Photo of fallen service members is one for the history books

By HAL BERNTON  The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — More than a dozen years ago, Tami Silicio, a native of Edmonds, took a photo of the tunnel-like interior of a cargo plane that held more than 20 flag-draped coffins of U.S. service members killed in Iraq and soon to be flown home.

First published by The Seattle Times, the image quickly gained a global audience, and helped to fuel a volatile debate about a U.S. government policy that prohibited the media from taking pictures of such scenes.

It also cost Silicio her job in Kuwait with a military contractor, reported The Seattle Times.

In October, the 2004 picture is included in a Time anthology book, “100 Photographs: The Most Influential Images of All Time,” and will be part of a companion digital display scheduled for rollout later this fall.

Though the picture would become a rallying point for those opposed to U.S. policy in Iraq, Silicio said that, at the time, she did not intend an anti-war image. The aircraft interior felt almost like a shrine, she said, and she hoped the photo would convey the respect and the dignity with which the workers went about their tasks.

“I feel honored,” Silicio said. “The photo was honest. It captured the respect for the dead and that’s what it should have been about. That photo stirred up a whole lot of stuff around this nation. People’s emotions were touched.”

In the Time book, Silicio’s photograph is included along with images that range from a Mathew Brady photo of Abraham Lincoln to the iconic shot of the World War II flag-raising on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal. The book’s publication marks the 175th anniversary of photography.

“This was a censored photograph published on the front page of a major newspaper in 2004 and was extremely influential,” said Kira Pollack, Time’s director of photography and visual enterprise.

The Seattle Times first received Silicio’s picture, taken with a Nikon Coolpix, from one of her stateside friends, Amy Katz, who had worked with Silicio for a different contractor in Kosovo.

Silicio, at the time, was based at Kuwait International Airport for Maytag Aircraft, and took the image after boarding a plane where half a dozen colleagues labored largely in silence to secure the coffins.

The photo arrived at the newspaper in early April 2004, a pivotal period in the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, as the death toll of U.S. troops rose amid a growing insurgency.

It was also taken at a crossroads moment in technology, when photos could be easily emailed around the world, but Facebook, then only a few months old, did not yet offer an instantaneous platform to self-publish.

The newspaper did not rush to release the photo, but held onto it for more than a week. In phone calls with Silicio, Barry Fitzsimmons, then a Seattle Times photo editor, said this was a potent and important image. But he warned of the potential implications of the public release, including the risk that Silicio would lose her job.