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Oct 06, 2005

Anatomy Of A Photograph

Britonfire

One thing I've been thinking about lately is the veracity of a news photo. 

For example, consider the image that circulated a few weeks ago following a raid by the British on an Iraqi police station in Basra.  Purportedly, the men were rescued because they were about to be turned over to a militant group.  From most reports, such as this one from the Boston Globe, the British were confronted by an angry crowd of several thousand who attacked the tank and set it on fire. 

Other stories, however, are less clear and even contain contradictions within the same report.  In the Reuters account, for example, the soldier who was temporarily on fire said that the petrol bomb that hit the tank resulted from a lucky shot and that the flames were quickly extinguished.  A Lieutenant Corporal, Jo McCann, was further quoted as saying that the news video made the incident look worse than it was.

Regarding the officers being held, by the way, an Iraqi Minister told the BBC that these men -- who have also been reported to be undercover British intelligence officers -- had never left police custody.

If the context of an international image can be fuzzy, meaning can be no less confounding on the domestic scene.  Consider the following example:

If I understand correctly, the website zombietime exists primarily to keep visual tabs on the left wing's radical fringe. (Now, why anyone would decide to take up such a mission -- especially with a conservative agenda in San Francisco -- is a mystery to me.)  Nevertheless, zombie recently published a piece of "forensic photojournalism" which is truly to be admired. (It's something I wish I might have captured if I was actually working with a camera.)

Peopleofcolor199
Peopleofcolor2-199
Peopleofcolor3-199

In the way of background, zombietime had been photographing (diligently and comprehensively, as usual) the latest anti-war rally in the Bay area. A day or two later, zombie happened to see a photo from the event on the San Francisco Chronicle's SFGate website that he also had chronicled -- and much more comprehensively.

The analysis that ensued is a truly worthwhile lesson about news images; about inclusion and omission; and about how much (or little) a picture can be trusted to convey the reality of an event. The image that the Chronicle ran was just a larger version of the close-up of the girl with the "people of color" kerchief above. Cropped as it is, she simply looks like another anti-war protester who is proud of her race.

Because zombie had a whole slew of photos documenting the scene, however, what he managed to reveal (to the consternation of the Chronicle, the way it turned out) was a scenario that was less innocent and also less spontaneous than the Chronicle image would imply.  Not only does zombie provide a more insightful look at this woman's true agenda that day -- zombie also asks whether the larger circumstances shouldn't also have informed the SFGate photographer.  What is especially interesting here is that zombie (albeit, in a somewhat antagonistic way) actually managed to draw the Chronicle into a debate about disclosure and photojournalistic integrity.

You can find the write-up, Anatomy of A Photograph, here.

(Basra referral: Sunil D'Monte.)

(image 1: Atef Hassan/Reuters. Basra, Iraq. September 19, 2005. reuters.com.  image 2: Shelley Eades/SF Chronicle. September 25, 2005. San Francisco, California. sfgate.com. images 3 & 4: zombietime.com. September 25, 2005. San Francisco, California.)

Comments

The zombietime discussion is certainly interesting and SFGate deserves some criticism. However, something jumped out from the zombietime "analysis":

"...the whole truth -- that the girl was part of a group of naive teenagers recruited by Communist activists..."

How do we know this to be true, other than the visual "evidence" presented? Can we read the naivite in a girl's masked face? Does the Communist activist have "Recruiter" written on her shirt somewhere? There are no communist symbols on the protesters, and there is no visible sign to suggest that they don't oppose the war. So, maybe they are sincere, and maybe the communist t-shirt opportunistically latched onto the group.

Did the zombietime critic bother to verify his interpretation in any way? Journalism, even when it's photo-journalism, is more than just taking pictures and calling people names.

The british soldier on fire was shown in a Reuters UK series in their photo section. There was also a photo of Prince Charles dressed up like a really nice toy soldier walking arm in arm with Camilla (sp?) who was wearing one of those absurd hats that makes her look like a peacock. The contrast between the two photos in the series was wild. The leader was playing soldier while the real soldier was burning up in flames. UK, US ? Same thing. Whitey on the moon.

As for the other photos, look at the woman's eyes. In the first photo from the Chronicle (taken by a woman) she looks strong in the eyes and her fist is up to reinforce that. In the photos from the Republican Zombie her eyes are angry. I bet, by the look in her eye and the site's concern of communism, that the person who took the shots for Zombie was an annoying old white male.

