Tami Silicio’s Official Website

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Tami Silicio


Posted, April 30, 2004
Women Responsible for Coffin Image Reunite
When citizens with a cause meet a picture editor with a purpose, Americans see war and friendship differently.

By Kenny Irby (more by author)
Visual Journalism Group Leader & Diversity Program


It's a Great Image. Now What?
By Anne Conneen

Romenesko coverage:
April 19, 2004: Images published
April 22, 2004: Silicio fired
April 23, 2004: MemoryHole photos fuel controversy 
April 26, 2004: Papers, readers respond to "the picture" 
April 28, 2004: Soldiers' parents respond

Seattle Times coverage:
(Registration required)
  • Woman fired for picture of flag-draped coffin returns home (April 30)
  • How two women, one photo stirred national debate (April 26)
  • A letter a second about the photo (April 25)
  • Air Force adds to controversy with its own coffin photos (April 23)
  • Family sees photographer as "mom to fallen boys" (April 23)
  • Woman loses her job over coffins photo (April 22)
  • Images of war dead a sensitive subject (April 22)
  • What readers are saying about the photo (April 22)
  • Powerful photograph offered chance to tell an important story (April 18)
  • The somber task of honoring the fallen (April 18)
  • When former Maytag Aircraft worker Tami Silicio reunited with her friend Amy Katz -- around 4 p.m. Thursday -- at SeaTac International Airport, one of the first things she said was: "It was Barry Fitzsimmons and The Seattle Times that showed the picture to the world."

    The picture of flag-draped coffins cost her and husband David Landry their jobs and sparked renewed debate about the government's ban on photographing the transport of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.

    The chain of events started with an e-mail on the night of April 7 between former roommates Silicio, 50, and her friend Katz, 36. Silicio sent Katz a picture she had taken and Katz phoned The Seattle Times the next day, reaching picture editor Barry Fitzsimmons, formerly with the St. Petersburg Times.

    Katz told the new picture editor that she had a picture from a friend that he needed to see. 

    Fitzsimmons immediately recognized the potential "gem of a photograph" when he saw it on his computer screen. When the photo arrived, "I just said, 'Wow,'" Fitzsimmons recalls. "The picture was something we didn't have access to as the media, and it was undeniably newsworthy and exclusive."

    Katz gave Fitzsimmons permission to publish the photograph and Silicio confirmed her approval via e-mail. And yet, concerned that they both knew the consequences of their actions, Fitzsimmons built a relationship with the women, who are both photographers, before publishing.

    He said he was convinced that Katz and Silicio were motivated by their sense that "it was wrong to hide the deaths of so many of our young soldiers and ... wanted genuinely to help the grieving families find closure and to show the care and dignity that their loved ones were getting."

    Still, he worried. "They were both so naive and innocent. So I insisted on talking voice to voice," said Fitzsimmons.

    Due to the 11-hour time difference, Fitzsimmons chatted with Silicio at night by phone, "running out of time on at least two telephone cards," and by day he would lead the newsroom conversations about when and how to publish the photograph.

    And by day, Fitzsimmons and The Seattle Times faced the reality of the White House and Pentagon's policy banning photographs of flag-draped coffins in Kuwait airports and at Dover Air Force base. They were well aware that publication of the photos would breach the governmental policy in place since the first Iraq war in 1991.

    The Bush administration asserts that there should be no media-related photographic documentation (news footage or still photography) of the homecoming of the war dead. This policy was implemented ostensibly to protect the sensitivities of military stakeholders: families, friends, and fellow soldiers.

    Silico image
    Tami Silicio
    Jeff Cohen, editor of The Houston Chronicle, sees it a little differently. He disagrees with the ban, saying "I believe there should be a free flow of information between the government and the media. The government can't dictate what you can and cannot publish. The newspaper has to look at every story and print what it feels is necessary for public examination."

    "We went to war with Saddam Hussein because he was a ruthless dictator who denied his people of their freedoms and (the) liberties of a free society," he says. "We have to be very careful that our government does not do the same thing."

    A snapshot in time

    Silicio and Katz were roommates in Kosovo five years ago and had seen many horrors together. So when Silicio shared the two images she captured of coffins with her Nikon Coolpix 3.2 mega pixel digital camera, she knew "Amy understands my purpose and cause."

    Katz fully accepts the fact that she guided Silicio into publication and notoriety.

    She writes of the e-mails leading to that decision:

    After December, the Christmas cheer died down. The messages were all short and sad -- the only thing that changed was the number of casualties. First it was one. Then two. Then four. Then seven. On April 7, 2004, the week of the bloody battle in Fallujah, the body count was 22. That is when she e-mailed the photo to me depicting rows and rows and rows of American-flag draped coffins. I took one look at it and my heart sank. I had known there was still "conflict" in Iraq. I didn't know there was an all-out war. Without a moment's hesitation, I phoned The Seattle Times.
    In a telephone interview with Poynter Online, Katz stopped to gather her composure and fight back her own tears. She continued, "Last summer when she began writing me via e-mail ... she shared that she had attended the memorial service for one soldier, then two, then five. And then on April 7 she wrote 'Today it was 22,' the message header read." 

