Photographs as Weapons of War in the Middle East

Why it's so difficult to see the reality behind the images
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A Palestinian woman reacts upon seeing her destroyed home on August 1, 2014. (Suhaib Salam/Reuters)

In 2003, my Atlantic colleague James Fallows performed a huge public service. He painstakingly reviewed the evidence and concluded that perhaps the single most iconic anti-Israel image did not in fact document an Israeli action at all. Muhamed al-Dura was, we were told, the name of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot dead by Israeli soldiers, as he crouched against a concrete wall beside his helpless father.

This image still defines the conflict for millions in the Muslim world. It was cited by Osama bin Laden as justification for his crimes. However, and having examined the evidence, Fallows concluded:

It now appears that the boy cannot have died in the way reported by most of the world's media and fervently believed throughout the Islamic world. Whatever happened to him, he was not shot by the Israeli soldiers who were known to be involved in the day's fighting—or so I am convinced, after spending a week in Israel talking with those examining the case.

The man who did most to bring the al-Dura image to the world, Charles Enderlin, is one of France’s most esteemed journalists, a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Many of his critics lacked media credentials and media experience. Yet in the end, as Fallows concluded, they were right and Enderlin was wrong.

Yesterday, Fallows posted a piece on the dustup over my tweets about images from Gaza. He had some critical things to say about me, and I agree they were deserved. Normally I count to 10 before posting on Twitter, but on this occasion I was over-impulsive and reacted too fast, too angrily, and too emphatically, in the process making accusations for which I had no sufficient basis. I take that mistake seriously, and I’ve apologized for it.

But there’s a danger of veering to the opposite extreme. That extreme is to lose sight of the long experience that Israel’s enemies manipulate imagery as a strategic tool against the Jewish state. Here’s Fallows again, from that most recent post:

We all dislike something about the press, so we take for granted rather than glorify the fact that these are people taking real risks for usually minimal pay. And glorification would be beside the point. From my time in even faintly similar circumstances (during the anti-government riots in South Korea, with a rebel group in Mindanao, in Burma during the 1988 upheavals) I know that people do this for adrenaline and camaraderie and a host of normal, non-glorious reasons.

But respect is called for. For all their blind spots and flaws, reporters on the scene are trying to see, so they can tell, and the photographic and video reporters take greater risks than all the rest, since they must be closer to the action.

I agree that we should respect journalists who incur danger to show the world what they have seen. I stressed that point in my post of apology. My late father-in-law was a foreign correspondent who covered wars from Algeria to Vietnam. My own passport carries stamps from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Ukraine, and Venezuela, and of course Israel too. I know something of the risks that journalists run.

But I also know—and of course Jim Fallows also knows—that even as we respect the risks journalists incur, we also need to exercise critical judgment about the stories they tell and the images they show. This is especially true in the Middle East, where management of images has become a strategic tool. Just yesterday The New York Times gave the following statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency to explain why the American paper has published so few images of Hamas fighters engaged in combat operations:

Our photo editor went through all of our pictures recently and out of many hundreds, she found 2 very distant poor quality images that were captioned Hamas fighters by our photographer on the ground. It is very difficult to identify Hamas because they don’t have uniforms or any visible insignia; our photographer hasn’t even seen anyone carrying a gun.

I would add that we would not withhold photos of Hamas militants. We eagerly pursue photographs from both sides of the conflict, but we are limited by what our photographers have access to.

Those “limits” are very deliberately imposed by Hamas itself:

Palestinian journalist Radjaa Abou Dagga, for example, wrote an article for French newspaper Libération, published July 23, detailing how Hamas intimidated him, forcing him to leave Gaza, and how Hamas terrorists use a section of Shifa hospital, just a few meters from the emergency room, as their offices ….

The next day, Mr. Dagga asked Libération to remove his article from their website, apparently out of fear for his family still in Gaza.

You can see the Libération notice of the article’s removal here. (Translated from French the notice reads, “This article, which described the attempted intimidation of the Palestinian journalist Radjaa Abu Dagga, a correspondent for Ouest France formerly with Libération, was unpublished at his request.”)

I’ve dispensed criticism in the past for the mistakes of others—for example, when one of Vox’s writers on the Middle East understated by more than half the number of Israeli lives lost to terrorism since 2000. I expect and accept criticism in my turn when I err. So no complaints on that front.

But I do complain of this: Some of the writers criticizing me have taken the next follow-on step to try to retrospectively authenticate questionable photographs from the 2006 Lebanon war.

Tim Rutten, then of The Los Angeles Times, powerfully described the flow of images out of that conflict:

Many, including grisly images from the Qana tragedy, clearly are posed for maximum dramatic effect. There is an entire series of photos of children's stuffed toys poised atop mounds of rubble. All are miraculously pristinely clean and apparently untouched by the devastation they purportedly survived. (Reuters might want to check its freelancers' expenses for unexplained Toys R Us purchases.) In some cases, the bloggers seem to have uncovered the same photographer using more than one identity. There's an improbable photo by Hajj of a Koran burning atop the rubble of a building supposedly destroyed by an Israeli aircraft hours before. Nothing else in sight is alight. (With photos, as in life, when something seems too perfect to be true, it's almost always because it is.) In other photos, the same wrecked building is portrayed multiple times with the same older woman—one supposes she ought to be called a model—either lamenting its destruction or passing by in different costumes.

The year 2006 was perhaps the zenith of the independent blog. The people who drew attention to the dubious images from Lebanon often worked at websites that often carried funny names such as Little Green Footballs or The Jawa Report. (The New York Times reported in 2006 on the role of Little Green Footballs, in particular, in exposing contested photographs.) They were often impelled by passionate political views of their own. As Rutten wrote:

Make what you will of the analysis, much of which is feverish, sneering and tending toward the mechanistically conspiratorial. What's hard to imagine is how anybody can look at the photos and not conclude that they're riddled with journalistic deceit.

One site, aggregated many of these images in one place. That site also carried an absurd name: Zombietime. If you prefer sites with less silly names, a smaller selection of photos can also be seen at the Jewish Virtual Library. But if you want to see, as opposed to merely hearing described, what all the fuss was about in 2006, Zombietime is a convenient location. So when, in my apology post, I wanted to explain the sources of my skepticism of some images from the Israel-Palestine conflict I wrote, "A summary of such practices in the 2006 Lebanon war can be read here” and linked to the Zombietime site. Not all the images on that site have been conclusively proved to be manipulated or staged—I didn’t mean to suggest they had been—but take a look at them and see if you don’t reach some of the same conclusions that Tim Rutten and many others did.

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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