Powerful photograph offered chance to tell an important story

The caller said she had a picture a friend had sent to her. "Somebody should see it," she said.

Barry Fitzsimmons, a veteran photojournalist, has handled many of those calls and knows most of the pictures are never published. The Seattle Times photo editor also knows, "one in a thousand is a gem," so he agreed to give this one a look.

When the photo arrived, "I just said wow," Fitzsimmons recalls. "The picture was something we don't have access to as the media," and yet it seemed undeniably newsworthy.

What the caller had was the picture on today's front page. It shows rows of flag-draped military coffins inside an airplane in Kuwait. These were America's war dead on their way home at a moment when U.S. troops are experiencing their deadliest month of the war.

Fitzsimmons felt the picture should be published, but "it's too powerful an image just to drop into the newspaper." The Times would first need to learn the story behind it.

Leon Espinoza, news editor, had the same reaction. "The photo without question is a very powerful image, one seldom seen. It shows the great care taken to honor the fallen soldiers, and it can't help but show the toll a war takes.

"It's a photo that demands context. The photo needs to be viewed in context of the story behind it, a story the picture — as powerful as it is — can only partly tell. Simply put, we need to show the whole picture, and getting the story right is essential to doing that," Espinoza said.

Fitzsimmons worked through the caller to connect with her friend, Tami Silicio, a Seattle-area resident working on contract at the U.S. military area of Kuwait International Airport.

After a number of conversations, she agreed to talk with Times reporter Hal Bernton for today's story. Bernton returned earlier this year from Iraq, where he covered military, medical and relief efforts.

Readers likely will have differing reactions to the photo, depending on their views of the war.

"It's a photo that evokes an emotional response and one that people are sure to see through their own filters, political or otherwise," said Espinoza, who is responsible for the Sunday front page.

Some readers will object to the image because the press has been largely denied access to take photos of coffins returning from war since the 1991 Gulf War.

Some will see the picture as an anti-war statement because the image is reminiscent of photos from the Vietnam era, when the press wasn't denied such access. But that isn't Silicio's or The Times' motivation.

"We're not making a statement about the course of the war," Fitzsimmons said. "Readers will make their own sense of the picture, their own judgment."

Silicio says she believes the soldiers' families would be proud to see how their loved ones are treated, and we have tried to be true to her intent.

National Writers' Workshop

Reservations are being accepted through Tuesday for the 2004 National Writers' Workshop next Saturday and Sunday at Seattle Center.

Sponsored by The Seattle Times and The Poynter Institute, the two-day workshop will feature some of the most respected names in journalism discussing their craft and offering tips on writing, reporting and photography.

Cost is $85, $70 for students. To register, call 206-464-2991, or go to www.seattletimes.com/nww.

Inside the Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to mfancher@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists