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Jun 06, 2005

Punching Up The Orange


This Sunday's latest perfunctory Iraq story in the NYT seems to sum up what's wildly wrong with the coverage of the war -- as well as, perhaps, what's wrong with the overall American military strategy.  Simply put, there is no context to it. 

Take this image, for example.  The article it accompanies (U.S. Uncovers Vast Hide-Out of Iraqi Rebels -- link)  describes a large underground rebel hideout discovered by U.S. troops in Karma, west of Baghdad.  The photo, however, depicts an Iraqi soldier searching a home in Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad.  What one has to do with the other is a complete mystery.  (What's going on in this photo is also hard to discern.)

How can we account for the fact this picture bears no relation to the story?  Is it just a routine journalistic circumstance?  Could it be a consequence of the difficulty covering a war?  Or, could it result from the way the press has been partitioned from fuller access to the hostilities? 

(Do you notice, by the way, how little mention is made these days about the policy of embedding journalists and photographers?  Over time, the effect has been to confine our correspondents to a stenographic function, narrowing their ability to ask larger questions -- either about specific missions or the war over all.  And, while on the subject, maybe it's time to review the term "embedded" itself.  "Embedded" sounds so objective, it deflects attention from what it now signifies -- which is a form of censorship and media control.)

Another curious thing going on is that we have the image of an Iraqi-led raid paired with a story about an American-led military operation. 


Maybe it's just how goofy this masked Iraqi soldier looks (as he poses for a picture in a role I'm used to seeing American soldiers play much more effectively).  Maybe it's partly the English letters on his vest.  Either way, the question it raises for me -- especially if you read the authoritative statements of the Marine spokesperson in the article -- is just how much this war remains our war, and the ultimate operating power remains in our hands. 

There are other visual elements to consider, as well:

It's always interesting to see how photo cropping can effect a story -- especially on the web.  In the on-line article, if you didn't click to enlarge this smaller image, all you would visually know of this story was the shot of this soldier alone.

When I mention this following point, some people take me to task for calling out a standard -- if fairly recent -- convention used frequently by the NYT.  If you'll notice, this image is super color-saturated.  (Just look at how punched up the orange is, or the baby's clothes.)  The effect is to make the image more lush and visually seductive.  The net effect is a troubling contradiction between the content and its sensory impact.

Also, if you've been following the BAG for a while, you know that I've been quite interested in these wartime scenes of domestic intrusion.  Why is there such a premium on images featuring male soldiers holding sway in a home with women and children at their mercy?  If this situation is so innocuous that this soldier can stand off to the corner and pose for a picture, why is he still there hanging around?  (By the way, if a readers could identify these paintings or posters, it would be helpful.  The presence of art seems to suggest a more important or well-to-do household, which might be a clue why these soldiers would be inclined to pause and capture the visual souvenir.)

Finally, there are few issues I have specifically with this article:

The Marine spokesman states that this is "the largest underground system discovered in at least the last year."  I thought I was following the war pretty closely, but I wasn't aware we had found any underground lairs, large or small.  From reading this, by the way, I don't have a sense of how many more underground lairs there are out there, how significant they are, or what importance this discovery has relative to the overall fight.  (In fact, in makes me think that this is just one more suddenly discovered facet about the all too invisible enemy that shows we really don't have a good sense of who or what we are dealing with.)

(image: Alan Chin/The New York Times.  June 5, 2005 in The New York Times, p. A13)


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Invader, occupier, mercenary, torturer... come to my mind seeing the picture of a soldier armed to the teeth, and protected against any poisonous gases that could have been used against the home he "bravely" entered. All this against the background of an Iraqi woman with a baby, in her home, protecting the baby as much as she can, yet frightened herself.
This picture just magnifies the evil that has been imported to Iraq and the collateral damage to all of us as human beings.
Violations of humanitarian protections of the Geneva Conventions have been defended by few organizations and Iraqi do not have right to voice their protests.

I wonder if the title the Times gave this story, "U.S. Uncovers Vast Hide-Out of Iraqi Rebels", would have read "Iraq Uncovers Vast Hide-Out of Iraqi Rebels" had the weapons cache been uncovered by Iraqi solders, rather than U.S. marines. In fact, CNN International reports the cache was found by both U.S. and Iraqi troops on patrol. A more objective title might have read, "Soldiers Uncover Vast Weapons Cache in Iraq". In other words, individuals found the cache, not the United States of America.

