The truth behind the news photograph

How the photographer helps shape the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Photojournalists photographers journalists reporters 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Photojournalists photographers journalists reporters 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A very unusual headline appeared across news outlets on March 12. In fact, it may have been a first in the history of media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The headline read, “UN: Palestinians Likely Killed Gaza Baby.” The caption was followed by an Associated Press file photo depicting a weeping Palestinian man, Jihad al-Masharawi, holding the body of his dead 11-month-old son, Omar, dated November 14, 2012.
Initially, the heart-wrenching photo was followed by an article and caption claiming that the infant son of Masharawi, a BBC Arabic reporter, was killed in an Israeli air strike during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. The photo went viral on social media and was published in major international newspapers covering the escalation.
As Israel aimed to stop the heavy rocket attacks on its civilian cities, the AP photo instantly became a symbol – “a symbol of what Palestinians said was Israeli aggression,” in the words of AP reporter Diaa Hadid.
Recently, the United Nations released a report clarifying that the baby and two other adult relatives were “killed by what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket that fell short of Israel.” Matthias Benke, the head of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which published the report, told AP that information from eyewitnesses led to the conclusion that the death “appeared to be attributable to a Palestinian rocket.”
Benke added that Palestinian terrorists had been firing rockets at Israel near Masharawi’s home and that although the area had been targeted by Israeli airstrikes, the hit on the BBC reporter’s home was “markedly different.” Moreover, Benke the type of injuries suffered by the Masharawi family were typical of rocket shrapnel.
Such “symbolic” photos have often found their way into news media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In this case, like many others, media outlets such as the BBC and The Washington Post immediately embraced Palestinian claims and blamed Israel for the death of the Palestinian infant.
The Washington Post , for example, ran an opinion article on November 23 entitled “Photo of Dead Baby in Gaza Holds Part of the Truth.” The writer, Patrick Pexton expounded: “A photograph may be worth a thousand words, but even at its most revealing it never tells an entire story.
It is the capture of a single moment, a split-second version of the truth. But if it is an effective photograph, it moves the viewer toward a larger truth. That’s certainly the case for a front-page photograph published on Nov. 15, an image of a man’s anguish as he held the shrouded body his 11- month old son who was killed in a bomb strike.”
The question that follows is who decides what is the larger truth? Is it the photo? The photojournalist? The media? Or the general public? What if the verbal framing of the photo or the news clip is misleading or an outright lie? IT IS not new knowledge that this phenomenon has time and again placed Israel in a terrible light. The France 2 television report in 2000 that accused Israel of shooting and killing Gaza youth Mohammad al-Durrah became a widespread symbol of the struggle of the Palestinian people against Israeli brutality, even though it was later proved to be a misrepresentation. Commentary like this and an AP photo of bloodied American yeshiva student Tuvia Grossman, who, during the second intifada in 2000 was incorrectly portrayed as a Palestinian beaten by an Israeli policeman, further strengthen the misconceived narrative.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post , Italian photojournalist Ruben Salvadori offered an interesting perspective on visual documentation of the Arab-Israeli conflict by examining the role of the photojournalist.
Salvadori spent four years in Jerusalem, studying anthropology and international relations at the Hebrew University. During that time, he interned as a photographer for Israeli Flash90 Photo Agency, which led to his 2011 photo documentary project, entitled Photojournalism Behind the Scenes . The documentary highlights the paradoxes of “conflict image” production and how conflict images are often staged.
He told the Post that news photos of the Arab-Israeli conflict often lack any understanding or depth because of market demand for a specific type of photo. “Not only are many interesting elements of Israeli and Palestinian life overshadowed by the request from the market to produce solely news photographs, but also the conflict itself risks to be forcibly pushed into a visual categorization that tends to crystallize into dangerous stereotypes,” Salvadori explains.
In a documentary video that accompanies his photography project, he depicts how Palestinian rock-throwers in east Jerusalem respond to cameras.
One photographer smiles and laughs with a young Palestinian, who, face covered, is holding a rock, while a row of photographers wait for an interesting shot. Salvadori explains in the video that if no Israeli soldiers come, many times these youths just head home.
He shows the making of a dramatic photo of a young Palestinian standing in a defiant position, with smoke and fire smoldering behind him, as “an example of the type of photo that the media market requires from us.”
“This is what we have to create if we want to sell,” he explains in the video. Subsequently, according to Salvadori “this pushes many photojournalists to seek and create this drama even when the situation lacks it.”
He believes that the presence of a group of cameramen, or even just one photographer, can influence people to act for the camera. He shows a photo of Palestinian youths burning an Israeli flag as a message for the camera. “No one else was there at that moment; there were no soldiers – only myself and my camera,” he says.
By including the photographer in the frame of the conflict imagery, Salvadori aims to reveal how media presence often turns the conflict into a show in which the photographer is an actor with his or her own role and not just an impassive, neutral observer.
After photographing some weekly riots in east Jerusalem, Salvadori began questioning his role in the ensuing scenes. “I started asking myself questions about our role as photographers and the implications of our presence on the field,” he says.
His observations, which he describes as “anthropological,” led to a larger issue and a need to “spark debate over the ethics of our profession.”
Salvadori’s work has received wide international exposure in Europe and North America as well as on Canada’s CBC National Television. He says that his work has been recognized by major editors and photographers and is used as teaching material in journalism courses in universities.
While Salvadori received mixed reactions to his project – many photographers from conflict areas do not agree that their presence influences events – he believes that, besides the photographer, there are several other elements that play into the final message of a photo.
“The audience is very passive and should have a more active role in defining what is an interesting picture, instead of leaving the decision to a group of photographic elite – editors, award committees and others,” he says. “The public has a utopian expectation of absolute truth and objective representation of reality when looking at news photographs.”
“A professional photographer,” he believes “should use his ability to engage his analytical skills and produce a body of work that goes beyond the simple reporting of events.”
Unfortunately, news photos of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict have many times done the very opposite, giving the undiscerning audience a misconstrued angle of a highly sensitive story. Salvadori believes that new models must be created that will lead to a transparent and sustainable way to make the public more involved with the production process of documentary photography.
“I am working on this challenge right now,” he says.