photograph by Tyler Hicks
From Chapter 3: At the Times, deciding what you can show from a war.
The Northern Alliance force under General Abdul Rashid Dostum took the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif last Friday. Other Alliance forces captured Taliqan on Sunday. Taliban troops retreated from both cities to a town that lay between them, Kunduz. The Alliance forces took uneasy control of Herat, Afghanistan’s major Western city, near the border with Iran. On Monday morning an American Airlines flight took off from JFK then ripped into Belle Harbor, in the Rockaways in Queens, a little neighborhood that, having a high proportion of fireman and police officers, was already mourning the loss of dozens in the World Trade Center. I called a friend who was an advisor to the United Nations secretary-general, thinking as I did and he did that perhaps the plane had been heading for him—to make good Bin Laden’s anger at Annan by hitting the UN, a tall building that sits fully exposed alongside the East River and can be felt to sway when the winds are high.
That same Monday the Northern Alliance entered Kabul’s outskirts and the Taliban began to flee. In the next morning’s paper, across the top of “A Nation Challenged,” was a triptych I won’t forget. The most distinctive change in the paper’s approach to news since Howell Raines took over as editor was in the selection and placement of photos. Almost overnight, the paper became much more visually expressive. Here were three photos by Tyler Hicks, next to the report by David Rohde, which read: “Near an abandoned Taliban bunker, Northern Alliance soldiers dragged a wounded Taliban soldier out of a ditch today. As the terrified man begged for his life, the Alliance soldiers pulled him to his feet. They searched him and emptied his pockets. Then, one soldier fired two bursts from his rifle into the man’s chest. A second soldier beat the lifeless body with his rifle butt. A third repeatedly smashed a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher into the man’s head.”
In this Hicks triptych, the upper-left-hand picture showed the man being dragged onto a narrow dirt road. One of our allies is pulling the man by the hand; a second Northern Alliance soldier pulls him by the foot. I wondered what his name was. Rohde probably hadn’t had enough time to find out. In the second picture, upper-right-hand corner of the triptych, you saw his face. Blood showed on his lower abdomen. He was sitting up on the ground. One man, seen on the left in the first picture, was now holding his shirt as though to pull him up. The wounded man’s eyes were a gray blue. His dark hair was thinning on top and lightly streaked with gray as was his thick beard. In this picture he is not speaking, he is just looking up at the men who might kill him through his deep gray blue eyes.
The third picture was across the bottom and twice the width of the others: a panorama. Down the center is the road that crosses a level plain. In the far distance, a hazy mountain ridge. In the middle distance to the right, a crowded tank, to the left the low mud walls of a suburban settlement. In the foreground center lies the man, in the middle of the road, so far to the fore that his right foot and buttocks are outside the frame. He is on his back. His knees are up and his hands are off the ground. A man on the right is firing into him, a man at center is firing into him, a man at the left is firing into him and smiling.
Why were the Taliban soldier’s hands still in the air? Was he still alive? Or was the force of the bullets keeping his body in motion? The man in the purple trousers who had dragged him by the hand is already walking on. The description Rohde gave appeared to have left something out; at least, it was not explained. Because between the second picture and this final one the man’s trousers had been pulled down. They were now around his ankles. His muscular legs are bare and there are streaks of blood running down them.
My Op-Ed colleague Nora Krug looked at the page with me and we were both struck by the sequence. This man’s family were not Times readers and we showed his death. We had not showed the bodies of the dead downtown or at the Pentagon or in the Pennsylvania field. We never would. We showed them alive and happy. Today in Portraits of Grief it was Mary Rubina Sperando, 39, “known to almost everyone as Mitzi,” and Vishnoo Ramsaroop, originally of Trinidad (“when he visited the twin towers, he fell in love with their size and majesty”), and smiling Ervin Gailliard, of the South Bronx, who could beat computers at chess and worked as a security guard at the Trade Center. And here was a nameless man dying in the road, three pictures in color. We wondered—Nora, our colleague Barbara Ireland, and I—about the propriety of it. Barbara said: No, this is right. Just show it.