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Jun 13, 2011

Public Mourning


This photograph was taken by photojournalist Peter Turnley and published in Harper’s in August, 2004 as part of a photo-essay titled “The Bereaved: Mourning the Dead in America and Iraq.” It shows an open-casket funeral for Army SPC Kyle Brinlee, killed by an IED in Iraq on May 11, 2004. The memorial service was held in the Pryor, Oklahoma High School auditorium and attended by 1,200 mourners, including Governor Brad Henry. Brinlee’s family subsequently sued Turnley and Harper’s for violation of privacy, infliction of emotional distress, fraudulent misrepresentation, and a number of other torts. The district court rejected the suit in summary judgment, noting additionally that the event was both public and newsworthy and thus protected on first amendment grounds. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the finding of summary judgment, noting that the publication of the photos was arguably “in poor taste” but that there was no basis for an actionable claim. The case made its way to the Supreme Court where it was recently denied a writ of certiorari, thus confirming the finding of the lower courts.

Legal issues aside, what I find most interesting is the Court’s aesthetic judgment that the publication of the image was arguably “in poor taste.” The conclusion here is qualified by the assumption that the family had expressly requested that no pictures of the open casket be taken. Whether that request was ever conveyed to Turnley or not is a fact in dispute, but even if it had been, the question of taste remains: What renders this a tasteful or tasteless image and what interests are served in making such a judgment?

We might begin by noting that it is an arresting photograph, doubly unique amongst the hundreds (thousands?) of photographs of military funerals that have been reported in newspapers and magazines over the past several years. The most obvious distinction, of course, is the open casket. Military funerals are not particularly rare, especially during times of war, but they do not typically feature open-caskets; and even on those few occasions when they do, there seems to be a standing photojournalistic convention against taking or publishing open-casket photographs. Turnley challenges that convention, and in a manner that subtly requires the viewer to acknowledge what is otherwise neatly hidden (or is it erased?) by the closed casket.

Contrary to the aesthetic judgment of the Court, then, what we have here is a photograph that is crafted with a deep and abiding sense of decorum and respect. Indeed, in my judgment it treats the event with far more reverence than might otherwise attend the depiction of such funerals where the ordinary conventions of representation are followed simply as a matter of form or habit.

Shot from a moderately long range that is neither overtly intrusive nor violates the conventional distance of personal space, the deceased is nevertheless recognizable as a soldier and a person. His uniform and white gloves lend an air of military formality to the occasion; the coffin, reverently dressed in the American flag, adds the mark of national honor. Cast in the yellowish hue of indoor lighting, the casket also catches rays of natural light from the doorway behind it and through which it will soon exit the auditorium, thus invoking both a sense of communal warmth and movement towards a brighter and purer light. Framed from a high angle and looking down upon the scene, one might even imagine an omniscient viewer monitoring the ceremony.

A second distinction, arguably more significant, is the setting for the photograph. Military funerals memorialize the death of individuals, and as such they are typically photographed at graveside, featuring family members and close friends. They are private ceremonies that take place in public, and the grief and mourning that they display is fundamentally domestic and personal even if it is of interest to and observed by a larger public. It is this tension between private ritual and public observance that no doubt contributed to the Brinlee family’s sense that its privacy had been violated despite the fact that they had invited the public and the press to attend the memorial service. Notice here, however, that the photograph is not shot at graveside, but in a recognizable, public setting. Indeed, in many locales the high school auditorium is a communal gathering place used for a variety of public rituals including voting, convocations and town meetings, the annual rite of passage known as “graduation,” and, as here, to honor and remember one of its own, a citizen/soldier who sacrificed his life to the common good. Note in this regard that the photograph does not appear to feature family and close friends so much as a fairly large slice of the community. Indeed, the only easily recognizable individuals in the photograph other than Brinlee are the police officers posed between the coffin and the exit, and their uniforms both overshadow their private selves and accent the very public and communal quality of the ceremony taking place. And so what we have is the representation of a community that has come together as one, as a public, to mourn its collective loss.

