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:


ERROL MORRIS:
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.

ERROL MORRIS:
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.

BEN CURTIS:
The explanation is often very mundane.

ERROL MORRIS:
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

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The growth industry

You’re darn right, it isn’t easy being green. Not when
you’re standing only kilometers from the Lebanese
border. Not when you’re within spitting distance of a
target as tempting to Hizbullah gunners as the
Northern Command headquarters. Not, in other words,
when you’re a tree in the Biriya forest and Katyusha
rockets are raining down all around you, as they did
in last summer’s war.

Some 800 fires were started by the month-long barrage
of rockets as they came screaming into the North,
destroying 12,000 dunams (3,000 acres) of forest in
the process. Together with the adjacent Naftali Ridge,
this pastoral crest just north of Safed in the Upper
Galilee suffered the most; combined, they accounted
for three- quarters of the damaged area.

Sixty-year-old pines that had adorned these hills,
nestled between the Hula Valley and the infamous
Hizbullah stronghold towns of Maroun a-Ras and Bint
Jbail, were consumed in a matter of hours. Winds
whipping through the canyons during the driest days of
July and August carried fires through brush and woods
in the blink of an eye. The conflagration was
relentless.

‘Hundreds of Katyushas fell here,’ recalls Aviram
Zuck, head of Upper Galilee forests for the JNF. ‘We
just kept running from one fire to the next. It’s a
testament to the relentless efforts of the firemen and
the forestry workers that we didn’t lose more of these
trees than we did.’

Dr. Omri Boneh, the JNF forester in charge of the
entire North, puts it in perspective: During the war,
he says, ‘we dealt with more fires than we did in the
past five years.’

The damage was costly, any way you look at it.
Extinguishing the fires cost some NIS 15 million;
rehabilitating the forests will take an estimated NIS
80 million or more. At Biriya, trees that burned were
some of the oldest planted trees in the country, some
even predating the state. Naturally, there is no way
to replace trees of that age except to plant saplings
and wait another half-century. But there are not yet
enough saplings to plant, even with the stockpiles at
nurseries around the country, and not enough hands to
plant them virtually overnight. Just the first phase
of rehabilitating the Biriya forest, Boneh estimates,
will take three to five years.

Despite the difficulties, though, foresters like Zuck
and Boneh are not depressed. As they play their part
in helping the country recover from the lingering
effects of last summer’s war – and with the planting
frenzy of Tu Bishvat as a backdrop – they are
approaching their task with a sense of purpose in a
time of renewal.

REHABILITATION EFFORTS began immediately after the
cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah took effect
last August. Dead and damaged trees were felled and
sold to the wood industry before they dried out.
Debris was cleared to prevent vermin from being
attracted to the sites. Mulching of unsellable wood
was begun, both to prevent soil erosion and to help
heal the soil by sealing in as much moisture as
possible. More recently, foresters have used
improvised earthen dams to prevent runoff water from
the rainy season from carrying away the mineral-rich
ash and topsoil.

The ground is also being prepared for replanting – by
volunteers who have already begun notching saplings
into furrows and covering them with protective
sleeves, by the little hands of schoolchildren who
will have made trips to this site and many others in
the week before Tu Bishvat, and by the government
ministers and captains of industry who want to show
their commitment to the hard-hit North, whether at
ceremonies sponsored by the JNF, the Jewish Agency,
the Nature and Parks Authority or any number of other
green groups.

But this New Year for the Trees is something more for
the foresters of the North, Boneh says. As corny as it
sounds, it is a time for growth.

‘We didn’t want these fires,’ he says, ‘but the fact
is, they have given us an opportunity to make some
positive changes.’

To start with, the forest is getting a makeover. New
plantings will contribute to the variety of ages and
species of trees at Biriya, which should improve the
overall health and sustainability of the forest.

‘The Katyushas and the fires have also brought to
people’s attention the importance and the beauty of
our country’s green areas,’ Boneh continues. ‘Since
the war, the number of visitors to the parks and
forests in the North has increased tenfold.’

Many of those visitors have come to lend a helping
hand to the rehabilitation effort. Some came to trim
healthy trees’ damaged branches, others to clear the
debris so that visitors could enjoy the many trails
winding through the hills and gorges of the forest.

‘When something as tragic as last summer’s bombardment
happens, naturally people rally behind the cause,’
says the lanky Boneh, blending in among the thin pines
during a walk through the woods.

‘We’ve had thousands of volunteers come up here,
putting in thousands upon thousands of man-hours of
work. They’ve come from hi-tech, from the army, from
industry. They’ve been individuals, and they’ve been
families. They’ve been Jews and they’ve been Arabs.
It’s been an amazing wave of solidarity. And we
thought it would pass, you know, after a month. But it
hasn’t. It has just kept going. We’re still getting
100-150 people a day up here.’

As the foresters climb a dirt trail overlooking the
Dalton vineyard across the valley, a small group,
sweating in the midday sun, helps prepare a patch of
damaged earth for new, young trees. Around a corner,
more volunteers are plunging little flags into the
little piles of ash where old trees once stood, and
where new trees are meant to planted for Tu Bishvat.