Being a fan of science fiction, my reaction was, "Close Encounters of the In-Your-Home Kind." The Soldier is so covered up with armor and gear, and with his face masked, he takes on an almost extraterrestrial appearance. Could he be one of the Greys? Or is he a Green? Has he come for the child? Are the mother and baby being abducted?

His pose is so casual, and hers so frightened.

In response to Bag's inquiry about the art work: I think I have seen those pictures somewhere before. If my memory serves me at all, I believe they are images of a garden beside a stream, printed on canvas. The two pictures form a mural, and the colors are bright and happy. It looks like there's a little white bridge crossing the stream. A gazebo is reflected in the water.

Another thought: I don't believe many Americans think the people of Iraq appreciate art. It seems we give more human attributes to our dogs and cats than we do the Iraqi people. The media show so few photos of Iraqi homelife and so many pictures of ruins and bombed out villages that I believe most of us think they live in caves and rubble and like it that way.

By definition, if this is the first hide-out uncovered, it is the largest.

Funny business, spinning the news

Orange Crush. Subversive product placement. Very effective. ;)

In choosing this photo for "U.S. Uncovers Vast Hide-Out of Iraqi Rebels," the NYT manages to implant in the American mind that Iraqi homes are, in fact, the "vast hide-out."

I often wonder if the biggest difference between conservatives and liberals is the ability to empathize. How can you not look at this and emphathize with the average Iraqi? How can you not see the incredible contrast between the fear of the mother and the power of the faceless invader? I find these images even more haunting than the more typical "guts and gore" pics -- not that we've seen many of those in the media.

Asta makes an excellent point. I wonder if more of these photos were seen, if they would not, in fact, have a humanizing effect. They certainly bring the invasion home for me.

Kerstin, your observation 'In choosing this photo for "U.S. Uncovers Vast Hide-Out of Iraqi Rebels," the NYT manages to implant in the American mind that Iraqi homes are, in fact, the "vast hide-out."' is brilliant.

The photo which initially appeared as inappropriate now takes on a deeper meaning because of your insight.

(We are also viewing the baby picture of a future terrorist, and he will have justifications for his wrath.)

The town of Karma.

Yes, I expect as the result of our military's actions in Iraq, we shall be experiencing plenty of that in the very near future.

Peace. Johanna

Johanna wrote: "The town of Karma."

And they said irony was dead. I missed that one, Johanna. It went right over my head.

The soldier appearing might be the woman's husband, all dolled up and ready to go to work that day. I think she might have moved to one side to avoid her face being seen, as the baby seems very relaxed and she is not hiding the baby away from the soldier. When you are ruled by the gun (Saddam) you tend to go with whoever has the gun next as your best bet for survival, not any commitment to that abstraction, democracy.

The soldier appearing might be the woman's husband, all dolled up and ready to go to work that day. I think she might have moved to one side to avoid her face being seen, as the baby seems very relaxed and she is not hiding the baby away from the soldier. When you are ruled by the gun (Saddam) you tend to go with whoever has the gun next as your best bet for survival, not any commitment to that abstraction, democracy.

I agree that the immediate feeling is that these hideouts are in the neat, well-kept homes of the average citizen. Actual undated photos from the AP released by the Marines on the day this story was published show a colorless, cinderblock dwelling. Inside a picture of the opening in the floor of the colorless room. There is no furniture, no foliage, no families, no sign its been recently inhabited. It's lifeless in every sense of the word.

AP "action" photos from Operation Lightning (which the published photo represents) for the past two weeks all take place outdoors.

So, I'm guessing it went this way: Do we have any art for this story? What does our guy in Iraq have? Nothing? What about AP? Nothing? Well, something with soldiers and a house then. Ooh, this one with the mother and child adds a human element.

It's just that it's not honest.

manxome, i don't believe it's usually that simple in the nyt editors offices.

diane, your defense/analysis is absurd. even if your conclusions were to be factual, the photo does not present anything to conclude your hypothosis, and given the current situation your summation seems to be completely unanalytical and totally subjective to support a predisposed ideology.

