The Images We Focus On

We become that which we focus on.

I have been reading the accounts of how the Los Angeles Times came to possess damaging photographs of U.S. Military men from 2010 an their ultimate decision to run two of these photos despite the Secretary of Defense’s belief that to do so would put men and women on the ground at risk.  In fact even after the LA Times had decided to run the photos, the Defense Department asked for 48 hours to increase security in Afghanistan and the paper agreed.

I also happened to see that not only did the New York Times track down the Columbian prostitute who was short-changed by Secret Service members, kicking off the firestorm, but the New York Post came up with pictures of her that were splashed all over the web today.

I’ve had long correspondences with photo journalist Michael Kamber about the power of images in framing our national policy and just how controlled the narrative is particularly when it comes to war. Michael has in fact collected thousands of photographs from his decade on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times from photo journalists on all sides of those wars that were quite literally censored.  The newspapers needed access to report the wars, the military made clear what images were acceptable and what were not, and therefore the images fed to the American people were framed according to a very precise script.

The problem is that script has now fallen completely apart.


When a Marine goes on a rampage killing 16 Afghan civilians does that reflect in any way on our policy or is that just one guy losing his mind?  What does two year old images involving the desecration of insurgent bodies prove about our mission?  How about a couple dozen military and secret service personel hiring hookers when they are suppose to be preparing for a Presidential visit to a less than secure country.  Does that say anything about the quality of our military?  Our character as a nation?


I’d turn each of those questions around.  Why do we find these images so powerful  when they tell only a tiny fraction of the broader story?  I certainly realize that military men behaving despicably is worthy of reporting particularly as it impacts national security.  But do we ever step back to ask why this is happening?  Who is really responsible?  Or are we all just rubber-neckers at the horrific car accident, content to block traffic while we stare at the carnage?

To my way of thinking there is a much broader story to tell about what we have done in Iraq and then Afghanistan, both for good and awfully wrong.  But that story certainly never sees the front page.  And there is a far more significant story to tell about men in uniform and out who are courageous and trying to do the right thing rather than ending up with hookers in a Columbian hotel room.  But God knows that story doesn’t even make the paper.

We become that which we focus on.  In a world with shorter and shorter attention spans reality is increasingly captured in a headline and an image.  We are assaulted with a massive dumbing down of foreign policy, of manhood, of nuanced truth.

Are the images from the New York Post and LA Times worth reporting? I suppose so.  But only if we stop to think about what a tiny fraction of the larger picture they really are.  But that is the problem.  We are unable to put them in context because we are so obsessed with the sleaze that we forget to ask what it even means.

Images from New York Post and LA Times

About Tom Matlack

Thomas Matlack is a venture capitalist.


  1. The part I find interesting is that the Department of Defense expects the public to believe their desire to control the images coming out of a war zone has anything to do with troop security. We’re there…we’re at war. Security is a standing order for every soldier with boots on the ground in a war.

    No, it’s a lame attempt to control public opinion which keeps up at night admirals and generals in the pentagon who answer to the members of congress who steer lucrative deals to defense contractors. The last thing they need is all these middle age patriots and chicken hawks getting a face full of reality over their apple pie.

  2. PursuitAce says:

    Just for the purposes of accuracy, it doesn’t take 16 hours a day to prepare security for a location even if it’s out of the country. You do have some down time. Secret Service agents have told me they work 70-80 hours a week plus travel time which obviously doesn’t equate to 16 hours a day. FBI agents as a comparison work a minimum of 50. When I was full-time military in the ANG I worked about 60 hours a week. On the other hand it’s not uncommon for members of Congress to work 16-20 hour days, seven days a week. That’s what I’ve read several times and a House member confirmed that with me some years ago (One of the reasons some of them want to sleep in their offices). I assume their staff works similar hours. Maybe Congressional members expect everyone to work 16-20 hours a day. I can work no more than 16 hours a day for any significant period of time so I guess I’m coming up short.
    Anyway, it’s interesting to read stories about situations of which you have a good understanding. The media usually gets things wrong (I’ll be kind here) and the response by people in authority is usually politically driven. I don’t know about Secret Service personnel, because we never had the “how many hookers have you banged” conversation, but certain military personnel see prostitutes all of the time when they’re deployed . Anyone whose married and does this typically doesn’t brag about it, but it’s normally known whose participating. The military doesn’t like it, but for right or wrong they treat it as a necessary evil. I guess they figure it’s kind of hard to keep a 20 something soldier, marine, airman, etc. from having sex for up to a year. In the “sand box” otherwise know as the Middle East, the Air Force has a lot more control over it’s people since everyone is confined to base. They have a zero sex policy even for married couples. As you can imagine the compliance rate isn’t 100%.
    The Secret Service policy in all of this is probably, “don’t ever embarrass us” of which they of course broke big-time. So heads are rolling. I think Sullivan, the boss will not be far behind.

  3. wellokaythen says:

    These two photographs are nowhere near equivalent to each other in terms of impact or importance or scandal, not to my mind. They do not belong in the same article except as two very different examples of journalistic decisions.

    Agents who represent the American people paying (or not quite paying) for prostitutes is NOT comparable agents of the American people killing people and posing with the bodies. The picture of the woman is indistinguishable from images from a dozen magazines at the supermarket checkout right now.

    God, I hope we are not so warped that a photo of a woman in a bikini is as outrageous as soldiers posing with corpses. Please tell me we haven’t gone that far in hating sex and loving violence.

  4. “We become that which we focus on. In a world with shorter and shorter attention spans reality is increasingly captured in a headline and an image. We are assaulted with a massive dumbing down of foreign policy, of manhood, of nuanced truth.”

    Tom, I couldn’t agree more. I just wish that GMP hadn’t posted either picture in the box above the article. I’ve been doing my best to avoid such pictures. I have purposely avoided clinking on any links that would show me the snapshots. But with GMP, it’s a little more difficult since this was in the homepage image. There are certain images I don’t want in my head. And while the image above is only a small snapshot, it’s still graphic. Would have rather seen an American flag or something else instead to go along with the message of the thread instead of supporting more of the sensationlism.

    BUT I totally agree with this piece and it’s message.

  5. We’ve all heard the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words”. Well there’s no accounting for those thousand words and whether they’re accurate (usually they’re not) Think about it. How often do you see a positive type photo in a newspaper? Probably as often as you read a positive type news story. In other words, not that often.

  6. Is that soldier missing his wrist and hand? Or is that a bad photoshop job?

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