‘While we are still licking our wounds from the war,’
Boneh says after waving hello to the volunteers, ‘we
are also taking the opportunity to try to form a
stronger bond with the communities in the area. We are
not just rehabilitating the forests, we are improving
the public’s access to them, with more and better
trails, with picnic sites and lookout points, and the
like. We want people to feel a stronger connection to
nature, and we want to encourage tourism based on the
wonderful resources we have here in these forests.’

Indeed, tourism to the North took a big hit last
summer; hoteliers were so hurt by the fighting that
the government awarded them compensation so they could
stay afloat until business picked up again. This part
of the country lacks the grandeur and majesty of the
Golan Heights, and also lacks the sand and surf of the
coast. It trades in large part on its calming green
hills and valleys, which make it an island of serenity
in an otherwise loud and busy country. The foresters
want to make sure the Upper Galilee retains that
character.

‘After the war, the government has had to answer all
kinds of questions about its preparedness for another
war,’ says Zuck. ‘Well, having healthy green areas is
a major quality of life issue for citizens, and you
shouldn’t need the threat of another war to ensure
that people have quality of life. These forests are
some of Israel’s – and especially northern Israel’s –
greatest resources.’

Protecting and developing that resource requires
investment, though – and since last summer’s scenario
of rocket barrages is entirely repeatable, not
everyone feels it is a safe investment.

‘Some people ask whether it makes sense to replant all
these trees, if they can all just get burned again,’
Boneh says with obvious understatement. ‘Well, we
don’t see it that way.’

Actually, they see rehabilitating the forest as a sign
of the country’s civilian resolve, no less important
than its military resolve. Replanting trees becomes an
act of defiance against Israel’s enemies, an old-time
expression of Zionism.

‘The rockets hit a lot of civilian infrastructure
during the war, and it was deemed vital to risk
people’s lives during the fighting to repair that
infrastructure. And why is that?’ Boneh asks. ‘Because
as Israelis, we found it unacceptable that the train
would not run all the way to Nahariya. We insisted on
maintaining our way of life.’

The same goes for defending the forests.

‘Listen, if you can fix the train lines, the
electrical lines and whatnot while rockets are still
falling, why not also try to save and rehabilitate the
forests?’

Israel, the only country in the world to have more
trees at the end of the 20th century than at the
beginning, is already known for its affinity for trees
– and not just on Tu Bishvat. But with so much of its
forests burned in such a short time, and another
66,000 dunams of open green areas and 71,000 dunams of
pastureland suffering damage as well, it is more
apparent than ever that nature cannot handle the
repair job alone.

‘It used to be that people thought that forests could
take care of themselves,’ Zuck says. ‘But now people
see that even trees need help sometimes.’

(BOX) Where Tu Bishvat was born

The secular celebration of Tu Bishvat that centers on
the festive planting of trees began in the Galilee at
the turn of the 20th century, and took off within a
few years as a quintessential Zionist symbol of
regeneration in the Land of Israel. Just as trees
would set down roots in the soil, so too would legions
of Jews become attached to Palestine.

But the momentum behind the holiday – the force that
pushed Tu Bishvat from a day marked primarily as a
starting point for counting agricultural tithes, as it
is described in the Mishna, into a real ‘New Year of
the Trees’ rich in symbolism – came from the mystics
of 16th-century Safed, who frequented the Biriya
forest to meditate on the divine.

The Tu Bishvat ‘seder’ that many Jews perform today
was intended to be much, much more than the mere
enjoyment of fruits native to Israel. Behind the
bounty of fruits and nuts stands a highly esoteric
ritual of spiritual significance, recorded in a work
written in Turkey but based on the kabbalistic
teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (the ‘Ari’) and his
disciples. In the same fields outside Safed where the
Friday night service welcoming the Sabbath was
authored came a vision of the cosmos that drew heavily
on the power and symbolism of nature.

In a sense, then, Biriya is where Tu Bishvat was born.
It is fitting, too, as the area was home to many of
Judaism’s early luminaries – evidenced by the fact
that the hills in and around the forest are dotted
with the graves of rabbinic giants dating back 2,000
years. Buried in the quiet groves are the legendary
talmudic rivals Abaya and Rava, as well as the intense
Yonatan ben Uziel, whose tomb in the spot known as
Amuka has drawn visitors throughout the centuries, and
numerous others.

Not far off stands the resting place of Honi the
Circle Maker, who learned a fabled lesson about trees
that completes the ethos of Tu Bishvat. According to
the story in the Talmud, Honi (who was so pious that
he could demand rainfall in times of drought) chanced
upon an old man planting a carob tree. ‘How long will
it take for this tree to bear fruit?’ he asked.

‘Seventy years,’ came the reply.

Incredulous, Honi then asked, ‘And do you think you
will live another 70 years and eat the fruit of this
tree?’

‘Perhaps not,’ replied the man. ‘However, when I was
born into this world, I found many carob trees planted
by my forefathers. Just as they planted trees for me,
I am planting trees for my children and
grandchildren.’

Finally, to drive the point home about the importance
of such practical deeds, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai
added the following dictum: ‘If you have a sapling in
your hand and are told, ‘Look, the Messiah is here,’
you should first plant the sapling and then go out to
welcome the Messiah!’