More on Mickey in the Land of the Cedars

The discussion between Errol Morris and Ben Curtis in the New York Times continues today with a deeper look at “posing” photographs and how the news is made.

Here’s a particularly useful passage about posing, context and the reader’s intelligence:

ERROL MORRIS: We don’t even really know clearly when we make the accusation of posing exactly what the claim is, except we are supposed to know, “That’s a no-no. That’s a bad thing.”

BEN CURTIS: That’s true. There’s no single definition of posing. When the president is photographed at the White House is that posing? He’s posing for the cameras. The photographers know that he’s posing for the cameras. And I find there’s a bit of a difference, at least amongst the photographic community in Europe and America on this. Okay, you have the British prime minister outside No. 10 Downing Street, and he’s doing a photo call, shaking hands with some visiting diplomat. They’re both looking at the camera and not each other when they’re shaking hands. The photographers know they’re posing. Is that illegitimate? That’s a question.

ERROL MORRIS: The answer is, of course not. Portraits, for example, are all posed.

BEN CURTIS: My feeling is: you have to credit the reader with a certain amount of intelligence. And the reader knows what these situations are like. They know that inside No. 10 Downing Street, the photographer wasn’t passing through on his way to the shop and happened to come across a candid picture. But in a war zone, different standards apply.

ERROL MORRIS: I would describe it somewhat differently. We know that certain conventions apply. We know that the photograph of the Prime Minister is posed in a way that satisfies certain conventions, certain expectations. The Mickey photograph is different. When we ask whether the Mickey was posed, aren’t we asking questions about how it got there and what its presence in the scene means. Was a child killed? Was the Israeli bombardment justified? And if so, under what circumstances? We want context. We want additional information.

And another one:

Some people are suggesting that you put the Mickey Mouse in the rubble?

Mickey in RubbleBen Curtis/Associated Press

BEN CURTIS: That’s what the allegation is, yes. Either I put it there or I moved it from somewhere else in order to get a visual effect. I don’t think it’s that great a picture, so I can’t imagine moving it from somewhere else to this particular position, in this position where it is, it’s not really visually that great a position. You have a lot of empty space in the middle between the Mickey Mouse and the building, which, if you’re looking for a single image that says something, you don’t necessarily want a lot of empty space.

ERROL MORRIS: I like this as a new genre: talking to photographers about why their images are no good.

BEN CURTIS: I’m looking through the [other Mickey Mouse] pictures. I arrived. I took a straight shot, looking straight down on it from about, with no background at all. That doesn’t work to me, because it could be in LA; it could be in a garbage dump. There’s no context to it. The first two images are the one that you’ve got there. And then, after that, I put the camera lower to the ground to get the Mickey Mouse close visually to the burned-out building. So that I can get a tighter crop without the empty space in the middle. But looking at my pictures, it wasn’t sharp. I was trying to crouch down on the ground. It was late-ish afternoon at this point, and I’m shooting at a 30th of a second, and I was trying to shoot a very small aperture to get everything in focus. And bear in mind, I’m carrying two cameras, a belt full of lenses, a bullet proof vest, and a helmet. It’s hard to crouch down and maintain a very stable position for the camera. So all of those pictures didn’t come out, which is why I didn’t use them.

ERROL MORRIS: Did you put the camera on the ground and take a picture? That’s what I would do.

BEN CURTIS: Well, the problem with that was the Mickey Mouse doesn’t look like a Mickey Mouse, because you don’t see his face. You only see the side of him. And it’s not —

ERROL MORRIS: That makes complete sense, yes.

BEN CURTIS: I didn’t get them sharp. There was movement blur in them, so it was unusable for that reason alone. It looks like I did put the camera on the ground, but visually it didn’t really work because you couldn’t see Mickey’s face. Now if I was, as the blogs accuse, manipulating or moving the object on the scene, it would have been best visually to move him on his side, so that he was facing me, and put the camera on the ground and got him without all the empty space but still facing the camera. But, of course, I didn’t do that, and so I couldn’t get that picture. Which is why the one that I sent has all this empty space, because it was the only way I could get him in the picture and the burning building. If I’d had a wider lens, it would have been useful because I could have been closer to the Mickey Mouse and still got the building.

You needed a 14. [An extremely wide-angle lens that I am very fond of. Modern lens design has even produced a 14mm lens without substantial distortion.]

