Every Night We Send Them Home – A story about Tami Silicio’s Iraq Coffins photograph

To see the photograph, visit Tami Silicio’s website.

Tami Silicio used her Nikon Coolpix 3.2 megapixel digital camera to capture two images of the inside of a jet bound for Germany on Apr. 7, 2004.

One of the photographs, which ran on the front page of The Seattle Times on Sunday, Apr. 18, 2004, showed the flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq being secured for transport.

Taken at Kuwait International Airport, Silicio, then 50 and a Maytag Aircraft worker, was deeply moved by the conscientious treatment she observed.

“Something told me to just take several shots and put the camera away,” Silicio told the American Journalism Review.

Viewing the image about 12 hours later, Silicio sent the photograph to friend and former contractor Amy Katz. Touched by what she saw and wanting to pass it on, Katz e-mailed the photograph to Barry Fitzsimmons, a photo editor, at The Seattle Times, Silico’s hometown newspaper.

“I was surprised and shocked,” said Fitzsimmons. “These types of photos weren’t being taken or shown by the media.”

Prior to Silicio’s photograph, images of coffins bearing the bodies of fallen soldiers in route from Iraq were all but absent from news coverage.

A ban, in place since the Persian Gulf War, prohibited “media coverage of deceased military personnel returning to or departing from air bases” to protect the privacy of servicemen and their families.

“This photograph wasn’t a political statement or run for sensationalism, casualties are a reality of war,” said Fitzsimmons. “Hiding these types of images didn’t make sense.”

A powerful image of loss, Silicio’s photograph renewed fierce debate about the ban and its relevance.

“It was a difficult time,” said Cole Porter, former Director of Photography at The Seattle Times. “The public didn’t want to see images of dead American soldiers, yet many were very intrigued by the photo.”

According to Fitzsimmons, the response The Seattle Times received from the public was split down the middle.

“Of the 500 or so e-mails we received about the photo, about 250 were for it and 250 were against it,” Fitzsimmons said. “Reactions ranged from proud to angry.”

One reaction exemplified the impact of Silicio’s photograph.

“I got a call from the woman at the reception desk a few days after the photo ran,” said Fitzsimmons. “She told me that a man had come in and bought two copies of the Sunday paper. He explained through tears that he was a Vietnam veteran and the photo had given him closure.”

Like the public, most journalists were supportive of what The Seattle Times had done.

“We published the photo on the front page because it was front page news,” said Fitzsimmons. “It was an image the public hadn’t seen for a long time and many people weren’t aware of the pomp and circumstance that went on.”

After Fitzsimmons felt confident in the photograph’s origins and authenticity — after a dozen phone calls and nearly 40 e-mails — he and his colleagues spent several days thinking about the photograph and discussing how to publish it.

One question in particular arose from conversations about the photograph. Should the photograph stand alone?

In the end, an A1 story accompanied the photograph to provide context.

“If you want to have real impact, you have to tell the story of a photo,” said Porter. “What was behind the photo was as telling as the photo itself.”

A habit of vetting everything very carefully guided the editorial process in the newsroom. Nothing went undiscussed, any and every question was asked.

The Seattle Times was incredibly conservative in 2004, according to Fitzsimmons. The paper didn’t run photographs of dead bodies “period.”

After 11 days, “period” lost its place at The Seattle Times when Silicio’s photograph was published.

“I don’t think the paper would have run the photo of the Blackwater contractors at all prior to publication of Tami’s photo,” said Fitzsimmons. “It ran on Page 3 in black and white.”

If published today, Porter said that he believes the power of the photograph would still be the same, only the circumstances would be different.

“My only regret — I don’t think I’ve ever said this to anyone — is that we didn’t run the photo larger,” said Fitzsimmons.

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