Photos That Changed History: Major Mark Bieger and Farah

We’ve reviewed enough historical photos on this blog in the past few weeks. However, as History Geek likes to remind me, despite what Francis Fukuyama’s book may have been called, history will never end as long as there is any creature possessing the requisite intellect and self-awareness to observe, remember, and pass down word of the events. Thankfully, there are brave journalists, writers, and photographers who continue to go out the world over to chronicle the events of modern history. One of those writers/photographers, Michael Yon snapped a photo in May 2005 that showed one of the many faces of the Iraq War.

In this photo, you see Major Mark Bieger, an American soldier in Mosul, Iraq, who was on patrol with the rest of his unit. The Stryker vehicles were driving down the road in a neighborhood with children dancing around them and jumping up to greet the soldiers when a suicide bomber drove his car into one of the Strykers. Major Mark Bieger saw that one of the children, a four-year-old girl named Farah, had been badly wounded by the attack. Wrapping her in a blanket, he and several other soldiers rushed her to a hospital. Sadly, Farah did not survive. As the Major was taking Farah for treatment, Michael Yon snapped this photograph:

Major Mark Bieger and Farah by Michael Yon

This photograph, while difficult to look at for many people, helps to bring a human tone to what is a difficult subject: war. The photographer, Michael Yon, is often tolerant of non-commercial and non-political use of this image. However, as the image is under copyright, any commercial use needs his permission. Even though it is well known among journalists and photographers that such rules and codes of conduct exist, numerous agencies have run this photograph — without attribution or permission — for political purposes. The first to do so was a French magazine called SHOCK that ran this image on the cover of their news magazine released during Memorial Day 2006. SHOCK claimed to have gotten the rights to do so from Polaris Images — a company that Yon had no ties with and had never granted distribution rights to. After pugilistic discussions, SHOCK’s parent company HFM agreed to pay a licensing fee.

This photograph was used again, in 2008, without Yon’s consent when Michael Moore featured it in a political banner ad on his website.

The reason that such high-profile publications have tried to use this image is precisely because it is so powerful. Yon, well aware of its power and the exact circumstances around the photograph, is very careful with whom he allows to use it. Photographs within war zones can show the true circumstances of a battle and the true cost of war. However, when those photographs are distributed without context, without knowledge of the story behind them, they can oftentimes dishonor and insult the subjects of the photographs. Just as the Execution of a Viet Cong Guerrilla taken by Eddie Adams in 1968 and the photo Phan Thị Kim Phúc by Huynh Cong Ut showed some of the brutality of the Vietnam War and helped to turn American public opinion against it, this photograph of Major Mark Bieger and Farah could do the same for Iraq if, like those other two photographs, it became divorced from the true circumstances of its creation and were instead used to score points on the political pulpit. That, perhaps, is why war photographers are careful to explain their photographs and choose their words wisely and skillfully.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Michael Yon’s dispatches. He’s not only a great photographer, he’s also a great writer. We’ll be posting an interview with him soon as well so check back for that!

– da Bird

Photograph: “Little Girl,” Major Mark Bieger and Farah, © 2005 Michael Yon. Used with permission