Amid the controversy over certain pictures from Lebanon, a longtime student of war photography asks, “I’m not sure if the craft I love is being murdered, committing suicide, or both.”
By David D. Perlmutter
(August 17, 2006) — The Israeli-Hezbollah war has left many dead bodies, ruined towns, and wobbling politicians in its wake, but the media historian of the future may also count as one more victim the profession of photojournalism. In twenty years of researching and teaching about the art and trade and doing photo-documentary work, I have never witnessed or heard of such a wave of attacks on the people who take news pictures and on the basic premise that nonfiction news photo- and videography is possible.
I’m not sure, however, if the craft I love is being murdered, committing suicide, or both.
Perhaps it would be more reassuring if the enemy at the gates was a familiar one—politicians, or maybe radio talk show hosts. But the photojournalist standing on the crumbling ramparts of her once proud citadel now sees the vandal army charging for the sack led by “zombietime,” “The Jawa Report,” “Powerline,” “Little Green Footballs,” “confederateyankee,” and many others.
In each case, these bloggers have engaged in the kind of probing, contextual, fact-based (if occasionally speculative) media criticism I have always asked of my students. And the results have been devastating: news photos and video shown to be miscaptioned, radically altered, or staged (and worse, re-staged) for the camera. Surely “green helmet guy,” “double smoke,” “the missiles that were actually flares,” “the wedding mannequin from nowhere,” the “magical burning Koran,” the “little girl who actually fell off a swing” and “keep filming!” will now enter the pantheon of shame of photojournalism.
A few photo-illusions are probably due to the lust for the most sensational or striking-looking image—that is, more aesthetic bias than political prejudice. Also, many photographers know that war victims are money shots and some will break the rules of the profession to cash in. But true as well is that local stringers and visiting anchors alike seem to have succumbed either to lens-enabled Stockholm syndrome or accepted being the uncredited Hezbollah staff photographer so as to be able to file stories and images in militia-controlled areas.
It does not help that certain news organizations have acted like government officials or corporate officers trying to squash a scandal. The visual historian in me revolts when an ABC producer informs me that Reuters “deleted all 920 images” by the stringer who produced the “Beirut double smoke” image and is “less than willing to talk about it.” Can you say “18-minute gap,” anyone?
There is one great irony here. From a historical perspective, this is the golden age of photojournalistic ethics. In previous eras wild retouching, rearranging, cutting of images and even staging and restaging of events for the camera were commonly accepted in the trade. As someone who has written a history of images of war, I can testify there is more honesty in war photography today than ever in the past in any medium or any war–but there is, of course, much more scrutiny as well.
The main point is that we are now at a social, political and technological crossroads for media—amateur, industrial, and all points and persons in between. First, we live in Photoshop-CGI culture. People are accustomed to watching the amazing special effects of modern movies, where it seems any scene that can be imagined can be pixilated into appearing photorealistic. On our desktop, many of us are photoshopping our lives, manipulating family photos with ease.
In addition, in a digital-Internet-satellite age, any image on the Web can be altered by anyone into any new image and there is no “original,” as in a negative, to prove which was first. The icons are sacred no longer. Finally, there are the bloggers: the visual or word journalist is not only overseen by a familiar hierarchy of editors or producers but by many independents who will scan, query, trade observations, and blast what they think is an error or manipulation to the entire world.
News picture-making media organizations have two paths of possible response to this unnerving new situation. First, they can stonewall, deny, delete, dismiss, counter-slur, or ignore the problem. To some extent, this is what is happening now and, ethical consideration aside, such a strategy is the practical equivalent of taking extra photos of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The second, much more painful option, is to implement your ideals, the ones we still teach in journalism school. Admit mistakes right away. Correct them with as much fanfare and surface area as you devoted to the original image. Create task forces and investigating panels. Don’t delete archives but publish them along with detailed descriptions of what went wrong. Attend to your critics and diversify the sources of imagery, or better yet be brave enough to refuse to show any images of scenes in which you are being told what to show. I would even love to see special inserts or mini-documentaries on how to spot photo bias or photo fakery—in other words, be as transparent, unarrogant, and responsive as you expect those you cover to be.
The stakes are high. Democracy is based on the premise that it is acceptable for people to believe that some politicians or news media are lying to them; democracy collapses when the public believes that everybody in government and the press is lying to them.
And what of future victims of war? Will the public deny them their sorrows because we will dismiss all smoking rubble and dead children as mere digital propaganda?
Photojournalism must live, but not if its practitioners and owners are determined to jump into the abyss.
David D. Perlmutter (email@example.com) is a Professor and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies & Research at the University of Kansas¿s School of Journalism & Mass Communications. He is author of “Visions of War, Photojournalism and Foreign Policy,” and a book of documentary photography, “Policing the Media.”