Tag Archive for The Guardian

Missing the bigger picture as AP fires freelancer

The original photograph (top) and the manipulated version.

This week the Associated Press dispensed – rightly – with the services of freelance photographer Narciso Contreras, who used software to remove a colleague’s video camera from an image he took in Syria.

What Contreras did was wrong. The value of press photography is embedded entirely in its integrity – we have to know what these images represent is the truth.

In this one instance, Contreras broke that bond of trust. His punishment, while harsh, is probably justified. His career could well be destroyed.

But what is deeply unappetizing is the pontificating being done by pictures editors who are no strangers to offering photographers – even those working in war zones like Contreras – peanuts for their work.

His firing has prompted a glut of self-righteous pieces such as this one from the Guardian which makes all the right noises about integrity, but says little about how images are acquired and paid for.

Noticeably, it does not ask why Contreras – a Pulitzer prize winner – did what he did.

Since the turn of the century, the combination of modern digital cameras and the fact that many of the world’s hotspots are no-go areas for western photographers has seen the rise of the local freelancer or stringer.

It’s not unknown for an amateur who shows talent to be discovered by an agency or a news outlet.

They are then given tips – and in some cases equipment – and sent out into places where it is too dangerous for westerners to go. They are sometimes paid by the day, sometimes by the image.

It’s seldom very much. It’s usually a lot less than what a western photographer would get.

There isn’t much offered in the way of insurance  or training or counseling either.

And when the war or conflict ends, there’s not much chance of a staff job somewhere either. The news moves on. They don’t.

Contreras, from Mexico City, was working as a freelancer in Syria, essentially competing against newly-minted photographers such as those described above.

I don’t know what freelance deal Contreras had with AP, but an educated guess at the original image suggests that, as shot, it wasn’t sellable.

Contreras might not have had any other decent images that day either, and thus he may have decided that in this one instance it was worth a shot at manipulating the image in a way that is normally totally unacceptable.

After all, having spent a day on any assignment, let alone one as dangerous and as violent as Syria, a freelance photographer must have something to show for it.

It should also be pointed out that it was he himself that brought this manipulation to AP’s attention, and that no other image filed with the agency showed any signs of having been manipulated in a similar fashion.

I’m by no means accusing AP of underpaying Contreras or of putting him in danger, nor am I excusing what he did. Trying to understand something is not the same as condoning it.

What I am doing is asking the question: why did he choose to do this?

Was it because of economic necessity?

Because if it was, we have a very big problem on our hands.

Modern (and not-so-modern) media businesses are working on notoriously tight margins, and agencies and outlets are trying to get content for as little as possible.

But if that is going to be the business model, then something has to give. You cannot produce good journalism on a shoestring.

It might be that we have to accept a photographer manipulating an image, or a reporter reporting quotes and scenes he didn’t witness first-hand as if he was on the spot.

AP have deleted Contreras’ images from the public database, but the debate cannot be deleted from the public domain – how much are we (consumers, readers and agencies) willing to pay for our content?

And if that isn’t enough to compensate journalists, photographers and camera people for the risks that they take, how much are we prepared to have our news compromised as a result?

 

Here no evil, see no evil, click no evil

When I tweeted a link to a Guardian article and put it on my Facebook page I didn’t intend it to be an experiment, but due to the resounding silence that greeted it, it kind of turned out that way.

And the results were very interesting.

I was about to head for bed on Sunday night when I came across the article, which was about the use of rape as a weapon of war, primarily in Africa.

What was unusual about this article was the subject.

It concerned the systematic rape, not of women but of men in various conflicts, and the physical, psychological and cultural fallout from this most unspeakable of crimes, with a particular focus on Uganda.

Perhaps understandably, the “Like” button on my Facebook page next to the link remains unclicked.

What I found more interesting was that no-one among the four hundred or so people who regularly see my messages on Twitter had anything to say whatsoever. Not a response or a retweet of any kind came my way.

As always with the subject of male rape, it was met with silence.

Nor did Margot Wallström, the Swedish politician and UNHCR figure mentioned in the article, respond to the tweet I sent her in the hope that she would go into more detail on the subject.

To put it all in context, a tweet about David Norris a couple of months ago made its way around the world as everyone from gay activists to right-wing evangelical Christians wrestled with the meaning of pederasty, and the Norris presidential campaign replied to me in person.

Unfortunately I’m not aware of any mechanism that would allow me to see who or how many people actually clicked on the link to the male rape article.

I’m guessing a lot of people did, looked at the headline and went “no, this is not for me”.

Which is a shame, because the only way such unspeakable, unthinkable evil can be understood and dealt with is if it is dragged from the shadows and given the full scrutiny it deserves.

Like the more “standard” version of rape (for want of a better term), the sense of shame must be removed altogether from those who suffer it and placed firmly where it belongs with the perpetrators.

Interestingly, a fabricated story about Muammar Ghaddafi’s troops being given Viagra and condoms and told to go rape everything they saw during the recent uprising in Libya was given great credence and exposure by the media.

When it was subsequently pointed out that there was no evidence whatsoever that this had taken place, it was quietly ignored.

This, coupled with the muted response to the Guardian article, says a lot about our attitudes to rape, especially when it is used as a weapon.

We still don’t want to think of men as being the victims. Men themselves (me included) don’t like to countenance the idea that this happens, even less so that it could happen to them.

It calls into question everything we believe about men in society – that they should be strong and resilient and warrior-like, and never supine or vulnerable or humiliated.

The article in question is well worth ten minutes of your time, and not just because it puts this unspeakable, unthinkable subject on the agenda.

It represents a chance to see rape for what it really is – a crime that has little or nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power.

And if enough people read it, maybe we will begin to realize that the only innocent party that has anything to be ashamed of is a society that still blames its victims.