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Fingerpoint And Click

When are news photographs too shocking for public consumption?
Paris Match

Or whether we prefer the shock of words to the weightiness of photos, or the other way around.

Or whether these particular photos--of the Taliban displaying the combat uniforms and weapons of 10 French paratroopers killed in action in Afghanistan on Aug. 18--were sold for more or less than those of the dying and bloody Lady Di in that tunnel in Paris.

The real question, the only one that matters, is that a photographer named Veronique de Viguerie went to one of the world's most dangerous regions and returned with an extraordinary, news-packed report.

What was in it?

First, the Taliban's state of mind: the fact that they hate the French only a little less than they hate the Americans, and that the clever minds who thought they might get into the Taliban's good graces by keeping a low profile and being discreet and ingratiating--even collaborating with them--were sadly mistaken.

Then there is the fact that they are not "resistance fighters," "religious students" or anything of the sort. Instead they are bastards, unadulterated bastards, motivated by cynicism, choosing to celebrate a recent military success by displaying trophies and parading around as in ancient times.

We also learn--and this is hardly without importance--that they are what we call these days good communicators, able to stage their own photographs, posing for the camera (especially since the photographer says that is exactly what happened, and there is no reason to doubt her word).

Finally, those of us who wanted it neither heard nor said, or who considered it a state secret, are reminded that for years and years, the French have had elite commandos fighting shoulder to shoulder with the American Special Forces in the Afghan mountains. The report reminds these people -- and this is key--that France is fighting a war over there, a real war that also happens to be as undeclared as the war it fought in Algeria 50 years ago.

Once de Viguerie's photos were published, what happened?

Here is Max Gallo, member of the French Academy, adopting the tone of the clarion call of Paul Deroulede and accusing the young journalist--who, I remind you, did not show us any images of dead bodies -- of tearing "the shrouds off our fallen soldiers." I kid you not.

Over there is Philippe de Villiers, inevitably crying out about high treason. Why not the high court while we're at it? Jail? Bring back the death penalty?

And over there is the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, who, instead of asking whether the soldiers were sufficiently armed and had adequate equipment and backup, expressed regret that the press was not helping the ministry "manage the families' grief."

And then there's the prime minister himself, Francois Fillon, speaking at his party's summer retreat, prepared to cast the last stone at this damned journalist who has so horribly failed to "show respect" for "the pain of the families."

In the face of this avalanche of insults, this dance of hypocrites--the likes of whom we haven't seen since the war in Algeria and the strange, crazy spectacle of all these reasonable people baying like a pack of hounds at a woman whose only crime was to plumb the depths of horror and then show it -- one is embarrassed to have to remind them of the simple truth: Photojournalists are here not to manage the pain of the families but to inform.

They are journalists, not social workers or soldiers or military auxiliaries. They are not part of a strategy, nor do they participate or enlist in a war effort.

Their duty, their only duty, is to show, to reveal, to lay out what they can, to extract the truth from the vast realm of what is hidden and cannot be shown.

At the risk of shocking? Yes, at the risk of shocking. At the risk of waking people up. At the risk of telling the public--which, as usual, really does not want to look--that it must look.

At the risk of embarrassment? Yes, at the risk of embarrassment. At the risk of breaking down the wall of silence, forcing the military to tell the families something it clearly did not want to say--that at least one of the 10 soldiers was murdered with a knife.

And finally, at the risk of giving a voice to the enemy? Yes! Because the enemy is real. The enemy is flesh and blood, and has an ideology and something to say. And it is critical, especially when claiming to be in battle, to have some idea of all this.

These people should read the writing of the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, whom my friend Salman Rushdie has called "the sorcerer of contemporary reporting," and who pointed out that, had the media existed during the time of the Greeks, Herodotus, father of the genre, would have been stoned and burned at the stake.

They should consider "The Painter of Battles," the great novel about photojournalism by Arturo Perez-Reverte, which tells the story of a Croatian soldier who is photographed by a celebrated war photographer. The soldier, left for dead in the former Yugoslavia, returns years later to kill him.

In the end it is always like this. Those bastard journalists. Those morale busters. Those irresponsible people. Those devils.

And confronting them are the pontificators, people who have never once left their offices or their blogger keyboards. Shame on them.

Bernard-Henri Levy is the author, most recently, of This piece was translated from the French by Sara Sugihara. Subscribe to The New Republic for only $29.97 a year--75% off cover price!

By Bernard-Henri Levy