In Pericles’ Athens the entire citizenry would annually attend funeral orations designed for the community to grieve collectively as it to bore witness to those who had sacrificed their lives fighting for the common good. In our own time Memorial Day purports to serve a comparable purpose, but truth to tell, it functions more as the “official start of summer” than as an occasion for public mourning. And in the interim from one year to the next we too often represent military deaths either as nameless and faceless numbers designated by abstract body counts, or as private individuals whose loss is felt and mourned primarily by family and friends. Neither seems adequate to the task of addressing the communal grief that attends such losses. In his important book, Achilles in Vietnam, Jonathon Shay emphasizes the importance of the “communalization of trauma” – the collective sharing of the pain and responsibility for war in public acts of communicative interaction—for helping to heal the psyches of those who leave their families and friends behind and risk their lives in the name of the community. The communalization of trauma through localized, public acts of grief and mourning might be no less essential to advancing a productive and sustainable species ethic during a time of war. Peter Turnley’s photograph of the public mourning of Army SPC Klye Brinlee invites us to consider one way that might be accomplished with a great deal of taste.

Photo Credit: Peter Turnley/Harper’s



Public Mourning


14 Responses

  1. 405ljm says

    I completely agree with your analysis on this but if I was to take a guess at how this could be, in the eyes of the court, “in poor taste:” It’s less the fact that the coffin is open but where it is placed. Normally at funerals the coffin is front and center. Here it is at the side as if it arrived late for class. There are no flowers around it, nothing to indicate that it is the focus of attention. Everyone directs their attention to the front of the hall, oblivious to the fact that the dead soldier is even present. In fact, I cannot really fathom why the coffin is where it is relative to any funerals I have attended. I am all for public mourning and the communalization of trauma especially with regard to the war. But generally speaking I think that funeral orations devoted to the fallen hero or sacrifice usually have the body present and visible if it is available.

  2. Lucaites says

    405ljm: I could not find the District Court ruling, but my understanding that the comment related to having done so against the wishes of the family. But that’s less important here than the larger question which you rightly raise — what counts as “tasteful” under the circumstances. I orignally considered the problem you pose, but am somewhat conflicted about it and could not quite figure out how to address it. But since you raise the question let’s see if we can figure it out. On one hand, the placement of the casket is apparently one more violation of expectation or convention. One possibility, of course, is that they wanted people to pass by the coffin to pay their respects (we do know that people passed it upon exiting … ) and that it wasn’t easy to do that in the auditorium. Folks there would know that. As viewers of the photo we don’t, we can only assume … and operate with expectations. Another possibility is that the placement is not “functional” in this sense, or made necessary by physical layout, BUT that it is in some measure symbolic … Here the deceased is one with the community, or rather, the community is one with the deceased–that is, the image works to deconstruct the ceremonial spectacle by (productively?) complicating the relationship between viewer and viewed, citizens and soldiers, individuals and community and, in some measure, the significance of the event as a communal ritual.

  3. 405ljm says

    Hmm. I’d thought about the logistical reason for having the body in that location — although the *photo* could still stand as something problematic because of its almost casual presentation of the body. I’m not so sure about the issue of community with the fallen soldier, at least on the basis of the image itself. The deceased is one, but with the community? The reason this doesn’t work for me is the community’s focus in the image. We have to *assume* that they are commemorating SPC Brinlee, precisely because the ceremonial spectacle is invisible — and based on the surroundings, etc. there is no reason to assume that based on what is in the image (absence of flowers, etc). But I think there are two things being discussed here — one is the viewer’s relationship to the image, and the other is the court/family’s complaint. The court wasn’t willing to grant the family the right to sue (and note that one of the torts was “fraudulent misrepresentation” although that may bear on the photographer’s credentials rather than the image itself). But they conceded that the image wasn’t tasteful. From y/our perspective, what is happening is a deconstruction of the ceremonial spectacle — since everything about the image goes against the grain of convention — but I’m not sure the community is integrated. Rather, I think the community is separated in substantial ways (visually — the wall, the fact that nobody can see SPC Brinlee, etc.). Could this be seen as something of an indictment of those who engage in the ritual (but do nothing about the cause of death)? In other words, you do your time to pay your respects but then it’s over…

    One other odd thing that neither of us have mentioned — the people “wandering” around the auditorium. A couple are coming up from the stage, but the men at the side of the aisle — are they ushers? They seem too casual — again reinforcing the lack of “tasteful” presentation. [I hope it’s clear that I don’t share this point of view about taste — I’m just trying to figure out where it is coming from].

