Photojournalism Scandal: The power of a thousand words

The visual medium has always been more striking at first glance than text. Likewise extra attention is given more to scandals compared to the daily reported stories which make up the nightly news. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that scandal and photojournalism have developed a deeply intertwined relationship. Photographs of scandals have the power to capture the attentions of thousands, which is why they have often been used as blackmail. This audience attracting power is not only used by tabloid publications but also by most forms of mainstream media. A common example is a celebrity who is held in high regard and the scandal comes as a shock (although we are often filled with glee at their downfall) because it is a massive contradiction to what we thought we knew about the individual. The subject doesn’t have to exclusively be a person however; the important point is the information is a new contradiction with a shock factor attached. Scandals spread like gossip, when you receive information that goes against the commonly held notions of the gals at the hairdressers/bros at the gym, you are prompted to inform them of their fresh ignorance (probably with considerable glee as well). This in turn spreads the story further without the media spending another cent. Brilliant.

Only it’s not so brilliant when the scandal is focused on the media itself, as seen from Adnan Hajj Controversy or “Reutersgate” in which a photo of an airstrike on Beirut during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon Conflict was found to have been digitally altered as exposed by watchdog blogger Charles Johnson (2006). Johnson pointed out the smoke billowing out of city in the photo had clearly been enlarged and manipulated to appear darker and several buildings were cloned using Photoshop “in an obvious manner” (2006). The image of the sky polluted of dark smoke bellowing out of the airstrike site is eerily reminiscent of iconic and World Press Awarded pictures taken of the 9/11 terror attacks by Robert Clark (2011).

reuters.600.jpg

Whether this resemblance was intentional or not, the altered photograph paints a significantly more devastated looking scene when compared to the true original. This is not the first time a photograph has been digitally altered to present a darker version of reality. In the aftermath of O.J Simpson’s 1994 arrest TIME Magazine infamously published a doctored mug shot that had been darkened to appear more menacing and to arguably emphasis Simpson’s race (Carmody 1994).

In cases like these, it appears the desire for a ‘new contradiction’ has overcome the integrity of an opportunistic photojournalist. The advent of Photoshop and digital photographing technology has opened many doors for photography but also provided greater temptation and ease for those wanting to tamper their photos. Plenty of photographers use Photoshop to change colouring and lighting in slight ways in order to improve their photos. However here Adnan went further than just enhancing aesthetic qualities and had ventured into changing the meaning of the photograph. Consequently, an apology was made and freelance photographer Adnan Hajj’s employment at Reuters was terminated (NBC News 2006).

Following the logic of ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ the rest of Hajj’s Israel-Lebanon photos were then placed under scrutiny. It was revealed he had used Photoshop to manipulate another photograph of an Israeli fighter jet which he manipulated into appearing as if it was firing “missiles during an airstrike” when it was in fact deploying a defensive flare (Malkin 2006). Further controversy erupted surrounding Adnan’s photos of the “Green Helmet Man” posing as a rescue worker parading around dead children for the press. Once again the blogosphere cut through Reuter’s statement that “[we] have rejected all allegations that the photographs were staged” (ABC 2006) with video evidence revealing him as Salam Daher, an actor and director of gruesome Hezbollah propaganda whom had been operating since 1996 (ZT 2006).  And although it’s unclear whether Adnan or Reuters were aware of this or simply willing dupes they cannot excused for participating in the creation of pro-jihadist propaganda.

In grim irony, Adnan’s photos would be attractive to Hezbollah for the same shock factor that got them published by Reuters in the first place. And so it appears the common scaremongering which modern audiences have come to expect from the media was hiding Reuter’s darker secret; warmongering. Fanning the flames of war is immoral in any context but is especially despicable when it is done for profit. Images are powerful tools: from Che Guevara to Uncle Sam, pictures have influenced vast amounts of people to violence. Reuters are equally contemptible as the arms dealers who sell weapons to radical groups such as Hezbollah. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but a camera’s power rivals both of them and this is not a power to be meddled with. Absolute objectivity and ethical standards need to be upheld by photojournalists. Bloggers and citizen journalists can only do so much, serious action needs to be taken to extinguish this exploitation, especially when the stakes are life or death.

Over 1400 civilians were killed in the 2006 Lebanon-Israel conflict (Frisk 2006). Will the next Middle Eastern conflict be exacerbated by the media due to exploitive voyeurism and scaremongering? And if so how many more people will die as a result? Questions of exploitation have always surrounded photojournalism that focuses on war and humanitarian disasters. For some the accusations were too much, Kevin Carter who won “the Pulitzer prize for his disturbing photograph of a Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture” (Neal 2016) and then killed himself that same year. Many were angered that he didn’t help the starving child himself and questioned if the real vulture was actually behind the lens.

The vulture and the little girl

This view is far too cynical. We could say the same of doctors who make their living off the suffering of others despite them being revered in our culture. And like doctors, photojournalists have a commitment to maintaining the health, not of the body, but of society’s conscious. There is no point denying that life has its shocks and scandals, however from the overwhelming evidence it is clear that Reuters and Adnan Hajj have truly broken their own Hippocratic Oaths. Photojournalism does have the potential to inform, inspire, and influence the world in a positive manner. That is, as long as it resists the disease of sensationalism and fabrication of scandals.

References:

ABC.. 2006. Reuters drops freelance Lebanese photographer over image. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2006-08-07/reuters-drops-freelance-lebanese-photographer-over/1232104. [Accessed 20 April 2016].

Carmody, Deirdre. 1994. Time Responds to Criticism Over Simpson Cover. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/25/us/time-responds-to-criticism-over-simpson-cover.html [Accessed 22 April 2016].

Clark, Rob. 2011. From my roof on 9-11. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.burnmagazine.org/in-the-spotlight/2011/09/from-my-roof-by-rob-clarkinstitute/. [Accessed 22 April 2016].

Estrin, James. 2014. Truth and Consequences for a War Photographer . [ONLINE] Available at: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/24/truth-and-consequences-for-a-war-photographer/. [Accessed 18 April 2016].

Frisk, Robert.2006. Lebanon Death Toll Hits 1,300. (August 17, 2006) The Independent. [Accessed 19 April 2016].

Johnson, Charles. 2016. Reuters Doctoring Photos from Beirut? – Little Green Footballs. [ONLINE] Available at: http://littlegreenfootballs.com/article/21956_Reuters_Doctoring_Photos_from_Beirut. [Accessed 21 April 2016].

Malkin, Michelle. 2006. Photographer’s Exposure: Just the tip of pro-jihadist iceberg. (August 11, 2006). The Free Lance-Star.  [Accessed 20 April 2016].

NBC News. 2006. Photographer fired over altered images. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/13165165/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/altered-images-prompt-photographers-firing/#.Vxw8MPl97IU. [Accessed 22 April 2016].

Neal, Leslie. 2016. How Photojournalism Killed Kevin Carter. [ONLINE] Available at: http://all-that-is-interesting.com/kevin-carter. [Accessed 16 April 2016].

Strauss, David. 2016. Doctored Photos – The Art of the Altered Image | TIME. [ONLINE] Available at: http://time.com/3778075/doctored-photos-the-art-of-the-altered-image/. [Accessed 15 April 2016].

  1. 2016. Reuters Photo Fraud. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.zombietime.com/reuters_photo_fraud/. [Accessed 22 April 2016].
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