BEN CURTIS: I know, I know. But you know what? It’s a compromise. I have a 14mm, but I never carry it, because, firstly, that means you’re going to be changing your lens in that scene which a) slows you down, b) means you’re going to get dust in your camera, which, in that situation, you might be in that place for like a month or two without being able to get out. We can’t even get our cameras cleaned in Egypt, so it could be months. So, I try and minimize changing lenses. But also it slows you down in terms o of the weight you have to carry. You really try and go as light as you possibly can, because you’re already wearing a bullet-proof vest that’s like 10 kilos or something, plus a helmet, plus two digital SLR bodies, 16-35, 70-200. I usually carry a 100-400 with me. It’s a lot of equipment. Generally, I don’t take the 14. But on that occasion, it would have been useful.

ERROL MORRIS: Well, when you said that you took a picture of the Mickey looking straight down, you do have a photograph like that, which is —

BEN CURTIS: I have a photograph of literally 90 degrees perpendicular above him, looking down at the ground, and it’s him with the ground and a bit of broken glass. But I didn’t send that picture, because, to me, it didn’t say anything. There was no context for it. You needed to have the burned-out buildings.

ERROL MORRIS: Absolutely. For example, #117 is a picture looking straight down, a picture frame, a blue picture frame with a child’s face.

BEN CURTIS: Ah, that’s true. I can’t remember the exact circumstances of that. I can have a look. I’m guessing it wasn’t possible to get rubble or damaged buildings in the background.

photo albumBen Curtis/Associated Press #117: A photo album lies amidst rubble near one of the apartment buildings that were demolished by Israeli airstrikes in Tyre, southern Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 7, 2006. Israeli bombs slammed into a complex of buildings flattening four multistoried apartment blocks, including the one apartment that had been the target of Saturday’s Israeli commando raid, whilst a civil defense ambulance was hit in the rear and slightly damaged with emergency workers who had gone to the bomb site to search for bodies being forced to flee.

ERROL MORRIS: If you went much lower, the image in the frame would vanish.

BEN CURTIS: Exactly. That was the situation. It’s on an 80-200, probably the equivalent of a 100-mil lens looking straight down on it from above. But I imagine if you took that at any angle, you’re not going to see the face. Plus there’s dust on the plastic, so you’re probably going to get some reflection from the sunlight.

ERROL MORRIS: Yes. And the idea is to see the frame within the frame or the frame within the frame within the frame.

BEN CURTIS: I’ve got pictures of the burning interior of this apartment, which is the apartment in the background of the Mickey Mouse picture. That’s the one I went into. This is why I didn’t send it, because it’s literally a burning door frame. It looks interesting because there’s flames and charred wood, but there’s absolutely nothing to contextualize it. You can’t see outside. You can’t see the apartment. All you can see is flames and burnt wood.

ERROL MORRIS: But you are contextualizing it with the story that you’re telling me.

BEN CURTIS: Yes, but when I send pictures to the wire, I don’t have the opportunity to. I can see that that picture as part of a feature with a long narrative by the photographer might work. But as a wire agency image, there’s no context. It could be a house fire in Dundee, Scotland. There’s nothing intrinsic in the image that conveys anything to the reader. And that’s what as a photojournalist, you’re looking to do. And especially as a wire agency photojournalist, you’re looking to do that from a single image. You’re looking to find an image that hopefully conveys to the reader what has happened at this scene. And a burning door frame, to me it doesn’t do anything.

ERROL MORRIS: It’s narrative compression.

BEN CURTIS: It’s very compressed. You’re really trying to compress a huge amount of things. An air strike. Destruction. Some humanity. You’re trying to convey all of that in a single image. And, frankly, it’s pretty hard, especially when there’s not many people around.

ERROL MORRIS: Yes. Your stories are endlessly interesting, because you’re telling us about the exigencies of photography, that photography requires us to do certain kinds of things. The way in which stories are told by newspapers, by photographic convention, all influence how photographs are made, how they’re distributed, how they’re printed and published and disseminated, etcetera, etcetera. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but it’s interesting to take a step back and to talk to a photographer, particularly when we’re dealing with a controversial photograph, a supposedly posed photograph, and attempt to contextualize it thoroughly for the first time.

The explanation is often very mundane.

That’s good.

BEN CURTIS: And when you understand how people who work for the media work and the difficulties they have there is a lot of mundane reasons why things happen — light, dust, cameras, trying to compress everything into one image. If the public understood more about the process, then perhaps there’d be less suspicion of it, although I suspect that’s probably not the case.

ERROL MORRIS: I suspect they would still be suspicious.

