I made a mistake earlier this week in a series of Twitter posts. It’s not a mistake to which Atlantic editors were party in any way. But they have kindly allowed me space here to post a correction and apology in a less abbreviated form than Twitter allows.
The mistake involves a series of photos from Khan Younis hospital in Gaza. AP, Reuters, and The New York Times posted images of two blood-covered men. The men were identified as brothers who had just seen their father killed in an Israeli strike. In three tweets, I expressed disbelief in the authenticity of the images. Michael Shaw at the Bag News blog painstakingly argues that I was wrong to do so.
On review, I agree that Shaw is right and that I was wrong. These images do appear authentic, and I should not have cast doubt on them. I apologize especially to Sergey Ponomarev of The New York Times, whose work I impugned.
Yet I also think it important to explain my skepticism when presented with such images.
As anyone who follows news from the Middle East knows, there is a long history in the region of the use of faked or misattributed photographs as tools of propaganda. Image management is a feature of all modern war, but in the Middle East it often seems that combatants put more effort into shaping perceptions than winning any strategic result on the ground. Most recently, images from the war in Syria have repeatedly been tweeted and retweeted as Israeli-inflicted casualties in Gaza.
Even the most reputable news organizations have fallen victim to this practice. During Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, Reuters pulled hundreds of photographs from distribution after one of its local photographers, Adnan Hajj, was caught photoshopping images.
In addition to this outright falsification, there is another kind of photo falsehood that can be even more misleading: the staging of photographs for propaganda effect. A summary of such practices in the 2006 Lebanon war can be read here.
The people who caught and exposed such practices are not always themselves associated with big news organizations. Oftentimes, they are simply interested readers, who are able to gain a voice for themselves on new media.
In this latest round of fighting, image management has been one of Hamas’s weapons. The Times of Israel has published Hamas’s injunctions to local people:
Do not publish photos or video clips depicting locations of rocket launches or movements of resistance [Hamas members] in Gaza,” the video warns. “To Facebook news page administrators, do not display photos of masked men carrying heavy weapons up close, so that your page isn’t shut for inciting violence.
And indeed photographs of Hamas fighters in action have been rare in this conflict. Images of Hamas casualties have been rare as well. The images arriving from Gaza present a picture of seemingly one-sided violence, in which apparently all the casualties are unarmed civilians.
Photographers who work in war zones work under dangerous and potentially deadly conditions. In Syria and Libya, photographers have lost their lives trying to help the world see what they have seen. In 2012, the French photographer Remi Ochlik and Marie Colvin of Britain’s Sunday Times were killed in a Syrian government artillery barrage. As we honor the sacrifices made by journalists, we also should exercise realism about how photos are obtained. In Gaza, the rules seem especially strict—defiance of Hamas’s rules has been sadly infrequent—and, because of what we don’t see, the composite picture from the war zone has been distorted as a result.
That was not the case with the photos I disputed. I was wrong on Twitter, and I retract and apologize for my mistake.