→ August 2006 Contents → Feature
Through the Eyes of the Beholder
Since July 12, the American media has obsessed on one subject: the escalating Lebanon/Israel/Gaza war. That other two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan has virtually disappeared from the radar screen (much to the relief of the Bush administration, no doubt). The Mideast war dominates newspapers, magazines and cable television news, 24/7; coverage of death and destruction consumes our lives.
Ostensibly, the war began June 25 with the abduction of an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilead Shalit, in Gaza by Hamas militants, followed 17 days later by a breach of the Israeli/Lebanese border by Hezbollah (organized after the 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation) and capture of two more Israeli soldiers. In reality, it began much earlier. These acts of aggression were only the latest clashes in the tortured history of Palestine, the Biblical homeland claimed by both Israeli Jews and Arab Muslims.
Although Israel withdrew some 8,000 Israeli settlers and military personnel and installations from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in 2005, according to Human Rights Watch, Israel in fact continues to occupy Gaza, thereby keeping the displaced Palestinian powder keg ignited.
With such a complex, decades-long – indeed, centuries-long – bloody struggle between nations, religions, ideologies and ethnic identities, how can the media begin to convey the depth of hatred and memories of terror on both sides?
These profound beliefs would seem to leave little room for compromise. In a world of absolutes, how can mere images communicate these fundamentally different views, let alone do so even-handedly? Part of the answer is that media reflects its own culture. For the viewer this means that one must look beyond one source and investigate many channels, Web sites and newspapers.
I asked several people in photojournalism to comment on the media's war coverage: Has it changed since earlier Mideast wars? Or not? What are the particular challenges this time? There were some interesting answers.
David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair, Digital Journalist contributing editor and former director of photography at Life magazine, pointed to the extensive use of blogs. If Vietnam was the television, or "living room," war, this is a blogger's war. He writes: "In the current Mideast crisis, I'm most taken by the use of video blogs by people caught in the cross hairs. Young people from southern Lebanon and northern Israel, armed with cameras and Internet connections, have become the modern-age equivalents of Anne Frank.
"In my book, Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11, I touch upon the notion that new advances in digital photography and digital video technology have made average citizens with cell phones, cameras, and camcorders the first visual responders in crisis situations (the Pacific Tsunami, the London mass-transit bombings) and war zones. Especially in the age of terror, where new corners of the world have become new battlegrounds, the first people on the scene are often not photojournalists, but intrepid amateurs who hope to record the horrors around them for the sake of memory, a scintilla of proof, and because it provides the illusion of control in an otherwise vulnerable, defenseless situation."
Earlier wars had to be covered differently. Only the power of the individual photograph overcame the slowness of delivery, according to the former chief editor for photography at The Associated Press, Hal Buell. He observes that "war coverage in the last half of the 20th century has, with increasing frequency and, especially since Vietnam, featured civilian casualties. Before that, armies moved slowly and civilians had a chance to get out of the way. But airpower mixed with wars against insurgents – guerrillas and others who operate in urban or village environments-–inevitably bring death and destruction on a greater scale to the innocent. They become 'collateral damage' – an ugly, misleading term better suited to buildings, stone, steel, and other metals. It is a term that somehow conveniently skips over the broken bodies and the pain and suffering inflicted on those caught in the crossfire between opposing forces."
Photographer Paul Taggart, who wrote a Dispatch this month from Lebanon, differentiates between the choices the media are forced to make in covering the current conflict. The dilemma, he says, is that "photographic coverage of this war leaves photographers on three sides of the conflict. Photographers have to make the decision to cover Israel, Gaza or Lebanon unless they have the amazing talent of being in more than one place at any given time. For those covering the IDF with their GPO press cards and signed censorship letter from the Israeli government, access is granted to the IDF military actions and a close-up view of the front-line fighting which makes for graphic war photos that the public expects to see. Those photographers in Gaza have access to the Hamas fighters who often pose with their weapons and face garb. These have become the staple images of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Those covering the Lebanese side of the war are, by default, reporting on the impact on the civilian population and the devastation created by constant air strikes since there is little if any graphic imagery or access to the Hezbollah fighters and virtually no way to document the front line of their actions. This leaves publications to make some very difficult decisions when editing what images make it to the pages of their magazines and newspapers."