Thanks for the comments, bob. I don't have a presupposed idiology, really, and meant to convey the complete confusion of story, photo chosen to illustrate it, and what a confusing image it is, in any case. BTW, Good Muslims don't look at anything with images of people in them, hence possible "lack of art" seen in their homes. I love the curtain on the TV, tho.

What Iytom said.

It is interesting to me how the NYT is choosing pictures with multiple meanings. The disconnect is there: What is this war about? The image suggests no explanation is possible. The violation is there: When the British gov't stationed soldiers in the homes of (British) American colonists--resulting in a special prohibition later in the US constitution--the abuse was not half as grotesque and creepy as this. Is the NYT edging away from its gung-ho support of the war? Probabably not: As already mentioned, we are invited equally to view this as the image of an incipient baby terrorist, and many Americans will view it that way. BTW the US has no plans to leave Iraq, ever, and the NYT knows this perfectly well.

What Joanna said about karma? What we have done will return to us.

I have two separate, but related thoughts about this. First, that there is a blood price to be paid for our actions, and it will be paid: Americans are going to pay for these actions, done by Americans or with American money or in America's name, with their lives. Considering that American soldiers are routinely getting blown up you could argue that it is already happening, but that is not quite right: Combat deaths of US soldiers are just the merest foretaste. It is going to get much, much worse before the end.

Secondly, as the American empire devolves and the ensuing economic chaos creates political unrest at home, Americans will find these same tactics being used here. In Iraq the US Government operates through fear alone, and has no hope of anything else. That will become the case here as well.

re: the artwork

They look like posters to me. Here in HK there are a fair amount of shops that sell posters like this - often of scenic spots or "nature" scenes to make a drab room w/ no windows (or small windows looking out on somebody else's wall) prettier, or like it has a sort of window. I've seen similar type posters in Taiwan and China.

Diane, putting a curtain over your TV is not that unusual. I used to do that in my own flat, because it made the room prettier (I live in HK, but I'm from the USA originally).

In Iraq, I imagine it might be dusty, so the cloth over the TV might have a practical function.

I am the photographer on assignment for the New York Times, and I want to make a few comments clarifying the circumstances in which I took this photo.

It is correct that Mahmudiyah is about 10 miles south of Baghdad while the bunker complex at Karma is to the west. They are entirely different regions -- but they are linked in this case by that fact that both were locales for Operation Lightning -- which is a large operation occuring in many places over an extended period.

I was embedded with an American adviser team (5 or 6 soldiers led by a lieutenant) that works with an Iraqi Army battalion. Their mission was to raid targeted houses where they suspected insurgents to be. The Americans were not in direct command, although they had a leading role in the planning. This photograph was taken in one of the houses that was raided. In the raids that I saw that morning, in no case were the women or children the targets. However, obviously this woman was frightened and surprised to have armed soldiers burst into her home.

The Iraqi soldier masks his face, as many of them do, out of concern for reprisals against him or his family if he is identified or recognized. He stands calmly, because, after the initial entry, the search and arrests, if there are any, proceed quickly and methodically. Usually the soldiers are in and out of a house in less than 5 minutes.

Now, regarding the use of the picture in the newspaper: it is precisely because of the combination of her fear, his calm, the deceptively cheerful posters and colors, and overall ambiguiety of the scene, that I selected it. My editor consulted me on the choice and I agreed, was pleased that a picture like this with some subtleties and oddities was chosen rather than, say, a straight-up depiction of the arrested detainees, or of the soldiers running to and fro. As a photographer I feel that the connections between the photos and the words in the newspaper need not and should not be literally connected.

Sometimes all I can do is illustrate simple fact. At other times, I hope that the pictures help show the confusion, the complexity, the grey areas. I believe that i am as fair and objective as is possible, and certainly there is no conspiracy from my part to "slant" my photos in any particular way. But if they provoke, as this one has on this forum, then so much the better.

