Many readers have complained that Michael Moore, in the conduct of his latest crusade against whatever he is against this month, has illegally used one of my photos on the banner of his website. Mr. Moore is not the first to have done so, and my readers can get pretty upset when it happens.
My lawyer has demanded that Mr. Moore take it down.
I usually freely grant use of my work to truthful, peaceful, non-commercial, non-political outlets. For instance, a church group wanted to use one of my photos for their congregation. I was honored and gave it to them freely. On another occasion, a peaceful, non-profit Islamic organization wanted to use the same photo that Michael Moore has infringed upon (Major Mark Bieger cradling a little girl named Farah), and I was honored to contribute to their peaceful cause. I’ve seen grandmothers use my work in technically illegal ways, but since they’re not a big company, they probably have no idea about copyright, and usually use the work in tasteful, appropriate ways, I just smile and say “Go ahead, Ma’am.”
But frequently, big companies and individuals who are knowledgeable of copyright laws filch my work and use it in ways that many readers consider partisan, highly political or incendiary. When this happens, I usually go after the infringer, and so do my readers.
Now here’s Michael Moore, the latest infringer, using my work for his own crude political purposes. I recall some years ago watching one of his movies in Paris, and thinking how sad it was that an American would make propaganda so flagrant that it seemed pornographic. It was sad but at the same time uplifting, because Mr. Moore was able to exercise his right to free speech, rights that should never be infringed upon.
Mr. Moore is influential, rich, and could likely intimidate most photographers. But I ask my readers to please leave him be. Attacking him likely will be counterproductive. I know how to fight, and though I would fight for Mr. Moore’s right to free expression, I will fight against him if he steals my work and uses it in an inflammatory fashion.
It’s got nothing to do with the fact that Michael Moore is anti-war (he’s not just against the Iraq War, but he was also against the war in Afghanistan). I respect Moore’s opposition to the Iraq War; I might even agree with him on some particulars. But I object to the tone of many of his arguments, especially the manner in which he uses my work to further his causes. As I said above, sometimes it seems pornographic. That’s a strong word, so I’ll explain.
Justice Potter Stewart once defined pornography by saying, “I know it when I see it.” Pornography and propaganda are closely related, as they are both cynical attempts at manipulation, rooted in a lack of respect for humanity. War Porn is one of the more disturbing developments in the new media, as people on both sides of the Iraq War get their kicks watching video images of death and destruction – as long as it’s their opponents who get killed. Whether it’s an Al Qaeda cell-phone video of an IED attack or the grisly footage of a Coalition air strike, War Porn is degrading and incendiary. Of course, some footage is newsworthy and informative and the public deserves to see it. There is also great value to soldiers in watching footage for training purposes and to better understand battlefields and weapons. But at some point, especially when the material is used to make political points, images of combat can cross the line into pornography. People die in war, but we must never forget that each casualty is a human being, even people as deserving of death as Al Qaeda. Denying our opponents’ humanity, we lose a little of our own.
When someone’s grandmother disseminates the photo of Major Beiger cradling a dying girl in his arms, I allow the usage because I feel she is trying to share the human tragedy. When Michael Moore puts that same photo on his web site, alongside images of George Bush, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, the clear implication is that Farah’s death is their fault. That is a misrepresentation of the facts on the ground, as well as the story of the photo. Farah was killed by a suicide car bomb in Mosul on May 2, 2005. Major Bieger and other soldiers literally risked their own lives to save many children and adults that day, but Farah didn’t make it. Michael Moore apparently does not understand – or refuses to acknowledge – the moral distinction between a man who would murder innocent people, and a man who would sacrifice himself to save them. The photo, as I took it, is the truth, but Moore uses it – illegally – to convey falsehoods. His mind is that of a political propagandist who sees Farah’s death not as a human tragedy, but a tool.
A photograph can be a signal event in a war. Think of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing her napalmed village, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. These photos were not just important journalistically, but also strategically – each one literally shifted the course of a war. Photographs can be immensely powerful because they are single images, deep with meaning, able to resonate with disparate audiences, straight through language barriers, at an emotional, even visceral, level. A picture can tell a thousand words in a thousand languages, but placed in the wrong context, a photograph can be turned into propaganda, and the truth becomes a lie.
We need to know the truth about the wars we are currently fighting. That’s why I went to Iraq in the first place. Sometimes the difference between War Porn and the truth can be subtle, ambiguous, even subjective. But I know it when I see it. And if Michael Moore learned to respect not just my work, but other aspects of the truth, not to mention respecting his audience’s intelligence, he would better serve his own cause.