Good explanations here of what goes into a photograph for a news photographer with integrity. The problems crop up — and this is why news consumers are right to be suspicious — when a photographer without integrity creates a photograph without a mundane explanation. As in, for example, the staging of photographs in southern Lebanon by Hizbullah operators and others who placed toys amongst rubble that nothing to do with civilians; who schlepped the same weary old woman to separate airstrike sites so she could wail and sob for naive journalists about the horrors she had suffered there, as it were; who posed as nerve-wracked rescue workers at sites all over the region and gave fantasy testimonies to more naive journalists, etc.

That brings us to a hugely important element of the news — control of information. In Lebanon, as in many other unsavory parts of the world, information is tightly controlled. Especially in the areas affected by the Israeli bombings. Here’s a brief inside look:

ERROL MORRIS: And the last photograph, 119?

BEN CURTIS: Ah, yes. I almost didn’t send this picture. I thought it was incredible, this bed with the pink sheets standing in this part of an apartment block where the outside wall had been blown off. You can see there’s like a teensy bit of rubble on the right, in the bottom right. That’s the top of one of these large mounds of rubble that used to be an apartment block. If I’d had more time, I would have gone up into an apartment block opposite this bed and shot down, so that you could see the bed and a bit more of the surroundings, a bit more of the area. But at this point, there wasn’t time for that.

bombed buildingBen Curtis/Associated Press
#119: A bedroom in an opposite apartment block lies exposed by the blast, center, as an apartment block flattened by Israeli airstrikes lies in rubble, below-right, in the town of Tyre, southern Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 7, 2006. Israeli bombs slammed into a complex of buildings flattening four multistoried apartment blocks, including the one apartment that had been the target of Saturday’s Israeli commando raid, whilst a civil defense ambulance was hit in the rear and slightly damaged with emergency workers who had gone to the bomb site to search for bodies being forced to flee.

ERROL MORRIS: This is telling you that this is a residential area?

BEN CURTIS: You might see people who you thought were Hezbollah, but do you know they’re Hezbollah? If you go up and ask them, they’ll probably say no. Now, I may be pretty sure that they are Hezbollah — perhaps the way they’re dressed, perhaps the location or the way they’re moving or the way they’re behaving. But do I know that well enough to write that in a caption? Not really. And that was one of the frustrating things — the lack of direct coverage of Hezbollah activities compared to what everybody was receiving from the Israeli side. You had many photographers embedded with the Israeli forces, providing a daily stream of images of right up close military activity, firing missiles, traveling around in tanks — the whole lot. Obviously, a lot of their secret operations, they didn’t allow the media access to, but there was a daily stream of many, many, many images from very up close to what the Israeli military was doing. Now, on the Hezbollah side, there was virtually none of that. Now, why is that? Because it was impossible. Hezbollah wouldn’t allow the media to be in areas where Hezbollah military activities were taking place. At least they wouldn’t allow them to be close enough to photograph them or video them. So, there was a certain frustration. At one point, I remember, we called them up, and said, “Look, we want to cover your activities,” and it was always, “Absolutely not.”

ERROL MORRIS: Hmm, that’s interesting.

BEN CURTIS: There were some times where I felt that somebody was probably from Hezbollah, but I didn’t feel confident enough to say that in a caption. I did a picture, a separate incident of somebody on a motorcycle who was hit by one of these very small rockets. I don’t know if it was fired by a helicopter or a drone or something like that, but a very small rocket that killed the person, two people, who were riding on a scooter. And I was maybe 30, 40 meters, around the corner, when it happened, and I was very quickly on the scene. And there was a guy at the scene with a pistol tucked into his jeans, telling onlookers to move away from the scene. So, he was instructing people to keep back a bit. Now, who is this guy? I’m pretty sure he was Hezbollah, but can I say that in a caption?

The iron-fisted control of information — and downright intimidation — used by Hizbullah to manipulate both the local and international view of the war were stifling, though transparent. As the war continued, the frustration of the Lebanon-posted journalists grew greater and greater, as they slowly ratcheted up their narrations on air to include clear warnings that their coverage was being compromised by Hizbullah threats.

Israelis are used to a much higher degree of openness regarding such matters — despite sometimes excessive, and often silly restrictions by the IDF censor — so the contrast between the two sides’ approach to releasing information was stark. Hizbullah’s stranglehold on information not only impinged on the world’s ability to judge what was going on, but it also actually harmed Israel’s ability to explain its wartime actions to its own people. Like everyone else, all we saw was ruined apartment blocks; we had to take the government’s word for it that they were used to house/hide/facilitate Hizbullah personnel and activities.

…And all that just goes to show that:

“The first casualty when war comes is truth.”

US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson, 1918

“Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.'”

Samuel Johnson, The Idler, 1758