    I have done some work on the sacred as a community ritual and one of the most important things when it comes to death is the presence/absence of a body and its relationship to the ritual. I guess my objection to the communal reading is that the community [as presented in the photo] lacks the object of reverence — the “sacred” body or the sacrificed body. It is present in the photo, but not to the community. And so if anything, I guess I would say that the photo actually challenges the event as a communal ritual — which is interesting in itself. Ritual in order to be ritual has to follow prescribed rules that the community agrees are necessary. I’m not sure those are visible here, which is the “problem.” It puts the viewer in the position to actually assess the ritual and its participants, which is also interesting (and perhaps distasteful to some). I wonder about the photographer — not that intentionality is that important in the analysis of the photo — but it is an odd photo to take, no? Would one snap it because of the incongruity of the body in that particular location? Or..?

  4. Lucaites says

    Lots to chew on here, and I don’t have the time at the moment. But a few things. The issue of fraudulent misrepresentation had to do with the plaintiff’s assumption that Turnley had agreed not to photo the open casket. That is a point of fact that is in dispute. I agree that the photographer’s intention may not be most important to the kind of allegorical reading we are doing. But a few things that might be worth considering. First, the photographers were put into a gallery … thus they had something like limited acces/vantage, hence, probably the angle of the shot and all that. Second, the photo is part of a photo-essay in Harper’s … you might want to look at that — the link is above in the post — and consider how the image functions in the context of the other photos … some from the U.S., others from Iraq, all of which, I think, tend to operate within the more common conventions. That said, I do think you point to an important tension with the placement of the casket … your read is plausible, so too is mine ( venture), and so what does it say about the problem of taste that both can operate more or less simultaneously? I’m rambling now and have to run … but thanks for the considered thoughts … I’d be happy to continue …

  5. 405ljm says

    I’m on the fly myself but quickly — I took a look at the photo essay which was very interesting. I’m sure that the family was not allowed to bring in the essay itself (in the context of other photos) — but if they were, it might have bothered them that the photo opposite Kyle Brinlee was of the “Iraqi soldiers” corpses in the morgue. I suspect that Mr. Tunley had no say over how the photos were laid out (layout editors usually get to do this) but that is quite a contrast. One could do a whole analysis on that pairing alone (twisted bodies left on the floor, eyes still open — versus the white gloves, etc.). But I’ll bet the family did not like their son appearing alongside morgue photographs of soldiers who are basically left without family or funeral.

    One other thing — and this is probably completely wacky but check it out — notice how the framed “box” that the upper tier of seated people makes a visual pair with the portion of the casket that is open. And the blue stripe that separates the lower tier, along with the flag on the lower part of the coffin… I guess it was those strong vertical lines of yellow-white coming at the camera that made me think of the flag metaphor. If anything this would be point to reinforce the community/identification aspect you are arguing for. As for taste — there’s a reason that courts generally stay away from this kind of thing. Those that teach the humanities know the score all too well when grading time rolls around — the world just doesn’t like the subjective interpretation. Too ambiguous. Thanks for your thoughts as well — interesting image. I’m teaching a visual culture class next quarter and I think I’ll get the students to do something with this. Thanks again.

  6. Lucaites says

    “Layout edtiors usually get to do this ….” Usually. But this was a photo-essay and I’m guessing that Turnley had a little bit more than a “say” in the process. It might be interesting to look at the entire essay in relationship to common conventions. Where, by the way, do you teach? I’d be interested in seeing your visual culture syllabus.

    Best, JLL

  7. timmybuckets says

    I am concerned that the legal issue here is being misconstrued, and that this misconstruction may actually obscure a potential challenge to a fully aesthetic/taste-driven political practice.