To Horst Faas, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and former AP senior editor for Europe, the war coverage looks tragically familiar.
"What strikes me most about today's photos from Lebanon," Faas observes, "is the fact that they are almost replicas (this time in color) of the images that reached us during the Israeli air raids in the early 1980s, of air raids on the same targets: high-rise buildings, civilian homes, the Beirut airport, the same bridges, Red Cross convoys…. scenes that Cathy Leroy once photographed so well, and also Françoise Demulder, who lives in a wheelchair in Paris today.
"I always admired the courage and commitment of the Lebanese photographers who, again, provide a vivid and stirring account of the horrors of aerial bombardments, a form of warfare that we have had since Guernica. The managed images of Israeli soldiers in action and rocket damage from the 'other side' are no match by comparison."
Years ago photography, like the telegraph before it and the Internet of today, was seen as a vehicle for understanding. The American historian Robert Taft wrote in an optimistic, if florid, prose in his 1938 book, Photography and the American Scene, A Social History 1830 – 1889, that whatever "may be the faults and flaws of the pictorial press, it is probable that humanity has in this agent one of her most powerful weapons in combating ignorance and disease, and in the attainment of social justice. Through the use of this medium, it should be possible, if ever, to reach more rapidly that long sought goal—the brotherhood of man." [Dover Publications, Inc., 1964]
Most today would say that not only is this idea impossible to achieve in the media but that far from promoting world harmony, images can only convey information. Just the facts. In our correspondence about this subject, a friend, Bruce Jackson, writer, filmmaker, photographer, SUNY Distinguished Professor, wrote recently, "Facts tell us nothing. Facts just are. It's the questions we ask of them, the information we bring to them—that's what tells us something. Facts on their own are just facts. Likewise photos."
How can the pictorial facts of the Mideast and other cultures be read by people around the world? In reality, the subtle reasons for certain types and colors of dress, ceremonies and decoration cannot always be deciphered. Pedro Meyer, photographer, publisher and director of Zone Zero, likes to point out that photography is not a universal language for these very reasons.
Facts, whether photographic or written, appeal to the intellect but Donald R. Winslow, writer and editor of the NPPA's News Photographer, believes that photographs can do more: "Words make you think, but photographs make you feel. People are more likely to react when they are moved emotionally, than when they are presented with an intellectual conclusion. Feelings can instigate an action. Photographs can transform the way an entire population feels about a subject and the resulting public opinion can alter a government's actions or policies. That changes people's lives.
"The civil rights photographs of people like Clarence Moore shamed America and shifted public opinions that, in turn, fueled political motives and brought about the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voter Registration Act."
The photographs acted like a stone covered with snow. As it rolls downhill more snow attaches itself; the snowball becomes larger and covers more ground. What one didn't notice at first becomes an avalanche.
"Nick Ut's and Eddie Adams' photographs helped to change American public opinion on Vietnam. Jim Nachtwey's photographs changed our understanding of starvation and war. Sebastiao Salgado's photographs changed our understanding of global manual labor and the distribution of wealth. As photographs from Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Afghanistan, and 9/11 give us an understanding of the inhumanity, brutality, insanity and immorality of war and what man is willing to accept of himself and others. What photojournalism cannot do is bring back the dead."
The images in our cover feature this month give shape to the diverse opinions offered here and in the three accompanying Dispatches. The facts of incursion/invasion, offense/defense, collateral damage/dead children are all included. The interpretation depends on the eye of the beholder. Long past is the idea, I believe, that photographs clearly prove just one thing. However, the emotion that washes over the images will sway people's thinking and may work in a positive way to decipher meaning.
The Digital Journalist thanks The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Polaris Images, World Picture Network and ZUMA Press for their generous contributions to this month's issue.
© Marianne Fulton
Back to August 2006 Contents