastermistress @ 4:30 pm

 Todd Heisler, 2006 Pulitzer Prize Winner for the following images.
Reference for these photographs and writings

Critique of images and captions
The author/photographers portrayal is of an almost distant factual account of what he saw and heard, he imparts no emotive words towards the highly emotional content. Quoted words of its participants use seemingly simple language that could leave the viewer wondering why those particular words were chosen to represent the image. Instead they are loaded with ambiguous meaning. The viewer constructs their own narrative surrounding the sequence of pictures, added to the strength of previous experience concerning death or the threat there-of of their own mortality or that of their loved ones. It is strictly business of everyday reality the soldiers face as a part of their duty to their country and colleagues. On the flip-side – it shows a raw and almost uncontrolled state of emotion brought to the surface, the stuff where psychological defenses’ of denial and shock take over the brain.
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A pregnant widow grieves at the visual reality unfolding in front of her, confirming what she has only been previously told, her husband returning from the war in a flag draped casket. The soldier half embraces the widow. Maybe he is or not known to her or a friend of the deceased. Perhaps he holds her back in her blind panic of grief and keep her knees from folding. His face belies any emotion he may be feeling and remains steely and focused on the task at hand.
It is unclear if the occupants of the plane are fully conscious to what is taking part beneath them even though their attention is drawn to the camera, depending on the light situation with night time darkness surrounding the plane. Maybe they are about to discover the chill of the true reality of the commotion outside, that moment of realising they have traveled with a corpse on board; something not uncommon but not usually brought to the attention of passengers traveling.

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The neck and face of the soldier accompanying the widow to the back of the hearse, is flushed. He rests a hand on the back of the widow to comfort her as she folds her body to the casket.
The same soldier rearranges the casket in the funeral home before viewing can take place. He then stands guard as the soldier’s wife attempts to bring her unborn baby into close contact with a father it will never see in the flesh. We wonder about the events of his mind, that of containing his own grief if he knows the soldier, that of his future prospect of survival in a senseless war and the inevitable feelings of intrusion in a highly sacred moment between a wife and her husband. Here the photojournalist narrates, adding a sound dimension to the visual, of a gentle moaning of grief at the loss and of future dreams unfulfilled.

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Katherine Cathey pressed her pregnant belly to her husband’s casket, moaning softly. The baby, due Jan. 1, will be named James Jeffrey Cathey Jr. © TODD HEISLER/ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS

We then witness through narration the wife’s refusal to leave her husbands body, wanting to spend one last night next to him before he is buried. The soldiers make her a bed and ask if she would like to stay standing on guard while she sleeps. No doubt they are required to guard the body. One has to wonder if they have abandoned protocol to accommodate the wife’s wishes because they know her and feel compassion, or perhaps they anticipate she fears being left alone with a dead body. She replies that it is probably what her husband would like to happen.

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The night before the burial of her husband’s body, Katherine Cathey refused to leave the casket, asking to sleep next to his body for the last time. The Marines made a bed for her, tucking in the sheets below the flag. Before she fell asleep, she opened her laptop computer and played songs that reminded her of “Cat,” and one of the Marines asked if she wanted them to continue standing watch as she slept. “I think it would be kind of nice if you kept doing it,” she said. “I think that’s what he would have wanted.” © TODD HEISLER/ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS

We see again a visual of the steely faced and emotionless determination of the soldier’s friends/colleagues as they obsessively-compulsively practice the flag-folding. Even though rehearsal and repetition is a well-known hallmark of the military, it is a fitting act to relieve feelings of anxiety. Perfection of a simple act seems to be the ultimate symbolic way of honoring the memory of their friend.

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The day before the funeral of their friend, 2nd Lt. Jon Mueller, left, and 1st Lt. Matthew Baumann practiced for hours folding a flag, making sure there would be no errors the next day. “That will be the last time his flag is folded,” said Maj. Steve Beck, as he instructed them. “It has to be perfect.” © Rocky Mountain News 2005

To me, the decision to use the closing caption of the father hugging the soldier is rather ambiguous. He claims his son taught him that he needs more than one friend. This could be a careful ploy on behalf of the photojournalist that would leave the reader/viewer deciphering its meaning. It’s aim could be to distract, dilute and safely close the deep emotion evoked throughout the photo story… one often used by psychologists in a therapy session.

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As his son’s funeral neared, Jeff Cathey’s tears rarely stopped. He often found comfort in the men who shared his son’s uniform. “Someone asked me what I learned from my son,” he said. “He taught me you need more than one friend.” © TODD HEISLER/ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS


  1. This has touched my heart so very deeply. My heart goes out to all the families of all the fallen heros. So many idiots within the walls of our government {Most only for their own political gain} shadow the real reasons why so many of our soldiers are so willing to give their lives in this war so far from home. But, I believe that..they will one day pay the price for the pain they have placed upon the ones who love this country. I breaks my heart to see such heartache. But, I am so thankful for all the hundreds of thousands of brave souls that are fighting not only for the freedom of those in the middle east, but for keeping those who want to do us harm at bay. God Bless you all, I pray God will lead you and direct you and Bless you in all that you do.

    Rev. Robert D. Richardson

    Lil’ Robert

    Comment by Rev. Robert D. Richardson — July 26, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

  2. I have placed some of your photos within a small video on youtube called {heroes} along with your name and a link to your web site in the description of the video. There are several other photos in the video that have been emailed to me over the years of which I have no idea of their origin. Please watch it and let me know if you approve, if you do not like it I will remove it. I promise you as a minister of God, I will in no way profit from this video, It is only there for ministry. You have a wonderful gift and I just wanted to share it with others.


    If you have any information on any of the other photos…please let me know.
    God bless!!!!

    Rev. Robert D. Richardson

    Comment by Rev. Robert D. Richardson — September 20, 2008 @ 7:44 pm

  3. What a tragic story. Whats even more sad is there are thousands just like this. these are the things we never see that make us as Americans forget the true sacrifice of our Military!!!! May God Bless all the families that have suffered a loss and give them strength to get through the routines of their daily lives.

    Comment by Matina — March 27, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

  4. Brilliant photos. Through their pain and sacrifice, of the soldiers and their surviving families – I thank them. Honor them.

    Comment by Tom — July 31, 2010 @ 9:39 am

  5. We are not soldiers. We are Marines. Semper Fi Sir.

    Comment by Sam — August 20, 2010 @ 5:44 am

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