- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 8, 2004

Hospital photos

One of our senior editors, unaware of any controversy, complimented me Wednesday morning on Willis Witter’s story from the main Army trauma hospital in Baghdad and in particular on the accompanying photos by Maya Alleruzzo.

He said he had found the pictures, which showed Army doctors and nurses providing loving care to the wounded and heartfelt prayers for the dead, both moving and uplifting, reflecting the basic decency of the American forces in Iraq.

That was exactly what Miss Alleruzzo had in mind when she took the pictures, but not everyone saw it that way. For a while it was not clear whether we would be able to publish the photos at all.

The pictures of the wounded were no problem. It was the shots of hospital staff performing final rites on the recent victim of a roadside bomb blast that made the Army public information officers nervous.

Miss Alleruzzo vividly recalls the scene in the morgue: Once a doctor had formally declared the soldier dead, a chaplain began to pray for the soldier, his family, his commander and unit, and then for the doctors, medics and nurses.

“I was taking pictures. I felt kind of silly, so I put my head down and closed my eyes. It felt like the right thing to do,” she said. “Once they were done praying they went back to work. Everyone was really quiet. You could hear a bit of sniffling but everyone was trying to keep it together.

“They went very gently through his pockets, pulling out his personal effects — ID cards, a tube of blue ChapStick, a stick of Juicy Fruit gum, some family photos. … They took his wedding ring off his finger and put it with his other personal belongings.”

There was no public information officer (PIO) in the room at the time, but Miss Alleruzzo had gotten to know the officer who arranged her visit to the hospital and wanted to make sure he knew what she had been doing.

“After I had sat quietly and calmed down,” she said, “I went and found him and said, ‘I need to show you some pictures.’ We sat down and I showed him all the pictures in the back of my electronic camera.”

Keeping her camera

That PIO saw no problem with the pictures but checked with a superior who told him there was a rule against showing any pictures of dead soldiers. Miss Alleruzzo agreed not to do anything with her pictures until both had checked on the rules.

As she was preparing to leave the hospital, another PIO approached Miss Alleruzzo and asked her to delete the pictures from her camera. She politely and respectfully refused. The PIO replied that she could do as she wished but that she would be making it more difficult for other journalists in the future.

When Miss Alleruzzo later contacted the first PIO by e-mail, he told her he could “not release the photos at this time” and that his superiors had asked him to confiscate her camera. Miss Alleruzzo replied that both of them should review the terms of her press credentials, in which she had agreed to certain limitations, and the two agreed to be in touch again.

At that point she contacted me. I advised her to transmit the pictures to the photo desk in Washington immediately — putting the decision on whether to publish in the hands of our senior editors and to send me a copy of the agreement for the press credentials. In fact, it said only that she must not publish clearly identifiable photos of dead soldiers before their families could be notified of their deaths.

In the end, Miss Alleruzzo offered us a very tasteful and sensitive package of pictures to go with the story; none showed more than a pair of boots sticking out at the bottom of a body bag. Our senior editors had no problem in approving their use.

But Miss Alleruzzo still wasn’t satisfied. Back in Washington, she discussed the pictures with a military wife who told her she didn’t like them because they reminded her of something she didn’t want to think about.

“It was something I hadn’t considered,” Miss Alleruzzo said. “I had thought people would find comfort in seeing how lovingly the bodies were cared for. But I have no regret at all.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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