Tami Silicio/ZPA/Zuma PressTami Silicio was one of those people working for a private contractor in Iraq—no, not Halliburton, but Maytag. Yeah, Maytag. Anyway, her assignment was shipping non-military freight (read: ammunition), though it did sometimes contain the residue of military freight. So, a few weeks back, Silicio found herself on a transport plane flying out of Kuwait, standing beside 21 coffins of American servicemen killed in fighting in and around the town of Fallujah. Moved by the way the coffins were carefully placed, as if at attention, moved by the care given each soldier, the reverence and attention to ritual, she grabbed her digital camera and took a picture.
The resulting photograph of flag-draped coffins, three across and seeming to run the length of the transport, is a potent mix of clear, static image accompanied by the movement of a shadowy figure in the foreground; a serviceman, apparently, attending to his comrades.
"I think that blurred motion of that figure, the motion of people in front of the static image of the coffins is really very powerful," said Scott McKiernan, director and founder of Zuma Press, the Laguna Beach photographic agency that handles licensing of the Silicio photo. "I think because she is an amateur, the fact that she had no agenda gives the photo a greater power. It's innocent and raw and interesting."
While no one disputes the photo's power—a White House spokesman said George W. Bush was "moved" by it—some, specifically Bush's White House, have a big problem with the picture being published, originally by the Seattle Times, Silicio's hometown paper, to which she had given the photo for free. It was the Times that engaged Zuma, which was soon inundated with requests. Soon the photo was spread over two pages in Time magazine, on the front pages of about 30 U.S. dailies and in papers from China to Chile.
McKiernan, a former war photographer who covered conflicts in Somalia and Bosnia and, at the age of 19, captured the image of murdered Catholic nuns thrown in a makeshift grave in El Salvador, was so moved by the Silicio photo that Zuma offered it at what he described at a very reasonable price.
"I know a lot of people who did what I did, and you get very jaded," he said. "But something about this picture moved me, and I wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted it could get it."
To that end, the Zuma website (www.zumapress.com) is offering the photo to individuals at prices as low as $14.95, the majority of the money from the purchase of the photo going to a charity for military families of soldiers killed in the conflict. McKiernan says that Silicio, who was fired by Maytag after the photo was published, has informed him that a portion of the money she earns from the photo will also go to charity.
"This isn't something where you're trying to get rich," he said. "I know Tami believes with us that the most important thing is to have people see the picture."
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A lot of people want to. In fact, though Zuma has been on the receiving end of negative comments regarding exploitation, insensitivity and the misguided notion that Zuma employed and fired Silicio, McKiernan says each negative phone message has been balanced by a positive one, including some from veterans.
"They thanked us," he said.
Great as the demand is, McKiernan says it is dwarfed by the demand Zuma had for its top two images: photos of the Columbine killers and Jon Benet Ramsey. He added that on the whole, a great celebrity photo will outdraw a great news photo "10 to 1."
"If Britney Spears ever married Justin Timberlake . . ." he trailed off a little sheepishly. "Well, the demand would be like nothing you've seen."