I agree with GP that it's questionable to assume that the young women were merely gullible teenagers recruited by "communist" agents. Are young women so intellectually feeble that they're incapable of acting on behalf of their own political beliefs? And is the presence of matching bandannas really a sign of a conspiracy? My daughter's Girl Scout unit had custom bandannas printed up for a camping trip. I guess Kinko's has joined Iran and North Korea as part of the axis of evil. The older women we see with the teenagers could have been their mothers, relatives and neighbors, not outside "agitators" out to corrupt innocent youth. I suspect what particularly angered Zombie was the fact that this was a diverse group of women behaving assertively in a public space and taking a political stance that strongly opposes current government policy.

the chronicle should really have to photograph the whole universe every time. to show the context. totally.

Where zombie sees the tentacles of global communist conspiracy, I see a parade marshal. This parade has definitely stopped, at least long enough for zombie to snap pics of the group from both sides of the street. The woman wearing the bright yellow armband may well have something to do with the halt.

Is it thought control or crowd control?

zombie is a bit conflicted, -- It turns out that the woman giving directions belongs to one of the Communist groups organizing the rally -- if her t-shirt is to be believed,… The identity of the organizers of a large public rally in a major American city is knowable information. That zombie doesn't take steps to find out suggests the truth is less interesting than the gold star t-shirt and the woman wearing it. I'm with zombie on this one, I'd rather look at pictures than look up facts.

And I'm with GP from the first post, let's not speculate about knowable fact.

There's more deception going on here than you think.

Not only did the Chronicle zoom in to avoid including the elements zombie points out, they must have photoshopped out the Palestinian flag and chain-link fence behind her, which otherwise should still have been visible in the cropped version, and replaced them with the red posterboard signs, which don't appear in any of zombie's pictures.

Although I suppose it's also possible that the two pictures weren't taken as close together as zombie asserts, and that the context changed in the intervening time.

... the clutter between her and those red signs changed between the two photographers, people are walking by behind her. One red sign is there in both versions - over her right shoulder, not the same reds, Zombie has an ass-quality camera. The first photo was taken about six inches+ lower than the other, again you see it in the eyes.

I think she's holding up that piece of amber with the spider in it.

I don't see any reason the Chronicle would have Photoshopped the background of their picture. Backgrounds change all the time and if you don't notice them, can completely change the context of a picture. On the other hand, there have been some really good pictures that have turned out to be digitally manipulated.

I understand Zombie's criticism of the visual coverage of the protest. However, whenever you're taking pictures of anything, you are being selective. You're just cropping, but "inside the camera" as my photo teachers would say. Why waste space and decrease resolution if you want to single out an element of a picture when you could just get right up next to it?

Obviously this could lead to the kind of deception Zombie refers to. It's a tough issue, especially at a protest. How can coverage of the event be "balanced" if the event itself is created from bias? Are photographers supposed to go out of their ways to get one image that makes a subject look good, one that makes the subject look bad, and one that makes the subject look boring? How is that fair, if photographers have to constantly go out of their way to make a subject "look" something instead of "be" something? Isn't that just the same as Public Relations? Sorry for all the rhetorical questions, but the context should reinforce the meaning of a picture. You see the picture of the soldier on fire, and maybe the caption will say he suffered minor injuries. You see the picture of the masked protester, and maybe the caption will say "member of a group of young protesters," or something about what they stood for. Looks to me like even Zombie is making assumptions about who was really leading the group. He is right to question the Chronicle but if he didn't actually ask any group member about their affiliation, he's groping in the dark.

". . . people are walking by behind her. One red sign is there in both versions - over her right shoulder, not the same reds, Zombie has an ass-quality camera."

If you look at the contextual shots on zombietime's page, there's no indication that people are walking by -- people are walking towards the camera. It's a march. And if the Chron photo was shot at an upward angle to avoid the fence and trees in the background, that girl in the sunglasses must be effing HUGE.

That red in the background, I also see green and black -- looks like another flag to me.

And the strap on the subject's right shoulder in zombietime's pics, isn't there in the Chron pic.

I don't see how these photos could possibly have been taken "just moments" apart. No frickin' way.

I say we send zombietime on that bus trip that Etan Thomas is planning, and see if he starts to "get" black anger....

The Chron readers' representative just replied to my e-mail: "You're right that they weren't taken moments apart. The background in the Chron pic is entirely different -- no Palestinian flags, for one thing. No idea which was taken when. I kind of kick myself for not asking the edit page to run the uncropped photo. On the other hand, my only point was that nobody was conspiring to sanitize anything."

I suggested that he should send the full image to the e-mail address on the sidebar here.

The problem with the zombietime writeup and "analysis" is that they label these kids communists and palistinian sympathiesers who were wearing "terrorist style bandanas". These are all negatively presented in the writeup. So what if they have palestinian flags with them, heck, even Bush himself has stated that he wanted to see an independent palestinian state. Their bandanas had a peaceful message on them, completely the opposite of a terrorist. And about the communists, what, are we still living during the red scare? The way China is going, in about 20 years it would be smart for us to start learning to speak their language, or stop shopping at WalMart who just takes our money and converts it yuan.

