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PhotoSensitive Picture Change : William David Cleveland


Toronto Star journalist Paul Watson was in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 when a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter was shot down. 

With rumors circulating that the body of an American soldier was being dragged through the streets by an angry mob, Watson went out to verify .

The resulting image of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland being dragged and beaten was published in the Toronto Star and in many American newspapers, it would win the National Newspaper Award for Spot News Photography and would win the Pulitzer Prize and is his submission in the PhotoSensitive Picture Change exhibit. 

The Public outrage that followed publication forced the Americans to end the war.


Watson remembers the incident in this excerpt from his book, Where War Lives, published by McClelland & Stewart, 

After driving around for an hour and a half, we were almost ready to give up and go back to the Sahafi (Hotel).

We had already pushed our luck way past the limit. If the Somalis didn't kill us, and we managed to find the American corpse, then we risked getting cut down by attack helicopters that were trying to retrieve several Americans still missing in action.

Suddenly our driver, Mohamed Mohomud Ahmed, spotted a mob moving slowly down a steep side street, and he made a U-turn. Our Cressida, which was well known in (Somali warlord Mohammed Farah) Aideed's territory, pulled up behind the seething crowd of 200 Somalis.

(Somali journalist Abdulkdir Abdi) Gutale told me to stay in the car while he and the two guards went with him to gauge the crowd. It's Gamay (Paul Watson's Somali nickname, translates to "The Man With One Hand,") in the car, he told them. Would it be okay if he took some pictures?

Gutale came back and stuck his head in the car, and with a nervous smile said I had permission from the mob leaders to shoot. My heart raced and my head felt light. It was a high like I'd never felt before, terrified of death and full of life all at once.

I walked, hyper-alert, shielded only by a triangle of protectors who stood no chance if the mob turned on us. And then the crowd parted, forming a manic horseshoe around the corpse. My eyes panned the frenzy like a camera guided by invisible hands. I looked to the ground. And that is how I came to know Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland.

In less than the time it took to breathe, I had to decide whether to steal a dead man's last shred of dignity. The moment of choice, in the swirl of dust and sweat, hatred and fear, is still trapped in my mind, denying me peace: just as I was about to press the shutter on my camera, the world went quiet, everything around me melted into a slow-motion blur, and I heard the voice:

If you do this, I will own you forever.

"I'm sorry," I thought. I wanted him to understand. To forgive.

I'd photographed many corpses before, several more gruesome than this soldier's, but there was something different about Cleveland, a connection that it would take me years to understand. In that split second when I still had a choice, I knew what I had to do. My nerves were taut, every sense ultra-sharp and alert to whoever might be moving in to attack. I was bent slightly forward, trying to get the best angle, shoulders down, stiffened for the blows.

A blur of new questions whirled in my mind. Like a coroner performing an autopsy, I tried to be the cold observer. I didn't want to freeze. Any pause, any flinch of uncertainty, could invite the first rock and then I would go down in a flurry of rocks, bullets, feet and fists, just as four colleagues had in July.

The mob danced and cheered and beat Cleveland's corpse with such gusto it seemed that in their blood-addled minds they weren't simply desecrating the body of one fallen soldier, but stomping in victory on a whole, defeated army. Some spat on him. Others kicked and stoned him. A young man wearing a chopper crewman's goggles shoved his way into the picture, his face contorted with glee as he gave the dead crew chief the finger.

An old man raised his cane like a club and brought it down fast with a sharp thwack! against lifeless flesh. Then he wound up for another. Thwack!

The giddy younger men in the crowd thought it was hilarious.

Look at the old man go!

I winced with each blow. I had no idea who the corpse was, and after weeks of looking at dead and maimed Somali women and children, I despised men like him who killed from the sky. Until now. Here we were on the same ground, in the blowing dirt and sour stench of fetid trash, on this nameless Somali side street where neither of us belonged, and for the first time, it felt like it was us against them. And there was nothing I could do to help him. Each new disgrace sent a ripple of celebration through the crowd, which undulated like a wave, feeding on its own frenzy. The men controlling the heavy ropes that bound the airman's wrists, stretching his arms high above his head, rolled the body back and forth in the hammering white light of a Mogadishu morning. The dead man danced with his tormentors like a broken marionette.

I felt like I was floating above it all, watching someone else do the insane: snapping pictures of humans become beasts.

