Staged Photos Darken the Fog of War

Fox News screen shot of Brussels photographer posing girl. Photo by James Pomerantz
Fox News screen shot of Brussels photographer posing girl. Photo by James Pomerantz

By Casey Bukro

War is famously shrouded in a fog that journalists are supposed to penetrate.

Since war correspondents and photographers sometimes risk their lives in combat zones, you’d think they’d want to get it right. Otherwise, it’s just propaganda.

In that case, the fog just gets thicker. But it is a way to make a buck as media cut staff and rely on freelancers.

The recent Brussels bombings is an example. A 21-year-old Palestinian photographer triggered strong social media reactions. When a Fox News video showed him posing a girl at a makeshift memorial, an outcry arose against the unethical practice of staging photographs.

The Guardian, a British national newspaper, identified the photographer as Khaled Al Sabbah, who lives in Brussels and has won photography awards for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The newspaper also quoted Michael Kamber, a former New York Times staff photographer and founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, after he saw the video.

“It’s one more example of a photographer doing something that destroys public trust in the media,” said Kamber.

Since war correspondents and photographers sometimes risk their lives in combat zones, you’d think they’d want to get it right. Otherwise, it’s just propaganda.

Photography blog PetaPixel also took note: “Staging scenes is considered a big no-no in photojournalism, but that’s what one award-winning photojournalist was apparently caught doing at a memorial after the Brussels terrorist attacks.” The site shows other Al Sabbah photos and gives some of his history.

Al Sabbah identifies himself as a photojournalist. His Facebook page shows him wearing a helmet and a vest with “press” written on it.

The Guardian reported Al Sabbah posting a Facebook apology that read: “My main ultimate goal is to take an aesthetic photo in solidarity with children no more, no less, a photo that shows the humanitarian side. … Fix my mistakes instead of criticizing me.” He said he was not employed by a news agency. I could not find that apology on Al Sabbah’s Facebook page.

In an article titled “Terror attacks put journalists’ ethics on the frontline,” James Rodgers, senior lecturer in journalism at City University London, pointed to the importance of accurate journalism in wartime.

“Journalists have greater responsibilities in time of war or national crisis than at any other,” Rodgers wrote. “The role is vitally important to voters’ understanding of what their leaders propose to do in their name. The world since September 11 2001 seems to have seen a growing effort in time and money from governments keener than ever to get their side of the story across.”

The attacks on Brussels, Rodgers wrote, were a reminder that the terrorist and the military tactician both want media to spread their messages.

Journalists, he said, are at the center of events. “They are targets. Islamic State beheads them. Others seek to co-opt them.”

The Al Sabbah incident might be chalked up to a young man’s ignorance of ethical norms in photography. He describes himself as self-taught. But the Guardian goes on to point out that staged photos are routine in parts of the world like Iraq where political parties own publications, and go back as far as World War II.

The Hoax Photo Archive shows examples of photos that were fraudulent or rigged to show something that did not exist, or were recreated as though caught in the moment.

They include a National Geographic cover photo of the Egyptian pyramids moved closer together to fit within the frame of the cover, the mythical Bigfoot, an Unidentified Flying Object, a giant grasshopper actually made of wood, the Loch Ness monster, a World War I aerial dogfight showing a plane falling in flames, the 1905 St. Petersburg massacre in Russia, a dead President Lincoln, President Theodore Roosevelt riding a moose, fairies and a magazine cover of a menacing German soldier who actually was an Arab found in the streets of Cairo to play the part.

War especially lends itself to staged photos. Arguably, Associated Press photographer Abe Rosenthal staged the iconic Feb. 23, 1945, photo of five U.S. Marines and a Navy sailor raising the U.S. flag over the battle-ravaged Japanese island of Iwo Jima.

As the story goes, Rosenthal got to the flag-raising site after a small flag had been raised, but was ordered taken down and replaced by a bigger and more visible flag. Rosenthal’s inspiring shot caught the second flag going up as the wind unfurled it, with the arms of the six servicemen pushing the pipe attached to the flag skyward. It’s been called one of the most perfectly composed pictures ever taken and was seen worldwide.

Another flag-raising photo, on May 2, 1945, was staged and doctored allegedly to create a Soviet version of the Iwo Jima flag-raising. Next to Rosenthal’s picture, the Red Army Flag over the Reichstag is considered perhaps the most famous photo of World War II.

Photoshop alterations are the modern method of falsification. But that’s another story.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says: “Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information.”

The increasing use of freelance photographers makes policing more difficult. Stringers operate without experienced guidance, and editors often do not know what photographers are doing to get their shots.

Kamber pointed out in the Guardian that 15 years ago, most news photographers were on staff, in union jobs with steady pay. Then came the ravages of media closures and budget cuts.

“Today you have a freelancer,” said Kamber. “If he doesn’t come up with a spectacular photo, he’s not selling that photo. He might not get that day rate. There’s horrendous pressure on freelancers to up the ante constantly and I think that’s leading to more and more faked ones.”

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers,  submit a question.

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