April 7, 2014

Syrian Battlefield Filled With Cameras … But What Are We Looking At?

(click for full size)

What if I told you this photo was more related to Kickstarter than the fortunes of the Syrian rebels in a long running conflict with the Syrian regime?

One of the biggest problems facing visual news, and a horse we keep beating, has to do with context. Add to that, everything lost in cultural translation and the vagaries of this Civil War and one can understand how quickly information value becomes almost nil. Worse than a remote photo, however, is a contradictory one. Studying the pictures coming out of Aleppo, for example, this AFP shot left me enormously confused. The main problem is that the caption only explains one third of the picture, the action on the far right involving the fighters demonstrating for the camera on top of the tank. The caption reads:

Free Syrian Army fighters sitting atop a tank that belonged to forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, hold up their weapons and cheer after seizing Aleppo’s town of Khanasir on August 26.

If a battle just occurred and the rebels prevailed, how are we to makes sense of the rest of the photo, populated almost comically with a phalanx of fighters shooting photos and video? The documentary zeal we’re looking at, people angled in every direction, seems more fitting of a Disneyland attraction or the conclusion of a grade school graduation. Just guessing (and despite the caption), I couldn’t tell you if the picture taking had to do with intel gathering, the production of propaganda, morale building or it was just personal pride/trophy time.

Which brings me back to Kickstarter.

A couple days ago, I stumbled across this wonderful article in Polka Magazine. I say wonderful because of the way, like an antibody, it latched onto and relieved my confusion about this Aleppo battlefield mop up/documentary-fest.

The Polka article, however, presented an explanation I never would have expected. Think: funding raising. Apparently, the war on President Assad — beyond (or beneath) the larger, self-funded anti-government factions — exists as something of a cottage industry. Small units form, often with just a handful of people, brand themselves, then post their battlefield exploits on the internet for the purpose of attracting, informing and expressing gratitude to sponsors and benefactors.

If understanding this made me feel better, I still can’t say if or how much it explains looking at in this photo sandwiched at #15 in a 32 photo Syrian war slideshow at Boston.com’s “The Big Picture.” But then, what the photo does illustrates fairly clearly is the low bar when it comes to context, Syria, and the presentation of news photography.

(photo: Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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