Regarding embedding: at no point are my photos reviewed by the US military before I transmit them. i have been asked not to photograph dead and wounded US soldiers, but the officers asking me this understood that they were asking, not ordering. In practice, they would be upset and might hinder my future access and so on. But they could not censor, and if that came up (it never has), i would categorically refuse. I have not seen any US dead or wounded so thus far this is hypothetical for me. But I have photographed plenty of Iraqi dead and wounded, from the car bombs, and the more graphic images are not published. I argue that they should be, because we should not censor ourselves.

sorry if i misunderstood and overreacted. it is indeed confusing, particulary contextually as the bag points out.

and the photographer's statement above that the photos and words 'should not be literally connected' does indeed raise serious concerns as to what impression the publication in question is intending to portray. contextual choices are therefore being made to not elaborate on given stories, but rather to .... to what end then? aesthetics? politics?


To Alan Chin:
You do play a role, no doubt. NYT has played that role for long time and has succeeded in “deadening the readers” to the morality issue of the war and occupation of Iraq.
I am curious about your feelings when you are in situations like the one you took picture of. Where are your sympathies?
The violence that takes place in Iraq is indescribable and one picture cannot express it.
Having more information about the military intruder in the picture, as being Iraqi, underlines the fact of the brutality of the occupation, which happens under the watchful eyes of the US soldiers. This is same as Nazi's occupations, where the collaborators along with Nazis worked along and were despised by the population. They were later sentenced for crimes against humanity.

to bob crane: are you seriously suggesting that all you want to see are simplistic, literal photographs everyday, pictures the have only a single theme or meaning? pictures like headshots of politicians standing at podiums, or soldiers waving guns, or houses burning, and so on? i take plenty of those photos too, and they get published too, but don't you think that aesthetics, complexity, and ambiguiety are important too?

to lytom: look at the photograph again. where do you think my sympathies are? the comparison to the Nazis is absurd. a better comparison might be to the armies that were American created, trained and advised, like the Salvadorean in the 1980s or the Croatian Army in 1995. I am deliberately citing two examples with vastly different historical and political contexts, US trained armies have played many roles, in El Salvador you had the El Mozote massacre where a US trained force killed hundreds of civilians; in the ex-Yugoslavia, the US revitalized Croatian and Bosnian armies counter-attacked against the Serbian forces, and were able to reverse aggression and end the war. So, in Iraq, the mechanism is the same. The US provides arms, advisers, supplies, etc. to the Iraqi Army. This Army is under the command of the Iraqi Ministries of Defense and Interior, not the US military. clearly, the jury is still out on where this effort will lead.

The soldiers do not seem to be despised by the population, although that might be true in some Sunni areas. Most of the Army's soldiers are Shiite and Kurdish; as might be expected. The mid-level officers are mostly former junior officers in Saddam's army, the senior officers are mostly former mid-level officers, so the officer corps probably has a much higher percentage of Sunni than the rank-and-file. The senior officers of Saddam's army were mostly not re-hired, after some scandals of former Baathists regaining positions.

to manxome: "So, I'm guessing it went this way: Do we have any art for this story? What does our guy in Iraq have? Nothing? What about AP? Nothing? Well, something with soldiers and a house then. Ooh, this one with the mother and child adds a human element." -- that's about right, actually, on any given day for the daily story. what is so dishonest about that? would you rather that they do not use a photo at all, or pick the one that is the most boring?

regarding the "deadening of readers," that is why i argue against self-censorship. as i wrote, many of the pictures i have made of Iraqi dead and wounded have not been published because they are considered too graphic or bloody. this is wrong. the realities of war are, of course extremely disgusting to look at, and there is no reason why the public should be "protected" or "sheltered" from this. I do my best to photograph what happens here, and it should be seen.

To: Alan Chin
You and I will not agree on everything, especially on how we view the US involvement in Iraq,... the "distant" past, the conspiracy for a pretext to start the war, the recent past and the present.
There is no legitimacy, so I do not accept the training by the invader of the local armies!
There is no legitimate government in Iraq, so I do not accept the "self-invitation" of the occupiers to "freedomize" Iraq.
The bombings of Iraqi populated areas from air, control of Iraqi air space, the high military technology, including use of the depleted uranium weapons, all come from the invaders, without that, there would be no occupation and thus no collaborators!
I do not accept the thought that US armies are only “advising” the Iraqi forces… That is the problem which is being “fed” to the readers of the NYT. Actions of the US forces are not questioned, after all they do not make mistakes, as it would come of in reading articles in NYT. I believe, it is the policy of the military, directed by the US government to do all the military actions in Iraq. The responsibility for all actions should be shouldered only by the USA and its coalition forces! There I equate it to Nazi!

