Monday, 11 May 2009

News Photography - Some thoughts on the subject Part 1

I promised last time to write more about the ethics of taking photographs in difficult situations. I don't know how many of you remember the television comedy series Drop the Dead Donkey which chronicled the workings of a fictional TV news station. The thing I remember most was the reporter who carried a teddy bear with him to the scene of every disaster he attended. Eventually people realised that wherever he went in the world, every news story featured a shot of an abandoned teddy bear and reference to an unseen child who had lost it in the war/earthquake, flood, landslide and so on. The word on everyone's lips at the time was: Outrageous!

I was reminded of this when I was sent to Kuwait to visit the battlefields of the first Gulf War, five years on. I was taken to see an apartment block on the seafront in Kuwait City. Halfway up the building was a gaping hole and a large sofa hung out precariously. A warship had fired a single shell during operations to recapture the city and it had struck the building. I was invited up to take a closer look and stood on a landing between stairs and a jammed lift. At my feet was a pile of rubble and, as I turned, I noticed an abandoned child's dolly in the corner of the landing. I saw a picture opportunity immediately and went and retrieved it. Laying it on the pile of rubble, I took a photograph. The resulting image was disturbing with the decaying doll looking like a ravaged victim of war. Afterwards, I put the doll back where I found it.

I never published the photograph, but an artist did a watercolour painting of it. Even reproduced in another medium, it remained disturbing. I had and have had no qualms about taking the photograph. As an anti-war photograph, it carries the message I intended, but others less scrupulous might have passed it off as authentic .

This photograph reminded me of a difficult journey I made in Croatia during the Balkan Wars. Children from a orphanage that had been shelled and destroyed were relocated to a new orphange on the Croatian coast. I accompanied a newspaper reporter and photographer who were looking to publicise the story. When the children were shown, for the first time, photographs of their former home they cried. The photographer said: " Quick! Show them some more." He was pleased because it made the scene more heart rending . . . Now some might dismiss this as an 'apocryphal' tale, but it wasn't - I was there! I also heard a similar story from another photographer that one of his colleagues was not adverse to poking a finger in the eye of a happy looking child to make it cry and make his photographs more saleable! Now that is even more shocking. As consumers (viewers) of news photographs in the newspapers, I would be interested in hearing your opinions of this.

4 comments:

cassia said...

Laurie, I feel kind of strange leaving a message on your blog as I know nothing about this stuff. I'm ashamed to say I'm terrible on current events, politics AND writing. I just wanted to say that I found your last post thought-provoking enough for it to stay in my mind long after I finished reading it. It actually actually spawned a couple of conversations in our house too. keep it up. It's great to hear the other side of things

Laurie said...

Cassia, Thank you for responding to my post. I was gratified to hear it stayed with you and provoked more discussion. Your comments are appreciated.

Chris said...

This is really intersting. I would have had a hard time believe this really happens. But I guess basically, I think a lie is a lie is a lie.

It also belittles the genuine instances when a talented or patient photographer is rewarded with real emotion or a real impactful moment. That accomplishment is betrayed by these sorts of staging incidents.

femminismo said...

Poking an eye to get a child crying!? Awful! It makes real photographs and truthful reporting questionable to all. Chris is right: a lie is a lie is a lie.