Wars, conflicts, and disasters are magnets for photojournalists. Because of the variety of their assignments, few photojournalists covering regional/ethnic conflicts can develop a deep understanding of any single conflict. They often are experienced travelers, moving from one site of human suffering to another; Yugoslavia, El Salvador, Sudan, Chechnya, Israel, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq are only a few of the stops on the international journalism circuit since 1990. Although a certain mystique has grown up around the culture of photojournalists, the reality of the job is often anything but glamorous. In the words of one seasoned veteran,
You have to take the airplane, to take a jeep, work for three weeks, meet the right people, shit on yourself—I mean no food, no water, you don’t know if you are a hostage or a friend. Suddenly hell breaks loose, and you’re trying to survive and take pictures. Then it takes three weeks to go back. That’s for one photo! If it’s good. And it may not be good, too.
While many photojournalists covering conflicts internationally consider themselves “war photographers,” photojournalists covering conflicts in their own countries are less likely to define themselves as such. They don’t travel to a foreign country to cover wars, but merely the local reality. If the conventional wars of a previous era occurred in these journalists’ “backyards,” many of the contemporary conflicts in the current era of asymmetrical warfare and terrorism are occurring in their “living rooms” as well as in their backyards.
Correspondents are in the center of the journalistic world, while photographers often construct marginalized identities. The photographers are often free of the professional norms that obligate the correspondents, and free as well to express themselves in ways that others would call “crazy” in order to take the ultimate photo. Correspondents can report a war from a city, a neighborhood, or a hotel room, but photographers need always to be in the center of the action.
In his study of foreign journalists covering the conflict in El Salvador, the anthropologist Mark Pedelty identified the following three types of war photographers:(1)
The adventurer: Photographers of this type have many of the characteristics of the “manly” myth of the war photographer. The adventurer sees the war as “fun,” and develops a kind of addiction in her or his quest for the perfect photo, the most authentic image that will show the real drama of the battle. He or she (but usually “he”) is looking for graphic images and is often frustrated with the editors for censoring the photos and limiting him from showing more blood and violence.
The anthropologist: This photographer is characterized mostly through an interest in people and issues regardless of their news value, and through a keen motivation to understand and interpret the meaning of specific situations. Pedelty describes this type of photographer as a humanist who is constantly frustrated by the editor’s appetite for violent photos. He or she usually works alone.
The concerned photographer: This photographer is most readily identified through a need to depict the war and to constantly look for ways to present the photos that couldn’t be shown in the course of routine journalistic work. The concerned photographer usually finds the way to show these images through books, articles, or exhibitions of his work.
Regardless of their role, all photojournalists face several fundamental questions when practicing their craft: Where should the photographer, who is both an objective professional and subjective participant, position himself? How much distance should a photojournalist have from the story being covered? Should the role be one of critic, artist, interpreter, or witness?
These questions are closely linked to two major, interconnected issues that pertain to responsibility. The first has to do with the degree to which a photograph can and actually does represent a situation, and the photographer’s role in constructing this representation. The second issue deals with the responsibility of the photographer to function as a witness of the events and to transfer testimony to the viewer, while simultaneously factoring into account personal viewpoints, professional culture, situational contexts, and aspects of aesthetics. Both issues reflect the photographer’s choice of point of view—what to shoot versus what not to shoot, what to publish or not, and how the subjects will be perceived in the photos.
To illustrate these issues, we use the example of Israel, a center of international news coverage since the 1940s. We draw on the experiences of two photojournalists, one a European and one an Israeli, who between them, covered conflicts throughout the world. The European photographer has moved from one war zone to another and photographed most of the major international conflicts for 30 years. The Israeli photographer worked for different domestic newspapers at different stages in his career. From the beginning, he knew he was interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that he wanted to focus on the Palestinian perspective. Although these professionals do not necessarily represent all photojournalists, they do provide a glimpse into the world of photojournalism and the complex decisions that can arise therein.
The Al-Aqsa Intifada, which began in 2001, occurred after the regional ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia, as well as the first Intifada in Israel, had taken place. In the context of these international ethnic conflicts, the Al-Aqsa Intifada was viewed differently from Israel’s traditional wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, in terms of world perceptions and media coverage. Wars are often viewed as having clear-cut aggressors and victims and identifiable and morally defensible values.
Contemporary ethnic conflicts are more ambiguous and are often linked to struggles sometimes dating to antiquity. They often occur within civilian populations, and combine “legitimate” war activities with “illegitimate” terrorist acts. They are framed in the press either as idealistic manifestations of struggles for national identity and autonomy or as senseless and morally indefensible slaughter. Whereas news coverage of traditional wars concentrated on battlefields and armies, coverage of ethnic conflicts, such as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, occurs in neighborhoods and businesses. Suicide bombings in concentrations of civilian populations, involving women, children, and the elderly, are covered pervasively. Related issues such as “the Wall” and the pullout from Gaza are also given prominence.
