Research findings

November 11, 2009

Photographer Brian Walski was working in Iraq on behalf of the Los Angeles Times, in the early stages of the war. He was a respectable photographer who had previously won the Photographer of the Year 2001 award. During his coverage of the war he was working under extremely stressful and tiring conditions, not sleeping for 36 hours according to his friends Don Bartletti. Walski was located in the outskirts of the southern city of Basra, by Al Zubayr bridge, where civilians were gathering in hope of fleeing the tumultuous city. A skirmish had broken out between Iraqi soldiers and the British, who were manning the bridge checkpoint.

Following the incident, the photographer decided to compose a picture out of two separate photographs taken earlier, and send it to his editors for publication. The picture just showed a British soldier shouting and motioning for the Iraqi civilians to take cover as the position had come under fire. No direct violence was however visible on the photograph and the people looked reasonably calm. After it got published on the newspaper’s front page, as well as on the front page of the Hartford Courant, the picture’s alteration was discovered. Walski was accused of unethical behaviour and got dismissed from the paper.

When asked to justify his actions, he answered with honesty that he was just after a better picture. He did not try to give any excuses. Some people hypothesized that the tough circumstances made him do it, as he wasn’t thinking clearly. Walski said he knew what he was doing, but was not thinking of the consequences. Many journalists and photographers seemed sympathetic towards his situation but denounced his actions, claiming that the incident would undermine photojournalists’ credibility. This led us to question what that credibility is based on and whether that is in fact the real issue on hand.

Following Walski’s dismissal, the newspapers published an editor’s note containing the original photographs, a brief exposition of the incident and their ethical stance on the matter. We came to understand that, in fact, the message Walski’s picture was conveying had not been altered, even though the picture itself had. The editors therefore seemed to use the photographer as a scapegoat in order to attempt to proclaim their own questioned truthfulness. The real issue is not in regard to the photographer’s modus operandi, but to the inexistent objectivity and the corruption that lies within the ‘news industry’.

News are produced and sold in a true capitalist fashion, in a way comparable to Hollywood cinema. It is about getting as many viewers/readers as possible, using blaring headlines and effective images, no matter what ‘reality’ is being portrayed. In fact, the reality that is shown has very little to do with the overall truth, and is generally put forward for the ideological benefit of the powers that be. We are victims of modern insidious propaganda.

The Iraq war was a haven for such activity, first with the arguments for the invasion and then with the constant disinformation and apologia for the military’s deeds. Embedded journalism was the pinnacle of governments’ influence on media: it destroyed any form of objectivity. Although Brian Walski’s picture did not arise from embedded journalism, it was created in the context of a highly criticised and controversial war.

Photographs give us a simplified and superficial view of what is happening. The viewer looks at a portrayed event from a different perspective than the image maker, or even than the individuals directly involved. Since the viewer does not directly ‘experience’ the event and only sees a certain frame of the bigger picture, a photograph can never present the complete truth of a situation.

With the advancement of photographic technology and the increasingly deceitful and fraudulent media, photojournalism’s credibility seems to wane. The generally accepted ‘code of ethics’ does not invariably apply and the truth of a situation is rarely faithfully rendered.

Ultimately, Brian Walski was dismissed for doing his job and caring too much, he worked hard and simply tried to come up with a better picture. He did not change the message of the original photographs, and that is something we have to take into consideration. This applies to any moment we analyse a photojournalistic work; we have to ask ourselves: what is the message of this photograph? Does it reveal anything about the true context?

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