    Silicio herself knew the pain of losing a son. Her oldest son, Richard, died of a brain tumor about six years ago, and her friend Katz felt that there was a maternal factor at play.

    Click image to view pdf.
    Back in the newsroom Fitzsimmons led the coverage and conversations in an important way. This was the second biggest story of his 32-year career. His biggest story was the 1984 San Ysidro massacre at the McDonald's where 22 people were killed and he was one of the first photographers to arrive on the southern San Diego shooting scene for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

    Seattle Times Assistant Managing Editor/Visuals & Technology Heidi de Laubenfels says that Fitzsimmons was instrumental at "bringing others into the conversation and, as a consequence, deciding to wait and take a deliberate approach to publishing the photo. The newspaper's approach became about much more than just the photo. It was about the journalism, and what it would take to present this in the proper context. That led to the relationship-building that Barry did with Tami and Amy, and it led to the solid reporting that Hal Bernton did to accompany the image with a story that talked about why she would take the picture and why it mattered."

    Meanwhile, The Seattle Times protected the photograph in a stealth-like operation while Fitzsimmons and Cole Porter, The Seattle Times director of photography, and other editors discussed their options.

    The paper did not even place the photograph in the newsroom-wide publishing system until 3:30 p.m. on Saturday prior to Sunday publication.

    "The original intent was that, for us, we had a photograph on its merit but we would not run it without the proper context and we had to report that out. We needed to have the proper context and Barry (Fitzsimmons) tracked down Tami in Kuwait," explained Porter, a 30-year veteran photojournalist.

    "I have never seen a situation quite like this and I am proud of how our paper handed this case," Porter says. "Our process was very thoughtful and reflective, our actions were appropriate. I am very pleased with our thoughtfulness."

    "Tami suggested not using her name and right up until the very last day we were discussing alternatives," recalls Fitzsimmons. "I even talked with her about just running her story and not the picture. I told her that even if we did not publish her name, the government would likely identify her," he said.

    The impact of the photo

    From the very beginning, Silicio said she wanted the attention not on her but rather on the care and respect and dignity that the fallen soldiers were receiving. However, as the photograph gained wider attention, more questions arose about her and how the picture was distributed.

    John Lok/The Seattle Times
    Tami Silicio, right, leaves a press conference with friend Amy Katz, left, Thursday at SeaTac Airport after returning from Kuwait where she was fired for taking a photo of flag-draped coffins being loaded onto a cargo plane. Next to Katz, holding bags, is Silicio's husband, David Landry.
    Then, a website named MemoryHole published pictures based on a Freedom of Information Act request from last year, seeking any photographs of caskets arriving from Iraq at Dover Air Force base in Delaware. More than 300 photographs were released, taken by Department of Defense photographers of fallen U.S. soldiers and members of the Columbia crew.

    Immediately, Pentagon officials told The New York Times and other media that the decision to grant the request was a mistake and said that no further requests would be honored. But it was too late to stop broadcast TV outlets, newspapers, magazines and websites across America from publishing and airing the photographs.

    The DOD also released a small selection of 5-10 photographs to the wire services.

    Doug Clifton, editor of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, suggests two reasons American newspapers did not make their own FOI request to the DOD.

    ...in my view, the first is that too much of the press isn't imaginative enough in its use of FOIA as a reporting tool. Citizen activists are the biggest users of FOIA. Reporters are sometimes reluctant to go the FOIA route because the process is sometimes  cumbersome and slow so they've conditioned themselves to work around the act, instead of use it. That's not universally true, of course, but true enough to make it a valid generalization. The second reason, I think, the press didn't use FOIA to get the photos stems from a perception that some Americans have that running the photos undermines the war effort. That's an argument that's been indirectly made by the Bush administration and it has influenced public opinion. I think the press has been reluctant to act in ways that can be seen as political.

    The Seattle Times was not reluctant, and neither was Silicio or Katz. 

    "I absolutely have no regrets," said Katz. "The support I've received from the media and the public has been overwhelming."

    Silicio told The Seattle Times, "I figure there is a reason for everything ... I think that maybe this is the way it was supposed to be. I was supposed to take the picture. I was supposed to send it to Amy. And then, this chain of events went the way they were supposed to be."

    And for Laubenfels, "what made this good journalism was the thoughtful, holistic approach to presenting it. It wasn't an isolated deal that was just about a picture or just about a story. And that's the best thing you can hope for in a collaborative process, right?"