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.