The Palestinian side is covered in the Israeli press through Israeli eyes. Israeli newspapers will not show graphic photos of bodies or the badly wounded. They show “softer” photos of the wounded, results of the events and mostly visual metaphors that symbolize the event—shoes left in the area, the remains of a bombed bus, or soldiers crawling in the sand looking with their hands for the remains of their friends. They show an angry Palestinian funeral crowd after an Israeli attack; the ruins of houses in the West Bank or Gaza; or a sandal of the Sheik Yassin, the former leader of the Hamas, a fundamentalist political party, after he was assassinated by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Rarely will mainstream Israeli newspapers show the faces or tell the stories of suffering Palestinians.
The photographer Oded Yeda’aya, who studied the work of well-known Israeli photojournalist Micha Bar-Am, claims that the origins of the Israeli news photographers are different from those of the foreign photographers.(2) While the stereotypical war photographer is a person who will sacrifice everything for the ultimate photo, the Israeli photojournalist traditionally has been willing to sacrifice everything for his country. The Israeli photographer was a fighter in the army, a man with a cause who sometimes was on the battlefield as a soldier and other times as a professional news photographer. He was totally committed to the ideal of Israel’s existence and the need for a strong defense. The photographic work of the Israeli hero photojournalist has, therefore, usually been an extension of what he did during his military service. But the hero photographer’s status is not as clear today as it used to be; the status of the photographer as a hero witness is in conflict today because the reality has changed and the values have become ambiguous. Defining the bad versus good, the weak versus strong, and the justification of the conflict is more complex today. As a result, today’s Israeli hero photojournalists concern themselves less with the former ideals of Zionism and more with issues of professionalism within the culture of photojournalism, according to Yeda’aya.
One of the major questions asked about news coverage is whether what is shown or reported accurately represents a situation or context of a conflict. The two photographers interviewed answer this question in different ways. To the Israeli photographer, photogenic events do not necessarily convey depth and meaning of the situation at hand:
. . . when I started working as a photographer, I was very attracted to photo events . . . often confrontations between [Israeli] soldiers and Palestinians, being beaten. Suddenly, in the past few years I realized that the suffering is not expressed there. The real suffering is not there. The real suffering is found in some kind of an intolerable, humiliating, restrictive daily situation, and in recent years I’m trying to photograph this. Not events, I mean. I’m less interested in them. I’m more interested in the barriers(3) series I was working on for the past three years. Because the barrier is not an event; it’s a routine, a way of life . . . and it is a continuing restriction and humiliation. If your husband or your partner slaps you in the face it’s a terrible thing. I think it’s worse to live every day with someone that will potentially slap you.
The Israeli photojournalist does not seek objectivity. His work has a clear political agenda and he acknowledges it as political. His work also is subjective and he refers to the events from a personal point of view. He won’t send photos that don’t “properly” represent the relationships between the Israelis and the Palestinians. For example, he refused to use a photo of Israeli soldiers playing soccer with Palestinian children because even though it was a real event, he thought it didn’t reflect the situation authentically.
The European photographer does not come with as clear a political agenda as the Israeli photographer. Nevertheless, when he shoots a news event he asks himself the same question, i.e., whether a photo of some slice of reality is representative of the overall situation or at least does justice to it. The following story is illustrative of this mindset:
One day I’m on a frontline on a hill in southern Lebanon. And there is a priest . . . in the old way, you know, in a robe. . . . Suddenly he gets to this hill, and he sees on the other side of the valley his church burning. The village he just left, his church burning. The Arabs have just taken off, and he takes a machine gun of the Falanga and he opens fire, in his robe, and he is shooting. Great picture! I react as a photographer. I take the picture. I send the film. And the next day he finds me. I’m sleeping with the army guys down in the house. And he says, ‘I want to talk to you.’ And he lights a candle and he speaks and he says, ‘I’m a young priest . . . I’m a priest but I’m young. And I reacted to my church. It was the devil that was talking. I don’t like the Muslims, but in our villages they have always respected the priest. They have never killed a priest. If this picture is shown around the world, they’ll kill every priest. . . .’ So I called Newsweek and I said: ‘You can use any picture I have except that one,’ and they answered me: ‘It’s a great fucking picture! You’re gonna lose $10,000 if we don’t use this picture.’ I said: ‘Fuck the $10,000. It represents the act of one man for about three minutes. It doesn’t represent the general idea of the whole conflict. So cut that picture. Take it off.’