    Generally speaking (and I have not read any published opinions about this particular case) when a court deals with a lawsuit over issues such as this, it is forced to navigate a conflict between two very important liberal ideals: the publisher’s freedom of speech on the one hand, and an individual’s “pursuit of happiness” on the other (characterized as the monetary or psychological damage inflicted on a person by published speech). The “poor taste” qualification is just that– it recognizes the fact that one can imagine an individual that would be offended by a particular image (akin to the acknowledgment in an earlier comment that whether something is in “good taste” can differ), but that this fact, on its own, does not justify a state’s enforcement of a judgment agaisnt the offending party. The speech is not protected because it is in good taste, but because we have the right to speak even when we do it poorly.

    So the idea that the court thought that the photo was in “poor taste” really should be taken with a grain of salt without additional support from the opinion. The import of that legal discourse (itself an important source of community, no?) is that our liberal political order does not restrict publication merely on the grounds that it can imagine a person somewhere who would take offense, even if it cut against prevalent majority taste at the time. This need not be an issue of “clarity v. ambiguity” in which the humanities ends up an unfortunate loser. Rather, there could be very good reasons rooted in respect for pluralism and toleration why our political imaginary is (and should be) at times resistant to engage in practices that communalize trauma.

    This is not to take issue with the excellent readings done of the photographs, or the role of community in navigating trauma, but instead to suggest that there is a level in the American political imaginary that is beyond (or different from) the aesthetic judgment-taste level, and that trumps it in certain circumstances. Yes, well crafted images contain ample resources for practice, but their potential is not inexhaustible.

  8. Lucaites says

    I agree that we should take the legal judgment of “poor taste” with a grain of salt BOTH because it is w/o any substantiation in the decision itself (though I think your general analysis of what animates it is probably close to the mark) AND because it is more or less irrelevant as a matter of law. The court made its ruling of summary judgment on the basis of its reading of the “facts of the case,” and so any reference to good or bad taste is gratuitous. That said, it is interesting to note that many journalistic sources picked up the phrase and quoted it as part of the Court’s finding … and so it becomes rather relevant to the public discourse/discussion of the photograph. In what measure does “taste” become an issue? I also agree with you that there might be good reasons under some circumstances to resist the communalization of trauma … personally I don’t think this is one, and I think the image at least complicates the issue for us, forcing us to pay some attention to it … if for that reason alone I think this is an important conversation. As to whether there is a level beyond the aesthetic vis a vis questions of the political imaginary (and that does seem like something of a paradox), I’m not sure … but it is a discussion we should continue to hold here … and I’m quite certain that other images will raise the issue for us. Thanks for an interesting and provocative comment.

  9. Robert Showler says

    How would you feel to see your child’s deceased body plastered on the damn internet for all to see? Peter Turnley, Harper’s Magazine, and this website are sick, self serving pigs. They make me sick.

    Robert Showler
    Broken Arrow, OK

    1. Lucaites says

      Robert: FIrst, I think it is inaccurate to say that the photograph is “plastered” across the internet. As far as I know it can only be found at a very few plaes. But more to the point, I think my reaction to seeing such an image would be tempered by what I took to be the motivation for doing so. If it were done tastefully and with a sense of honor and decorum–as I assume the funeral itself was– I don’t think I’d have the rage filled response that you do. I might even take some solace in the fact that he is being remembered in important ways. And the point, at least from the perspective of this website, is that the image is done with a great deal of respect and taste. That said, I also agree that someone, such as yourself, could disagree with that judgment and that there would be benefit in our engaging one another on the topic. I fail to see how anything is served by casting one another as “pigs.”

  10. crystal says

    I was at this funeral, and he was placed in the back of the building at the very end on the funeral so people that was walking out could view him as leaving. It was opened at that time only! Also the people standing were from the funeral home. I understand why they were angry because it was as if the photographer thought he could sneak a picture in while people was exiting the building.

  11. robert showler says

    The Supreme Court ruled this photo is protected under the First Amendment; however, the Appelete Judges commented that it was in poor taste and disrespectful. I find it offensive that this photograph is posted for all to see. I don’t care to debate the juriprudence of the case; it offends me to see my son’s body posted on the internet. I suppose if it were your child you may understand how I feel.

  12. Logon J. says

    This is wrong. If Dad doesnt want his sons bodie all over the internet he should have the right to have it taken off just out of the respect for them. I dont have a son but say if my dad passed and his body was all over the internet i would be very upset and angry that someone would do that because that is disrespectful. This should be taken off.

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