It's the story that the journalistic elite would rather just go away. In the aftermath of Reuters' admission that one of its photographers, Adnan Hajj, had manipulated two war images from Lebanon after bloggers smoked out his crude Photoshop alterations, and all 920 of his Reuters photos were pulled, evidence of far more troubling photo staging and media deception in the Middle East continues to pour in.
Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs (littlegreenfootballs.com) calls it "fauxtography."
One of Hajj's photos was an iconic image of a dusty dead child with a clean blue pacifier clipped to his shirt, paraded by a corpse handler at the site of an Israeli airstrike in Qana, Lebanon. Mainstream journalists have sneered at bloggers' suspicions, first raised at EU Referendum (eureferendum.blogspot.com), that some of the gruesome photos from that scene may have been staged. Washington Post photographer Michael Robinson-Chavez, who was at Qana, huffed: "Everyone was dead, many of them children. Nothing was set up." But last week, a German television station aired damning video footage from the scene showing a lead propaganda director (dubbed the "Green Helmet Guy") positioning a young boy's corpse, yanking it from an ambulance, placing it on two different stretchers for the cameras and pushing bystanders out of the way for clearer shots.
This Lebanese version of horror film director Wes Craven was identified by the Associated Press in a softball profile as "Salam Daher," who told the reporter, "I am just a civil defense worker. I have done this job all my life." To clear-eyed readers, that's an inculpatory statement, not an exculpatory one. How many more "jobs" has Daher overseen? And how many more media stage managers like Daher are out there?
Not all photographers overseas have their heads in the sand. Last week, Middle East-based photographer Bryan Denton, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, revealed on the professional photography website Light Stalkers (lightstalkers.org) that he had observed routine staging of photos -- and even corpse-digging -- by Lebanese stringers:
"[I] have been witness to the daily practice of directed shots, one case where a group of wire photogs were choreographing the unearthing of bodies, directing emergency workers here and there, asking them to position bodies just so, even remove bodies that have already been put in graves so that they can photograph them in people[']s arms." Denton noted that he had witnessed the photo choreography at numerous protests and evacuations, as well as at an Israeli airstrike location in Chiyeh, Lebanon. Denton followed up with a second post reporting that respected photographer friends of his in Lebanon informed him that "this was not an isolated incident" and that "this has been something [I]'ve noticed happening here, more than any other place [I]'ve worked previously."
Which is probably why bloggers have noticed so many copious examples of phony-looking scenes -- from countless pristine stuffed animals lying in the foreground of destroyed buildings (slublog.com/archives/2006/08/the_passion_of.html), to artfully placed Korans amid scenes of destruction, to a snow-white wedding dress on a mannequin standing in the middle of a street surrounded by piles of rubble, to intact cars photographed on Lebanese roadsides and dubiously labeled as being struck by Israeli missiles (see hotair.com/archives/2006/08/14/fauxtography-amazing-new-iaf-missiles-mimic-sledgehammer-damage/).
Miscaptioning (which always makes Israel look worse, never Hezbollah, go figure) adds another dimension of fauxto deception. One Associated Press image of an anguished father carrying his dead 5-year-old daughter into a Gaza City hospital last week blamed the death on an Israeli airstrike. Charles Johnson found a correction of the caption revealing that the girl had been killed in a swingset accident. I found a Reuters photo of an 18-month-old girl with two broken legs that was pulled by the wire service in late July after being included among a photo set of hospital patients injured in an Israeli air raid. In truth, the girl had been admitted for a "routine hospitalisation." Then there was The New York Times' misrepresentation of a half-naked young man sprawled Pieta-like, appearing dead, amid Tyre rubble. The original Times' website photo caption? "The mayor of Tyre said that in the worst-hit areas, bodies were still buried under the rubble . . . " Turned out the "dead" man was a "rescue worker" who was supposedly "injured" (with his baseball cap tucked neatly in his arm as he closed his eyes and flung his head back) and had been photographed in several other scenes running around the bombing site.
Isolated incidents? In a rare moment of candor, CNN's Anderson Cooper revealed the routine mechanics of Hezbollywood propaganda tours last week: "I was in Beirut, and they took me on this sort of guided tour of the Hezbollah-controlled territories in southern Lebanon that were heavily bombed . . . they clearly want the story of civilian casualties out. That is their -- what they're heavily pushing, to the point where on this tour I was on, they were just making stuff up. They had six ambulances lined up in a row and said, OK, you know, they brought reporters there, they said you can talk to the ambulance drivers. And then one by one, they told the ambulances to turn on their sirens and to zoom off, and people taking that picture would be reporting, I guess, the idea that these ambulances were zooming off to treat civilian casualties, when in fact, these ambulances were literally going back and forth down the street just for people to take pictures of them."
"Just making stuff up." Remember that.
Meanwhile, the media ostriches carry on. Joe Elbert, Washington Post assistant managing editor for photography, told ombudsman Deborah Howell smugly: "We don't use tools to change reality." Newsflash: You are the tools being used.