"karma" in arabic means "fig tree"; but I still like the irony


i'm not suggesting, i'm questioning. i love photography ranging from weegee to sally mann with all the inherent complexities and nuances. what i am concerned about is the role of 'news' and the editorial choices being made.

you asked, "but don't you think that aesthetics, complexity, and ambiguiety are important too?"
those elements are unavoidable, but i realize your point as an artist, my concern is the role of journalist. consider the same issues in regard with the text. when a major newspaper is putting out articles in which information is lacking or skewed, i have to say, i'll sacrifice aesthetics without question for information.

by the way, i'm not analyising you as a photographer or your photograph really, i'm analyising the editorial decisions made by nyt and other media outlets. from your statements, i think you'll admit, they have not been serving the public interest to the degree in which they're obliged which raises serious concerns regarding approach.

I guess my screen name should be Doubting Thomasina.

Mr. Chin, I'd have thought your response to this website entry would have been, first, that copyright infringement had occurred and/or your photo had been reproduced without your consent. So far, there's no protest on this issue from you so I assume your consent has been given and no copyright laws have been violated.

Secondly, the "Punching Up the Orange" title didn't solicit any reaction from you. Quoting from the BagnewsNotes article, "If you'll notice, this image is super color-saturated. (Just look at how punched up the orange is, or the baby's clothes.) The effect is to make the image more lush and visually seductive." (My emphasis.) Again your silence on this suggests that Michael is correct in his observation and the photo has been digitally altered. For aesthetic reasons only, no doubt.

And the third thing that bugs me is your email address. I am a bit surprised that your email is not connected with the NYT. I ran a search on the Times and you seem to be more than a infrequent contributor or freelancer, therefore I can only conclude you are an employee, and can send and receive email correspondence through their offices. You state that you are on assignment which could mean many things. AOL is just sooooo generic that it makes me suspicious as to your true identity. NYT has its own domain, so it doesn't make sense to me that it would use AOL for its email provider.

Would it be possible for you to verify your identity in a way that would not jeapordize the privacy rights of anyone involved, such as maybe a small mention regarding BagnewsNotes in one of your OpEds to the NYT, then we would know we're not wasting our time arguing with a troll.

Also, could you tell us just how you ran across BAGnewsNotes in the first place?


OK, let's cut to the bone. i speak now not as a photographer on assignment but as a private individual:

1) the debate over the initial decision to go to war and invade Iraq, that for many people remains the crucial point of difference.

2) accepting the invasion, the overthrow of Saddam, and the formation of a new Iraqi government, the debate over HOW this is done, what decisions have been made and the consequences of these decisions. I would say that at this point in time, with the current realities, THIS is the crucial debate.

3) accepting the point of view from the other side, the perspective of the insurgency, and the differing and competing strains within that, what are they trying to achieve, how they try to achieve this, and these consequences, e.g. you could hate the American presence in Iraq, and yet not condone suicide bombings, beheadings, and kidnappings as legitimate tactics of war. This too, is an important debate.

getting to the specifics for my photograph, and why i chose it (of course my choices are then gone through by my editors: they can choose from what I photographed, they can reject all of them and go with AP, etc.):

Now you have here an Iraqi army that is advised by Americans. They have, by the traditional concepts of law and moral opinion, a legitimate task to suppress an armed insurgency that has as its public goal the overthrow of the new Iraqi government and the American occupation force which installed it and supports it. So, the Iraqi Army has to go after these insurgents. You could say by the same token that the insurgents have, from their point of view, an equally legitimate task to remove a government that they do not recognize. But it is impossible for a foreigner to embed with the insurgents. So I cannot comment on them.

How do the Iraqi Army and their US allies do this? Do they do so effectively? well, clearly not yet effectively enough, as attacks continue. Are they getting better? maybe. Do they have public support? from certain sections of the population but not others. Do they do this in a manner consistent with human rights and respect for the rule-of-law? Not enough. Certainly the Americans at Abu Ghraib were deficient in this regard.

At each step of the debate, you can have a different opinion, you can go all the way back to point 1 above as lytom does, and reject everything since March 2003. you could be at the next step, and support the overthrow of Saddam and the creation of a new government, but not the way it has been done. You could go further, and support the program whole-heartedly, and still roundly criticize the implementation of it.