Whereas both photographers are concerned about the representation of their works, they differ in terms of the degree to which they see themselves as “witnesses” at a scene of conflict. The European photographer we interviewed sees his main goal as telling the stories of others:
I’m just a witness that uses any means possible to tell the story. I shouldn’t say this but I don’t really care about photography. I just use a camera. Like I use a pen. Like I use a movie camera. I . . . I don’t really care about photography. . . . So . . . for me it’s just a way of telling the story. . . . They use me, they see me as a witness . . . the soldiers, the civilians, the kids, the old people. When I’m in Ramallah and this house has been destroyed and they see the camera, the woman will rush to me and . . . talk! When I see an Israeli soldier wounded, his friends will talk to me! They need to talk to somebody. So it’s known to other people. So first it’s them, and then maybe me through my . . . through being their witness. But for that you have to be very careful. You have to put aside your own feelings. You can’t be emotional. You can be sensitive but not emotional. Because otherwise they are emotional. If you are emotional then you lose your perspective. Then you are just like them! You know.
The Israeli photographer, on the other hand, refuses to see himself as a witness and resents attempts to treat photographers as professional witnesses or the camera as an objective tool to capture reality:(4)
The subject of witnessing is very problematic when we refer to photos. Because . . .first of all, this testimony is so stammering and so partial that nobody in the world would accept it as testimony. I mean, if someone would come on the stand and say: yes, I saw him shooting the guy. Then the judge or the lawyer that would have had this dialogue with him, or that interrogation, would tell him: and what happened a moment earlier? I don’t have that ‘moment earlier.’ What I have is 1/125 of a second! Don’t ask me about a moment earlier and don’t ask me about the moment later! I don’t have it. Which means that in terms of witnessing, it’s already very problematic. . . . My camera is part of the event and in that sense I’m part of the crime . . . the event always changes because of the camera’s presence, so I’m part of the crime and part of the crime planners. And sometimes I’m the reason for an event. . . . I mean, it’s possible that some event wouldn’t happen without the press. . . . As unpleasant as it is, you take part in a game that is too big for you in the sense that you can’t control much of it . . . or what you do or what you are used for.
The experiences of war photographers who have worked in Israel are unique in some ways, and universal in others. Regardless of locale, the job of a war photographer is a daunting one, both in terms of the potential for physical harm as well as the burden of responsibility. A war photographer has a responsibility to capture fleeting images that will, over time, become the definitive historical record of an event and potentially influence public policy decisions on the other side of the world. He or she is responsible for providing firsthand visual accounts to editors and media consumers who have only secondhand access to information. He or she must sift through a potentially infinite set of possible images and, through an internal calculus, select only those that are congruent with a personal worldview and expectations of a professional culture.
But the notion of responsibility does not end with the photojournalist; media consumers have a responsibility to understand that the “visual bites” that they are seeing are not statistically faithful representations of some faraway reality. In the words of one of the photojournalists we interviewed:
How many photos do you remember from the Vietnam War? After we try to remember how many photos, we will talk about 50 photos, and I am including movie posters in that. The average shooting speed is 1/125 of a second, which means we remember half a second from a war that lasted how many years—12? 13? And you want to talk to me about the relation between photography and reality? There is no relation. You are part of an event that lasts for a long time, but you perceive in parts of a second. You shoot a very narrow angle of an event that has 360 degrees. You shoot a very colorful event in black and white, an event that has noises to which you are completely deaf, an event with smells that you can’t convey. The photo is some kind of reference to an event, but not more than that. It is some kind of reminder, a trace.
The photograph is real, but not necessarily authentic; it is a sampling of experience, but not necessarily representative; it is subjective, but still captures a piece of what has transpired.
Vered Seidmann and Charles T. Salmon—December 2005.
Vered Seidmann is an instructor at the College of Social Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing. In Israel she taught at Tel-Aviv University, the Open University, Sapir College, and the College of Management. Charles T. Salmon is Dean of the School of Communication Arts & Sciences at Michigan State University.
1 Pedelty, Mark. War Stories: The Culture of Foreign Correspondents (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).
2 Yeda’aya, Oded. “The Rhetoric of the Mythology: On the Photography of Micha Bar-Am,” Studio,2000, Vol. 113, pp. 21-33 (in Hebrew).
3 The photographer does not refer here to the wall. Unlike the wall, barriers can move from one location to another, according to the army’s needs.
4 See the discussion at: Peters, J. D., “Witnessing,” in Media, Culture & Society, 2001, Vol. 23, pp. 707-723.