Thursday, February 23, 2012

23-Feb-12: The power of the camera


We don't know much about the man in the picture above. Clearly he's a photographer, wearing a vest with the name of his occupation in large letters. (This is meant to keep him safe in dangerous neighborhoods like the one in which he's standing.) He's just doing his job, standing by the side of the road, in a town a few kilometers south of Jerusalem. A moment before this shot was snapped by Nasser Ishtayeh (who takes excellent pictures for several international syndication agencies), this photographer was standing and waiting, camera at the ready, while young men around him gathered cement blocks and rocks and prepared to hurl them at people inside cars with yellow license plates. Around here, yellow license plates mean Israeli vehicles. The people inside are statistically quite likely to be Jewish.


We know a few things, but not much, about the woman in the picture above. 

Her name is Zahava Weiss. She is Jewish, a school-teacher. She is driving a family wagon on her way home to Karmei Zur. She wrote a Hebrew-language note that was translated into English earlier today and we published it here a few hours ago. She's not alone in the car. There's a female hitch-hiker sitting in the seat behind her. This is because in the front seat, there is a special seat/harness which under normal circumstances would be holding the woman's young child as securely as possible. The infant is not in the car which, as it turns out, may have saved the child's life, and the hitch-hiker whom we don't see also escaped injury because of that safety device. The woman is hunched up and looks frightened. The larger context tells us why.


Same picture as the two above (Image sourcebut cropped differently. And also cropped differently from the similar one we published this morning (see here). Unlike that one, here we see the photographer standing on the far side of the road. And here we see the young Palestinian Arabs who have been waiting, rocks at the ready, to attack a car and its passengers, once they are able to ascertain that the license plate is yellow and the people inside Jewish. This picture tells us more than the earlier version. 

How about the caption given to it by the Associated Press editors?
Palestinians hurl stones at a car driven by an Israeli woman on the main road between Jerusalem and Hebron after a demonstration in solidarity with Islamic Jihad member Khader Adnan, who has been on hunger strike for two months, in the West Bank village of Beit Omar, Feb. 21, 2012.(Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP Photo)
While these particular rocks thrown on this particular day at that particular vehicle with its particular driver were connected to a demonstration for this or that Palestinian Arab grievance, people living around Jerusalem and especially in Gush Etzion south of the capital know that rock-throwing or cement-block throwing by Palestinian Arabs don't always have a clear connection to a hunger striker or any other cause. Violence directed at Jews and Israelis by Arabs in the area has been a constant for much more than a century. It predates 'occupation' and Hamas and Fatah. It predates the State of Israel. And this particular spot, in the town called Beit Ummar, is very frequently the scene of dangerous hurling of rocks at cars [like this and this and this.]

The most disturbing dimension of all this, for us, is the role of the photographers. At a certain point, their presence is not just the fulfillment of their professional obligation. They become collaborators and co-conspirators. The event they are covering is happening not just when they are there but because they are there. There's a variation of this, fauxtography, in which their work product is deliberately manipulated to illustrate a story that never happened like the one below.


The man on the ground writhing in agony is a Palestinian Arab construction worker. "An Israeli army driver drove a trailer hooked to a tractor over his legs", according to the caption writers at AP, but as the analysis by CAMERA shows, he is uninjured. It's a kind of pantomime, but the public that saw this image in newspapers and websites all over the world didn't know that and certainly were not told it by the news organizations that published it. The photographer may or may not have known the truth, but that hardly matters once the picture is published. Once it's out there, retractions and corrections have very little effect - the message has been delivered and absorbed and is as real - even more real - than the reality which the photo presents.

There are other pictures where context changes everything. If the audience knows the context, the message changes form completely. But often the context is simply hidden from the audience's view, as with these famous snaps.



The power of the image of Palestinian Arab rock throwers and flag wavers is considerably less heroic once you comprehend that it's all happening for the cameras.

The misery of the crying Jerusalem woman, again a Palestinian Arab, in the well-known image below captured beside the still-under-construction security barrier in East Jerusalem 


takes on a different meaning when you understand, from the context, that it's a performance; crying on demand in order to create a visual image for the photographers whose work demands one.


We don't say that photographers who capture news pictures are always complicit when bad things happen to innocent people in front of their lenses. Or that it's their responsibility when the image they create is then marketed, along with a misleading or fabricated caption, to tell a story that serves someone's agenda but that never happened. 

What we do say is that understanding what is happening around us in general and in this ongoing war in particular calls for all of us to exercise judgement, to not take matters at face value, and above all to demand appropriate context whenever important conclusions have to be reached.

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