In a war with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands it might seem unlikely that one more casualty would lead to widespread coverage, but the killing of the teenager Reuters stringer Molhem Barakat in Syria last December resulted in exactly that, and with good reason. Many raised important questions about the ambiguities of Barakat’s relationship with Reuters, precisely what support and instruction they had given him, and the extent to which this had or hadn’t contributed to his death. The calls for real accountability from Reuters shouldn’t end, even if to date they seem to have mostly fallen on deaf ears. I think it’s important though that we don’t let anger about the circumstances of this death obscure another related issue which just as desperately needs answers; exactly why and how news agencies use local activists to gather news.
News agencies might deal in information, but of course that doesn’t mean information flows freely from them. Barakat’s killing and the allegations that have emerged since have forced a small degree of openness from Reuters. Jim Gaines, the company’s global editor explained the practice to the New York Times stating ‘We use activists in Syria partly because they have access and partly because you have to be among friends to be safe’ both fairly reasonable justifications in a war where journalists are increasingly seen as legitimate targets. I can’t be the only one hoping this might be the first of more insights into this murky relationship between agency and activists, but whether we get these might depend on whether more allegations emerge which Reuters feels compelled to defend itself against.
Someone (presumably Bashar al-Assad) writes something. From the Syrian Presidency’s Instagram.
It’s widely recognised that Syria is a proxy war, even if the details of who is fighting on behalf of who, and why often remains clouded and uncertain. For some it looks rather like a replay of the old Cold War rivalries, with a nominally democratic west facing off against authoritarian east. For other observers it seems to be more of a regional conflict over a mixture of politics and theology, with Iran backing the Assad regime in opposition to the many Saudi sponsored rebel groups. In either case, anyone who knows a little history will be well aware that proxies have a nasty way of turning out to be not quite what their sponsors imagined. This is something we should keep in mind now that Syria is looking like it is increasingly being covered by proxy journalists.
In a piece published ten days ago James Estrin and Karam Shoumali spoke with a number of Syria photographers including some who had worked for Reuters and other large agencies. As well as confirming that many Syrian freelancers are activists, it was alleged that ‘freelancers had provided Reuters with images that were staged or improperly credited, sometimes under pseudonyms’. Gaines defended Reuters, stating that all photographs and captions are examined to make sure they are free from bias, not particularly reassuring when you consider that it’s notoriously difficult to determine whether a photograph has been staged. After all we’ve been arguing about whether this is the case with just one of them for nearly a century.
Of course it’s also not just what might have been included in the frame which is significant, but also what might have been left out of it, whether in the sense of what isn’t framed in an individual photograph or the broader question of what types of subjects activist-photographers choose not to focus on. Does it seem likely that activists would file photographs which could be detrimental to the way their cause is perceived outside Syria? I doubt it. It also seems unlikely that a news agency would so readily use similar photographs from pro-regime sources. Are attitudes towards these rebel activists tempered by the fact most in the west view the Assad regime as irredeemably vile? Are we more willing to overlook our concerns about the veracity of these rebel produced photographs because on some level we sympathise with the people who’ve made them?
The further revelation that Reuters does not routinely inform clients that photos were taken by activists raises yet more questions. Trading in photographs of uncertain origin and questionable motive is one thing, but a degree of transparency about this at least leaves viewers and publishers with the space to make their own minds up about what these photographs say. We can probably all agree that a photograph made for the most obviously propagandistic purposes can still have completely unintended informational value. Just look at the way analysts pore over every image from North Korea for signs of illness in the leadership, or recent purges in the party ranks.
Papers and a phone. From the Syrian Presidency’s Instagram.
Photography was for a time criticised for its basic inability to discriminate about what detail is included in a frame, but latterly we’ve come to realise this is also one of its great strengths. Information which seems insignificant at the moment of shooting has a way of ending up in the foreground later on, and what was once the principal subject has a way of seeming much less interesting than the thing partially hidden behind it. The Syrian Presidency’s Instagram feed is a piece of rather clumsy propaganda, but as others have said it’s also an accidentally intriguing insight into a banal, bureaucratic side of the conflict. I find myself increasingly fascinated by Bashar al-Assad’s rather tacky office stationery. It’s an element of the war which we don’t see much of from photographers focusing on the heat of battle, but which I think tells us as much, or perhaps even more, than yet another photograph of a man firing a gun at an unseen enemy.
Returning to Reuters, their refusal to leave space for that doubt in the photographs they distribute gives me a sense of deja vu which recalls the regular debates about image manipulation. Photojournalism desperately wants to be an industry built on foundations of truth, but at the same time there’s this reoccurring unwillingness to be open and frank about the ways journalists and agencies operate and the inherent difficulties and ambiguities in the materials and practices they use. As I’ve already said, doubt is far less problematic than an unwillingness to admit that doubt. Reuters had a responsibility to Barakat, which many feel they failed to fulfil. Beyond that the company can also be said to have a responsibility to the people who publish and view their photographs to explain much more precisely how and why they use activists. Answers are still needed, for our benefit, and for theirs.