I tried to focus on reality one step removed - the image in the frame - struggling to make sure that in the seconds I had, I got proof that the military couldn't deny. No room for error. So in the chaos, when a normal person would be thinking about how to save himself, which way to run, I was worried that maybe I'd loaded the film wrong, or the shutter speed was too slow, or whether I should risk using a flash to brighten the shadows cast by the pounding sun.

Did I put those fresh batteries in?


The corpse is limp: Could he have been dead long?


Those bullet wounds on his legs: Did they shoot him in the street or at the crash site?


Maybe he's only unconscious: Could he still be alive?


You poor man: Who are you?


I'd only managed to squeeze off those few frames when Gutale and my main gunman heard the crowd that had tolerated me at first now starting to turn. "What is he doing here?" someone shouted in Somali. Gutale quickly pulled me into the car. The rear doors slammed shut and suddenly the world was silent, except for the soft idling of the engine and the muffled noise of the mob. My pulse pounded like a timpani in my temples. I felt like I'd stepped out from in front of a tornado and into a cool temple. I was trembling. Rivulets of sweat ran down my back. The crowd closed around the corpse, like a malevolent cell consuming a foreign organism, and slowly turned left at the end of the street. I sat next to the right rear door, rewinding the last few minutes through my mind, itemizing the images that I had taken, as the driver waited for the crowd to move off, dragging the corpse with it.

And another voice spoke.

It was (former Star photographer) Andrew Stawicki, a Polish emigre with an artful eye for the beauty in harsh life that came with European training. I'd worked with him two years earlier in rebel-held southern Sudan. We were drifting in a canoe on the Sobat River at dusk, when Andrew saw several boys, running naked and single file along the river bank, silhouetted against the sunset. He raised his camera with a telephoto lens, and I could tell he had made a wonderful image. "That's going to be a great picture," I said, sounding like a disciple to his master. Andrew put his camera back in the bottom of the canoe and shrugged off my compliment. He knew newspaper editors too well. "They'll never print it," he said. "The kids' dicks are showing."

And in a lightning-quick zoom, my mind's eye focused on the dead soldier's army-issue green underwear, the only bit of clothing left on the corpse. The underwear was slightly askew, exposing a sliver of his scrotum. I at least had a chance of getting a dead body into the paper. A glimpse of a sexual organ? Far too risque.

"I've got to go back out," I told Gutale. He said it was too dangerous.

"I have to get more pictures," I insisted. "They won't print this one."

Without wasting time to explain - or to give anyone a chance to hold me back - I pulled the door handle and jumped out as my guards argued, and the car inched forward. Gutale reluctantly followed, but our main bodyguard stayed back with the car, expecting the mob to attack. This time, my focus was tighter, showing just half of the soldier's body, as a woman beat him with a flattened tin can. The mob was in a real rage now, and I could tell by the killer stares from several men with bloodshot eyes that I was on the very edge.

They had been fighting for more than 16 hours, no doubt chewing on qat to sharpen their fighting edge, and it would mean as much as crushing a cockroach for them to kill an infidel who couldn't take a hint. I turned and ran back to the car, this time with an image that just might get into print.

The driver hit the gas and headed for the Sahafi, and in a matter of minutes the hotel guards were opening the steel gates.

The slip of the rusty latch and the squeak of the opening door always made me breathe a little easier, as if the couple of sleepy gunmen there were enough to defend the fortress and keep the killers at bay. I took the steps two at a time up to my room, locked the door behind me, slipped the roll of film under my mattress, switched on the air conditioner with the remote, and collapsed on the bed, my eyes tightly closed against the world. And I wept.

It was in the half-light of my hotel room, where the only sounds were the air conditioner's hiss and my throbbing heart, that the reality of what I'd done struck like a crushing wave.


Images by Paul Watson of the famine that was contributing factor to the war,













The new exhibition produced by PhotoSensitive, Picture Change, features one photo from over 100 of the top Canadian photographers, including several Toronto Star journalists. The exhibit is a body of work highlighting the way that photography can make a positive change in the world. It might be a photo that inspired action among the public, one that helped bring about a change in law or one that simply forced its viewers to re-think their preconceived ideas.  The exhibit opened Tuesday July 16th and will be on display for a couple weeks at the Royal Bank Plaza Terrace, 200 Bay Street, between the tower and the Royal York Hotel. From there the display will move to another location in the city. 



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