Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Irony defined

I pride myself on my temperate language and attempts to see all sides of issues, but I'm coming down hard on this. It is the height of irony for people too cowardly to serve in the war they promote to bitch about whether photographers covering that war ought to be clubbing insurgents.

J.D., about whom I have many nice things to say, has some very odd things to say about the role of reporters in a war zone. This is a war in which a record number of reporters have been killed. To suggest that, rather than documenting the war so that people can understand, Joao Silva ought to be committing suicide by clubbing insurgents with his lenses is just stupid. Mind-numbingly, insultingly, painfully stupid.
More than half of the journalists killed in Iraq were deliberately targeted by their killers (as opposed to being accidental victims of a bombing, for instance). Most were killed by the insurgents. For Silva to get the pictures he gets, he needs it to be understood that his role is to be an impartial observer. It's the classic dilemma of traditional journalists, unable to influence the story they've been asked to tell. It's a dilemma Silva has a lot of experience with.

BleedingmanSilva doesn't just cover Iraq. He made his name covering the final, bloody days of apartheid in his native South Africa, and I've seen other images of his from Bosnia and various conflicts in Africa. He took the image at the right of a bleeding ANC fighter being dragged to safety after a clash with police. Undoubtedly he wanted to help carry the man, but he instead took an image that will remind us of that fight forever. I'm sure he has nightmares of the places he traveled to photograph ongoing famine, times when he probably wishes he left his equipment at home and filled his bags with food and medicine. But he's a reporter. Not an aid worker. Not a soldier. Not a doctor. He photographs the story, he doesn't make himself the story.

He takes pictures. He records events so that people who weren't there can understand the situation. J.D. quote the National Review Online saying that Silva "openly admires their 'faith, sacrifice… and martyrdom.'" I couldn't say where the NRO got the idea, but it may have come from the book blurb (which Silva probably didn't write) that says "The pictures in this book are … displayed … in a manner that best illustrates a narrative about faith, sacrifice, war and martyrdom." A narrative. A story. Like what journalists are supposed to tell.

ChopkillingI'm sure he wanted to tell this ANC backer not to hack the Inkatha Freedom Party member to death in punishment for his participation in a previous massacre. But that wasn't his job. His job was to photograph it.

The images come from
The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War

by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, in which two surviving members of that club recall the days in which they made their name, won a Pulitzer Prize, and lost two friends. While Kevin Carter celebrated his Pulitzer Prize, Silva, Marinovich and Ken Oosterbroek were covering a disturbance. Gunfire broke out, and Marinovich and Oosterbroek were hit. Silva photographed their bodies being dragged to safety. Marinovich survived, Oosterbroek did not, and Carter committed suicide shortly afterward.

A reviewer of the book explains:
In one of the most poignant details, we see how Joao Silva snaps pictures of his slain friend while others are carrying him off to find help. Silva, like the others, loved and admired his friend and he knew that Oosterbroek would have expected nothing less. Ambivalence settles over this event: Had Silva done the right thing? And again, what is the photographer’s role in such a situation?
The first image above was taken the following day.

This is what photojournalists do. To turn this into some sort of culture war is missing the point. And for j.d. to say "there is not enough information in this case to determine whether or not the New York Times photog is a collaborator," is the biggest pack of libelous crap I've seen in a good long time. Just because j.d. couldn't find the time to find the information doesn't mean the evidence isn't readily accessible. It is. The guy is a professional, and to question his professionalism because he took photographs of the bad guys in a war zone is so mind-bogglingly wrong-headed that I just don't know what more to say.

There are insurgents, they are killing soldiers, journalists and civilians. To refuse to photograph them, to pretend they don't exist, is not the solution. This all reminds me of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, from
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

by Douglas Adams, a beast "so mind-bogglingly stupid that it assumes that if you can't see it, then it can't see you." The way to escape it is to cover your own head, at which point it assumes it can't see you either, and you can make your quick escape.

It'd be great if Iraq were that easy, but it's time we accept that the insurgents won't just pretend we don't exist, and take the towel away from our eyes.