’Boxing your way out of trouble’ by Ralph Hodgson, photographer and duckrabbit trainee.
If you’d like to take your first steps in digital storytelling and photofilm production then our next London 3-day digital storytelling workshop is coming up, from 28th to 30th April. There are places still available.
The course is designed for photographers, journalists, researchers, communications and PR professionals wanting to develop their skills in digital storytelling. If you’re looking to produce photofilms for yourself or your organisation and want to tell your story in a compelling and powerful way, this training is for you.
You don’t need to have photographic or audio recording experience – the training will include both these elements. Each group of up to three people will shoot and record a story on location and produce a draft version of a short photofilm during the workshop. We will give you the practical knowledge and skills you need to produce your own high quality productions.
So do get in touch if you’d like to book a place. There’s more information on the course here.
“It’s a real testimony to the quality of the training that I’m able to produce something to BBC standard only a few months after attending a duckrabbit workshop” Ralph Hodgson, photographer.
“The guys at duckrabbit not only helped me gain skills in audio capture, interviewing and photofilm production, but also increased my confidence in getting closer to people, and hearing their stories. I recommend this training to anybody with an interest in people, their stories and how they are represented.” Phil Lang, photographer
“Thanks for a wonderful course. I feel re-energised, re-enthused and raring to go. The MSF digital storytelling team is going to take Clerkenwell by storm and tell their stories – no one will be safe from our enquiring microphones.” Natasha Lewer, Editor, Medecins Sans Frontieres
“I loved this course by duckrabbit. I left full of enthusiasm and confidence. It must have worked because only my second attempt at gathering content for a photofilm made the front page of the Guardian website.” Emma Wigley, Interactive Media Officer, Christian Aid
It’s a word we use often and perhaps less often stop to consider what it actually means. There’s a few definitions: a unit consisting of parents and children; and then there’s the wider meaning – all the descendents of a common ancestor. But there is also an informal interpretation where the ‘family’ is a group of disparate individuals connected through their (sometimes criminal) enterprises, such as the mafia, although also perhaps with strong blood relationships to underpin it.
Coincidentally just a week ago I was privileged to have some of my documentary work on rural Scottish island fishermen featured in Rear Curtain (Issue 5). It’s work that is important to me for several reasons – the people featured are ‘my people’, rural Highlanders, but they are also families whose determination to uphold their (island) traditions and wrestle a living from their harsh environment in collaboration with each other is something I admire greatly. These are people who are not only located on the physical edge of my country, but teetering on the economic margins too. This is photographic work that has been rejected by several major Scottish newspapers and magazines, for reasons that escape me. So I was pleased to see it finally in print and gaining a wider audience.
But what pleased me even more was to have it included in a collection of work in Rear Curtain under the theme of ‘Family’. In this same issue is an interview with, and images from Jim Mortram: gritty, insightful and powerfully moving collaborative work with his subjects, but again a group of people on the margins, however this time not so much geographically marginalized, more socially and economically disadvantaged. But crucially people with whom Jim feels a sense of kinship.
But the article in RC5 that most moves me is ‘All the Same, but Different’ by Hilde Mesics Kleven. I’ve worked hands-on with people with Down Syndrome for almost two decades in Social Work and watched families suffer, fail, try again, and sometimes triumph as they try to accommodate a child with Down Syndrome. Their struggles are often not so much against the Syndrome, but the social systems we rely on and which too often exclude those whose needs are more complex and challenging, which forces such individuals to the precarious margins of our communities. Hilde’s work shows the riches that can accrue when they are put at the centre, and may flourish.
And as the icing on the cake, RC5 includes an interview with William Albert (Bill) Allard, a photographer whose work I’ve admired for many many decades. His ability to ‘disappear’ as a photographer, and thus be able to capture little insightful moments of other’s lives is uncanny. There’s a wonderful paradox in this – that the very ability to ‘disappear’ depends entirely on one’s ‘presence’ and unwavering willingness to be wholly involved in the lives of others.
There is much much more beautiful, insightful work in RC5, from Mallory Benedict, Brian Miller, and Mark Krajnak, and to have my own work appear in the same issue as such esteemed photographers is, simply, an honour.
My own ‘family’ has taken a few knocks of late, and despite it all, perhaps even because of it all, I’ve clutched even tighter to my camera. Because ‘outside’ of the sphere of immediate family I’ve realized that through my use of this very peculiar device, the camera, a wider ‘family’ has been ever present. A ‘mafia’ of sorts, whose shared love of imagery, and image-making has united us. Your occasional, gentle enquiries about ‘how are things?’ with me, ‘how’s your partner?’ and ‘how is wee William, is he coping ok?’ have been both heartening and often uplifting, often arriving just at a moment when most needed.
