I wonder if it what we had on the NYT front page last Thursday was a standoff between heavy-handed state propaganda and high-level photojournalism. These six images, shot by NOOR’s Andrea Bruce, depict Syrian rebels offered up to the photo media as enemies of the state. The images accompany the lead article representing a campaign by the Syrian government to turn the sentiments of the West to its side.
And front-and-center in this campaign are these anti-government Syrian rebels.
If you read the article, you’ll see how unabashed the Syrians (the “last real secular state in the Arab world”) want you thinking al-Qaeda. It’s pretty much a knee-jerk reaction by now. Offer up a collection of Islamic men looking scruffy, a little diffident (there’s always one with a wild beard), and what does it conjure? Yes, the baddest of the bad: the 9/11 hijackers.
But then, how do these photos resist that narrative? Well, I’m not saying it wasn’t subtle, but several effects are worth noting. If they were taken under pretty restrictive shooting conditions — the prisoners “shuffled into a dimly lighted courtyard (blindfolded), each clutching the shirt of the man in front of him,” the men brainwashed to spout propaganda, as described, the quality of the photos are impressive. Many of the images feel a lot more like portraiture though the reference snapshots or mug shots. It seems Bruce also drew out several men just enough, at least, to represent an individual (either willing to look or under duress) more than a stereotyped “evil doer.”
And then, there is another visual note here working against the Syrian propaganda agenda partly accentuated by those vertically-striped shirts. The look of that baldheaded, sallow-faced man bottom right with the prominent nose, in particular, conjures up a concentration camp prisoner. I’m not sure how conscious Bruce was of that but the effect, but it’s enough to make you wonder who is really doing the terrorizing here.
Additional images/captions/NYT gallery here.
(photo group 1: Andrea Bruce/NOOR for the NYT; photo group 2: Getty Images. caption: The nineteen hijackers who were on, from top left, American Airlines Flight 11, American Airlines Flight 77, United Airlines Flight 93, and United Airlines Flight 175.)