Although interesting and important, the problem with the zombietime write-up and "analysis" is that they label these kids “communists” and Palestinian sympathizers who were wearing "terrorist style bandanas". These are all negatively presented in the write-up. So what if they have Palestinian flags with them, heck, even Bush himself has stated that he wanted to see an independent Palestinian state. Also, you can’t even tell if the people carrying the flags were with the same group. Their bandanas had a peaceful message on them, completely the opposite of a terrorist. And about the communists director, what, are we still living during the red scare? The way China is going, in about 20 years it would be smart for us to start learning to speak their language, or stop shopping at WalMart who just takes our money and converts it yuan. Our “free market” is only making China our economic master.

i don't geddit. i really don't. and i'm sitting here, actually IN san francisco as i'm writing this. uh, like ~ whatizzit everybody is all upset-like about? kid wearing strange clothes, uh ~ communist something... ??

??? man, this shit is for tourists, OK??

you wanna see something... REALLY WEIRD? REALLY??

well now it AIN'T in the local FISH WRAP, ladies ^_^

sssuuuuuuuuuuuuuckkkkkkkk!

oh

man

good shit

>PHEEEWWWWW!<

what? oh, yeah ~ well : i don't geddit.

newspaper? do I look like i read the newspaper ?

zombie time... is that like, uh zeit-geist, man ~ you know the biker bar on 16th and... no? well, i don't geddit.

maybe tomorrow, i just don't know.

here. went out. you'll hafta re-light it.

I just want to say, these rallies are bloody hard to photograph. The backgrounds are confusing, the messages tend to be mixed. Wide shots are pretty meaningless -- people mill around. I agree with the person above who suggested that maybe zombie's pics caught a monitor trying to make sense of things.

On my site I put up a very small number of pics from the same rally that have all the faults of most rally photos.

The Chronicle got a darn good image and ran with it.

Yeah; we can see from janinsanfran's pictures that a lot of different groups were involved in the march. It doesn't look to me like the "obscene placard" has anything to do with our heroine's group, and I don't think the Palestinian flags do, either. In fact, those seem to move around zombietime's pictures in odd ways... the "stage-managed" picture really looks constructed to create the impression that they are carrying them, while the others put the flags well behind, with some other group.

The Chronicles photo, at any rate, is no more doctored than photos of protesters at Michael Schiavo's house were (conservative bias!) or of speeches given by Hillary Clinton (hillary bias?) to create the impression of much larger crowds than were actually there. Sorry, I don't have time to hunt links, but I think both were covered here.

Yeah; we can see from janinsanfran's pictures that a lot of different groups were involved in the march. It doesn't look to me like the "obscene placard" has anything to do with our heroine's group, and I don't think the Palestinian flags do, either. In fact, those seem to move around zombietime's pictures in odd ways... the "stage-managed" picture really looks constructed to create the impression that they are carrying them, while the others put the flags well behind, with some other group.

The Chronicles photo, at any rate, is no more doctored than photos of protesters at Michael Schiavo's house were (conservative bias!) or of speeches given by Hillary Clinton (hillary bias?) to create the impression of much larger crowds than were actually there. Sorry, I don't have time to hunt links, but I think both were covered here.

Yeah; we can see from janinsanfran's pictures that a lot of different groups were involved in the march. It doesn't look to me like the "obscene placard" has anything to do with our heroine's group, and I don't think the Palestinian flags do, either. In fact, those seem to move around zombietime's pictures in odd ways... the "stage-managed" picture really looks constructed to create the impression that they are carrying them, while the others put the flags well behind, with some other group.

The Chronicles photo, at any rate, is no more doctored than photos of protesters at Michael Schiavo's house were (conservative bias!) or of speeches given by Hillary Clinton (hillary bias?) to create the impression of much larger crowds than were actually there. Sorry, I don't have time to hunt links, but I think both were covered here.

Wow. I promise I didn't hit "Post" three times. From my end, it looked like it never went through at all.

It's quite a leap of logic to assume that

A) the woman in the red shirt with the gold star on it is actually a communist (maybe she just liked the design?)

and

B) the woman in the red shirt actually "recruited" the kids.

As someone elsewhere posted, maybe she's a parade marshall directs all the groups. Maybe she's opposed to them, and yelling at them. Who knows?

It's quite a leap of logic for zombie to assume that Communists recruited vulnerable chilluns to spread their communistic message.

...and what a shame it is for the protest movement that so many tee - shirts, flags, banners and slogans that coincidently bear a strong resemblance to communist symbols, flags, banners and slogans too often play such a visual role in these demonstrations. If more anti-war protestors shopped at The Gap, these tragic misunderstandings might not take place...

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