Photography is a strange strange craft. The camera can legitimize intrusion into circumstances, and the lives of others, in a way no other device can. But I’ve realized over the years, and had it underlined over the last few months, that it’s a two-way street, that BEING a photographer opens you to an unbidden allegiance with a disparate group of people for whom the notion of ‘family’ is deeply engrained, and who, by some strange alchemical process I can’t even begin to guess at, just ‘know’ when you need a lift, a word, and sometimes a bit of space. We are fortunate people to share this. So, to all of you, and you know who you are, thank you: for taking the time to ask, and to share. It has not gone unnoticed, and it will not go unrewarded.
Some of you may have previously read the backstory to all of this, and some of my subsequent observations on the situation that enveloped us, particularly this post, about the power of photography. Jörg’s quote, which I finished that piece with, was apt:
The images I’d mentioned were intended to help my partner, and sent at my request by her friends and colleagues, in case it turned out that her memory had been seriously damaged. Luckily, despite some short-term memory loss, she’s got full recall of most things from before her collapse, although her recollection of the two weeks immediately preceding the event are gone. But all the images sent by her acquaintances have not been ‘wasted’ - far from it – they have helped cement relationships, and allowed individuals to articulate their feelings and express what Melanie means to them.
Melanie’s initial slight physical coordination problems have improved – she’d fallen, or almost fallen, several times in the first couple of weeks after release from hospital. The most notable fall was on the 2nd January when she went face-down on tarmac, very heavily, severely bashing her nose and lips and spraying blood everywhere. This was an unpleasant incident, but it had it’s darkly humorous side too.
I’d managed to get an emergency appointment with our GP practice. The doc looked at Melanie’s face, then at my right hand knuckles, at the fresh bruises and deep cuts across them (caused by an altercation with some wood I was chopping a few days earlier). We’d never seen this particular doc before and as he sized us up he muttered “Hmmm…. ah yes…..fell on the road eh….ah right…” and had obviously decided it was most likely some booze-fuelled Hogmanay altercation and that Melanie was the victim, and my presence with her for the consultation was to keep her from speaking about it. There was a long awkward silence as he read the medical notes, then his demeanor changed, as he realized exactly what he was being confronted with. A very lucky woman, rather than a very unlucky one.
The statistics are stark: 80% (yes eighty percent) of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests die. Of the remaining 20% who survive, a very high percentage have serious and often irreparable brain injury, fundamentally affecting many aspects of their lives. The odds are stacked heavily against you, should your heart suddenly stop in the street. I didn’t know that back then. I know it now.
Melanie was incredibly lucky. She owes her life to quick-witted colleagues and a fire and ambulance crew who acted immediately. She has been fitted with an ICD device, inserted just under her collar bone, and wired into her heart. This is basically a safety-net’ should her heart stop again. There has been no proper diagnosis – she did not have a heart attack, nor any blood clot, simply some electrical malfunction which caused her heart to abruptly stop. It may be a condition called ‘Long QT Syndrome’. We await the result of blood tests that have gone off for genetic analysis to find out for sure. But the genetic implications are worrying – if it is Long QT we’ll have to get William checked to see if he has the condition too, as it has been linked with SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and cot deaths. I have to confess my night-time checks of the wee man have been more cautious as I find myself listening closely to make sure he’s still breathing. And if he has unaccustomed long-lies in the morning I get rather nervous.
But William talks about mummy’s hospital stay quite happily, laughs at the photos of us all in the ICU, as if it were an easy ride. Just how desperate the situation actually was, we only found out in the last couple of weeks – apparently the two paramedics that had raced to Melanie’s aid in their ambulance had had such a desperate job keeping her alive in the back of it that they could not drive the vehicle. It was the woman officer from the Fire Brigade who had jumped into the driver’s seat and driven it back to the hospital. And from conversations with several of the rescue personnel from the various services, it’s become apparent that they’d all found it a very traumatic experience, confronted with a young fit woman apparently dying in front of them, despite their best efforts to save her, and with no obvious sign of what might have caused it.
Over the last couple of months I’ve realized that the photographs I’ve taken during this period are not just helping Melanie gain some insight to events, but helping me too. It was an emotional rollercoaster blur for several weeks. And had I not taken so many images I doubt if my recollection of much of it would be very good. One of the first images I took is at top – of the text message I used as a template to send multiple times to family and friends so they knew what was going on. It was taken just after I’d taken a picture of a cup of cold tea, then the view out of the window, followed by an arty image of the pattern of light and shade cast across the wall by the half-open door of the ICU waiting room. This was a few hours after Melanie collapsed, and at that point I’d not yet been allowed in to see her. Using the camera as I sat alone, was a crutch, something I ‘know’ and can use instinctively, but also know from long experience, can be a welcome distraction. Since then there have been many more images.
