Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Faking it

Following the death of American photographer Joe Rosenthal three days ago, the BBC website today has asked the question of whether we should think any less of his famous "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" and other iconic war photos because they were staged. The other two examples highlighted in the piece are Yevgeny Khaldei's picture of a Red Army soldier raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin during World War Two, and the AP photos of the toppled Saddam Hussein monument surrounded by crowds in Baghdad in late 2003.

The BBC is fairly obvious in answering its own question with a resounding "No". As a journalist, and in spite of all my earnest Canadian media ethics training, I'm inclined to agree - albeit grudgingly. Yes it's important to have strong images to capture victory in armed conflict - war is such a bloody business that there will always be a need for moral justification, to ease the collective conscience. But if that's your argument, then isn't it only a short step from restaging events that have already occurred to creating events that didn't happen at all?

And of course, the nature of war itself means that capturing the exact moment when a significant event occurs can be next to impossible if the photographer wants to stay alive. But should the photographer or news agency responsible for publishing the picture be more upfront from the outset about the circumstances in which it was shot - if for no other reason than to avoid being tarnished by allegations of being faked later on?

Finally, I think it's worth pointing out that the last of the BBC's three case studies isn't really directly comparable to the first two in terms of how it was "staged". The two WW2 pics have in common that they were staged recreations of events that already happened, either hours or days earlier. The Baghdad photo was taken as the statue was being pulled down - for obvious reasons it's the kind of thing that can only be done once. While the BBC highlights the apparent addition of Ahmad Chalabi to some of the photos taken on the day, it's fair to say that the most controversial aspect of them is the fact that they crop out a lot of the surrounding area, making it look like a lot of people were there when in fact there were relatively few. Yet one of the first things photojournalists are taught is how to crop a photo to make it as newsworthy as possible. This isn't staging or faking an event, it's simply zooming in on the most interesting thing that's going on, the very core of the story. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if there were only 50 people there instead of 50,000 - what matters is that the statue was pulled down and symbolised the end of Saddam's regime, and that caused Iraqis who were there at the time to celebrate.


At August 23, 2006 5:51 pm, Blogger Paul Anderson said...

M - I'm certain that the Rosenthal shot was not staged in any normal sense. The flag was certainly the second one hoisted, but the reason was simply that the original one was too small to be seen by the troops who were still fighting below the hill-top. Rosenthal didn't get the soldiers to put up the second flag and snapped them in the act almost by accident. It wasn't, in other words, a recreation of something that had happened earlier - unlike the Khaldei picture of the Soviet soldier raising the hammer and sickle on Reichstag.

At August 24, 2006 3:11 pm, Blogger Lady M said...

Hi Paul,

Yes, you're absolutely right, I stand corrected. To be fair, the BBC was pretty vague in its original piece - the first flag raised is described as smaller, but it's left to the reader to guess whether it was Rosenthal who suggested a bigger flag for the purposes of the photo, or whether it was a battallion commander who ordered it as a morale-booster for the troops below.

The US Naval Historical Center has an interview on their website with John Bradley, one of the six men in the Rosenthal photo, who confirms why the second flag was raised and who ordered it done.


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