July 20, 2006

Bloodthirsty Children Or Media Missiles?



So many of you wrote me about these images, I felt I had to address them.  But then, I struggled for a long time to find my orientation.  I even did a couple write ups based on the politics and ethics of these images — feeling, the whole time, however, like something was off.

The major problem, I finally realized, was that the moral fireworks were so intense, it was virtually impossible to “read” the pictures themselves.  (In fact, the content was so emotional that I couldn’t help feeling guilty for questioning or straying from the manifest level.)

To get a little more perspective, I started searching.  Not surprisingly though, most sites that ran the pictures were reacting from that surface level.  Sabbah.biz, for example, framed the photos as “Israeli kids send(ing) gifts of love to Arab kids.” The site author even created a mock letter, with Israeli kids actually wishing the death of Lebanese, Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and Christian children.

In the long discussion thread, however, quite a few readers, keeping with the literal, emphasized that the actual target (and object of the twisted love message) was solely and specifically Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah.  Nasrallah, it should be added, was also the man responsible for the bombs falling on Kiryat Shmona, the town where these children are from, and where the pictures were taken.

(To better understand the context, the message on one missile — based on two different views — reads in English: “[To] Nazrala with love from Israel.”  A second message, translated from Hebrew, apparently reads: “I’ve been waiting for this a long time”, and is signed “Nasrallah.”)

I also came upon a post and discussion thread on tinyrevolution.com.  The post was disheartening, setting up a simplistic, cynical analogy implicating both Arab and Israeli children as sick little killers.  Some interesting terms and phrases jumped out of the discussion, however.  Specifically, references were made to these images being framed or staged.  Different readers mentioned:

having elementary school kids write those messages … as part of some State-run activity.”

bringing kids into the proximity of high explosives”

“Israeli girls .. apparently .. told to “sign” bombs”

Reading further, still another theme emerged, this one suggesting the pics were either orchestrated, or at least co-opted and mediated by the media.  Notice the comments and the terminology:

The point is that pictures like this of Palestinian children are continually trotted out to explain why Palestinians are maniacs who can never be negotiated with…. (via boingboing)

This unfortunate ‘photo op’ … with the meme [of] bloodthirsty Israeli children….

You can read his entire post for yourself, but I think my friend Dennis Dunleavy — a visual theorist and critic — caught these photos just right.  His discussion, Photojournalism and Propaganda: Are Photo-Ops Fact or Fiction?, is subtitled:  Do photojournalists intentionally set out to stir up controversy and debate by making pictures that may later offend viewers?

Here’s a snip:

[W]hat the photojournalists recorded presumably was a fact. There was a group of Israeli children gathered to write hate messages on bombs to be used in the escalating conflict in Lebanon.

Is this news? By most journalistic standards, this … would be considered as newsworthy as any other type of staged event. The only criticism I have here – something that I have encountered many times in my own career – is that many photojournalists forget about how the event is “staged” for the camera before hand. Many photojournalists, myself included, tend to get caught up with “getting the picture” and do not generally indulge in evaluating the moral complexities or consequences of a particular event unfolding before them and for them.

In this case, we don’t know if the photographers just happened to come along at the time when the children gathered to sign the bombs or if someone had arranged for the journalists to be there. My strongest instincts suggest the latter may be the case.

Let’s face it, the media are constantly be[ing] used to propagandize a particularly ideology. The visual message, especially when children are involved, is extremely persuasive.

If uncertain how much innocence or spontaneity to afford this scene, a simple discovery seemed to pull back the curtain.  Every email I was sent, and every blog I had viewed contained one or both of the images above, kindly selected for us by the Associated Press.  These images were also the only two representing this situation on the widely-followed YahooNews.

What I finally noticed, however, was that the sabbah.biz site (originating from Bahrain) offered up a third image, this one credited to AFP.


Interestingly, this shot featured not just the children “caught in the act,” but a photographer “doing the catching.”  (Yes, this might be a parent.  Notice the women in the first shot, above, seems to also sport a camera.  But I doubt it.)

In combination, these pictures reveal these children as the subject of a photo shoot, with multiple photographers (representing world-wide photo news agencies) shooting simultaneously from both directions.  Given the context, it seems to appear that the woman in the blue-and-white dress, and even the soldier, a good distance away, on top of the tank, are something of an audience.

Better for them that they see what’s going down.  For us, on the other hand, unaware of the stage (and unwitting consumers of “knock out” information product), we can only be outraged.

(image 1 & 2: Sebastian Scheiner/A.P.  Artillery position near Kiryat Shmona,  Northern Israel, next to the Lebanese border. July 17, 2006.  Via YahooNews.  image 3: unattributed. AFP.)

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Michael Shaw
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