So, does my photograph give you any information at all to inform you in these debates? I would argue, yes, because on the one hand, the human impact of the war on ordinary people is very real. this woman, holding her child in fear, most likely innocent of any crime. Then, on the other hand, the Iraqi soldiers targeted this home for a reason: they suspected that it sheltered insurgents. Were they right in thinking so? There is no way for us to know. If they were, then this raid is justified. If they were not, then it is an intrusive and disturbing mistake, the kind of action that may create an enemy where there was none before.

These are the complexities and ambiguieties that I try to show, which is, I believe, good journalism. I don't know the answers, I can, however, present some scenes, and let the viewer think about it. I don't pretend to be a great photographer or artist or whatever. I'm just trying to do my assignment in the best way that I can.

I am a freelance photographer on assignment for the NY Times. I am not an employee of the New York Times, nor have I ever been. I have been a regular contributor since 1996. I do not have a NYTimes email address. The email address I use here is one that i use on forums and other public arenas. You can see some of my previous work at and some other recent Iraq photos at I will be happy to provide other proof if you email me privately.

Regarding copyright infringement, somebody needs to tell me about this RSS stuff. I am not an expert in this when it comes to the web. Perhaps, instead of debating the intellectual issues, I should call my lawyer?

The photo was not digitally altered in any way except for "burning and dodging" in Photoshop, which is standard. The woman's face was lightened a little so you can see it better, as was the soldier's face. It was taken with a Nikon D70 digital camera and a Nikon 20-35mm lens, and like a lot of digital cameras, it automatically creates fairly "punchy" images, similar to Kodachrome slides, at least in certain conditions. If I had shot this with a film camera using, say, Fuji or Kodak color negative film, it would have been a bit more muted. Digital cameras are standard, there are about 4 or 5 models that we all use and they produce similar results. I would be happy to publish the original, out-of-camera JPG on this site.

I do google my own name every week or so to see where my photographs are published. They do end up in many places, and in this case I felt that it was important to try and answer some of the questions and issues raised.


thank you for your candid responses. it's been really interesting to have a bit of insight and to follow this dialog. i, for one, didn't intend on putting you on the defensive, the nyt, yes. i certainly do find this to be an interesting and well made photograph and will be keeping my eye out for your work in the future. your work keeps you on a tightrope in many, many ways and i do believe you and your fellow photographers perform an invaluable service and do so at personal peril.


NYTimes readers owe thanks to photogs like Mr. Chin, who try to represent these complexities in their work, regardless of the text they accompany. Yes, a decision is made to run them together, but the initial choice to take it is disregarded (and perhaps misunderstood and mischaracterized) if each photo is only considered in the context of what it appears next to.

I am with bob crane in stating that I didn't intend to put you on the defensive...but you know the old saying, on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog (which is why I am "Asta", it's part of the joke). I was merely asking you -- are you a dog or a real person.

Are you this Alan Chin? If you are, I am surprised you didn't mention these photos. They're really quite nice. The one where you (if that's you) portray Bush with the ray of light shining down on his face in the darkened crowd is interesting. He appears to be annointed from above.

Nikon makes really nice cameras, don't they? Being the adult offspring of a professional photographer father, my life is filled with cameras, as are my closets. I inherited them all.

So...How do you like the Nikon D70? I am curious why you didn't choose the Sony CyberShot DSC-F707 (although not new but formidable and at the same current price, a better buy) for your profession. The D70 seems toy-like against the F707. But we can always argue "it's the lens, stupid!" which I can only side with Nikon on that point. I bring up this name brand to counter your argument that everyone loves the D70. Not necessarily true.

If you want to publish the original photo, email Michael. It's his website and I betcha he would be more than happy to oblige you. I, for one, would love to see what else is in the room. I really would like to know more about the Iraqi people, and I would like to see it without prejudiced commentary.

You guys are too funny, as if this guy with the "AOL" account is actually "Alan Chin."

right, ya-betcha.

howdy, Tex.

wonderful photograph! but, i feel a shot of those arrested or some elements of the hideout itself would have been more appropriate as this the subject of the piece. perhaps this photo would be better with a story about home intrusions...

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