Some of the most ‘useful’ ones for Melanie show her circumstances when she was in a coma, nothing ‘personal’ simply her hospital surroundings, the view from the window, and the machinery required to keep her alive and to try to prevent even worse brain damage. Having no recollection of anything that occurred for almost two weeks has bothered her, and the images have given her a sense of ‘place’ and some understanding of the situation she was in. This image of only one side of her bed for example – the other side had just as much ‘kit’ all humming, beeping and ticking. And there are many more images of her when she first came out of unconsciousness and was surrounded by family, events she has no recollection of, and she finds it odd to see herself fully immersed in ‘being’ in what are obviously hugely emotional events, smiling and hugging, yet unable to recall any detail of those moments.
Last week Melanie, not one for publicity usually, happily agreed to do a PR piece with the Fire Service for the local press, to highlight the importance of first responder skills and workplace First Aid. Her colleague Peter who had initially administered CPR on her for several minutes on the ground in the rain until the Fire Crew arrived, also joined her for the press call. It was odd seeing the headline on the newsstand and outside our village shop, but William had fun practicing his reading skills on it as we went to school and passed it by. “That’s my mummy!” he’d gleefully proclaim.
But there’s one image I didn’t take. To do so would have seemed such an intrusion, and an unnecessary one. Sometimes it’s worth ‘being in the moment’ rather than outside it looking in through the eye of a camera.
It was the day we visited the fire brigade to thank the four personnel who had rushed to Melanie’s aid: a firewoman and three firemen, none of whom we’d met. We didn’t make an appointment, simply called in on the off-chance they’d be there, Melanie clutching a cake she’d baked for them. We were lucky – all four crew who’d assisted were on duty that day. They were surprised and delighted, then emotional, as we thanked them, and Melanie handed over her cake. A cake might not seem much thanks for saving your life. But they knew just what it signified, and were hugely grateful for it. They mentioned how ‘patient confidentiality’ usually prevents them from finding out what happens to the people they are involved in rescuing, and how delighted they all were that she had thought to come and see them in person.
The Fire crew have invited our wee lad William to come in and see them and have a sit and play in the Fire Engine. William was delighted to hear this, and has made a fire engine out of Lego to show them when we go down. I did take a picture of that.
….well this is only a simple image. A snap of some Lego in a lorry shape, made out of imagination in the way that only a five year old can. It will no doubt be ‘found’ online by some other small boy and, shorn of it’s story, will wander on amusing, entertaining and maybe inspiring. I like that.
But of course, for us, behind this unassuming image lies a story that our wee lad may reflect on as he grows older, and which with time will take on a deeper significance as he better understands precisely what has happened. Often the story we seek to capture extends far beyond the edge of the frame. And the simplest images sometimes have the most to offer.
“I’m leaving FACEBOOK” I announced to the duckrabbit team over a few beers the night before a workshop.
The reasons are multiple.
I’ve started to resent the fact that everything I do on the internet is tracked so that advertisers can sell me crap that I do not need. The photography/videography world is full of very nice people who are obsessed with kit and for a while I’ve been in danger of becoming one. Honestly speaking my experience is the more the talent we buy in are posessed with kit the less they are able to connect with the story in front of them.
The second reason is that as duckrabbit grew I got more and more friend requests from people I’ve never met, or barely know. Instead of declining the request I kept saying yes. I also asked people to become my friend without having any real interest in them as human beings. My page became a bit of a marketing platform. It also meant that my feed was overwhelmed with information about people with whom I have no real connection, providing a stained glass window onto lives that barely exist. Being connected with people on Facebook became a reason not to make the effort in real life. One of my friends’ perfectly summed this up when he wrote, “I’ve known Benjamin since before puberty but Facebook is the only place he talks to me.” Piss poor and true.
None of this is having a go at Facebook. I like Facebook and I have no deep problem with their business model, I just came to the drunken conclusion that my life would be better without it.
Later that night I wrote the following update and then started deleting everyone:
I have to admit I felt sad deleting off people who I really like but haven’t seen for many years. I knew that I would probably never see or hear about them again. But then if I really cared I should have made more of an effort to stay in contact in a meaningful way. The sadness was real but momentary.
I’m writing this at Prince George airport in Northern British Columbia where we’ve spent a fantastic week making a film with Daniel Gallant, an ex Nazi skinhead. About an hour after we met with Daniel he took me to one side and said that he wanted to apologise to me for something that he tagged me in on Facebook. I was perplexed. It turned out that he came to the conclusion that he must have pissed me off and that’s why I unfriended him. Then I realised that there must be a lot of people who think I unfriended them for reasons other than the real one.
I should have written to all my ‘friends’ and explained I was leaving.