Nel mirinoThe Reuters Barakat case and the value of the professional photojournalists

 Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths - Magnum Photos - Northern Ireland - 1973     In contrast with the general mood, I think the quality of photojournalism has never been higher – aesthetically spea...

Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths – Magnum Photos – Northern Ireland – 1973

In contrast with the general mood, I think the quality of photojournalism has never been higher – aesthetically speaking, and for the variety of subjects, eyes and voices involved. Up to some years ago, most of the (photo)journalists had been mainly Western reporters, while these days we can see the world through the eyes of talented photographers of any nationality. One can see this by browsing throught the names of the photographers in “2013: The Year in 365 Pictures” recently published by the Times. 

Unfortunately, this photojournalistic golden age (of aesthetics and contents) is offset by a substantial impoverishment of the media that are supposed to finance it: as lovers of reportages and photography, we’ve been discussing the future of this art for a long time – a discussion that’s getting more and more current and necessary, where authoritative voices chase one another on the web. While the inability of proposing a real solution is quite frustrating, it is vital to keep up the debate, to properly appreciate the value of professional photo-reporters – a sort of endangered species nowadays.

Recently, I read on Reuters “Will a billion ‘selfies’ cause us to miss history?” by David Rohde, which I recommend. Rohde describes the way in which the Internet had a disorienting and double-edged impact on photography: digital technologies, together with the Internet, made photography more accessible and popular than ever, on the other hand they undermined the main source of financing for reportages – that is, revenues from advertisements on paper.

Photo by Alex Majoli – Magnum Photos – Democratic Republic of Congo – Goma, inside the MONUC head office, Refugees during the screening -2003

The entire world of news outlets is migrating from paper to digital, but – so far – the revenues from web ads haven’t had anything in common with the ones provided by paper ads – hence the first ones to suffer are photographers, due to the erroneous thought that their images can be easily replaced with the ones found online.

Rohde spoke to the award-winner photojournalist Ron Haviv, which says that now that only a handful of magazines and newspapers send photographers to cover overseas stories, he fears that iconic images that could trigger the public’s conscience are being missed.

Haviv feels that we are missing the chance to take iconic photos. No more expert eyes to capture them, no more symbolic pictures taken. James Estrin, a New York Times photographer who co-edits the paper’s photography blog “Lens”, speaks about the quantity of images we see daily, about their speed. He worries that today’s torrent of images makes it impossible for an iconic photo to emerge: there are so many photographs that it’s difficult to for one to cut through  the noise and stick out, and even when a photo goes viral, it’s only for 24 hours.

Photo by Moises Saman – Magnum Photos – AFGHANISTAN. Kunar Province. March 2010. Afghan soldiers carry a wounded comrade into an American medevac helicopter after a Taliban ambush near the village of Tsunek, Kunar Province.

Nonetheless, Rohde thinks, and I totally agree with him, that even if there are millions of pictures uploaded daily on various social networks, the photos we are more likely to remember, the vast majority of iconic photographs capturing major events are still taken by professional photographers. As an example, he mentions the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim square potographed and uploaded in real time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram by everyone who was there – well, the most widely circulated image that became the icon for the Turkish protests is the one taken by the professional photographer Osman Orsal.

Rohde then goes on describing how 9 of the 10 photos of the “Top 10 photos of 2013” on the Times were taken by professional photographers, quoting Kira Pollack, Director of Photography at TIME: “There are a million images out there, but these journalists’ images are the ones that are the most compelling.” 

We can’t risk to lose Professional photographers, they’re role is vital. Without their gaze, we all would be poorer and easy victims of propaganda.

Photo by Paolo Pellegrin – Magnum Photos – Kosovar refugees who have just crossed the border into Albania at Morina on their tractor – Kosovo 1999

A professional photographer has journalistic skills, has an ethic code, is capable of gathering information, verify his sources. These skills are enriched by a “photographic instinct” – so that where all of us can take a didascalic picture with our smartphones, he is capable of composing a picture able to synthetize complex scenarios and remain on our collective conscience. 

I was thinking over the profound different meaning of the photos uploaded by anyone on a social network, and the ones taken by professionals: they bear different values, come from different needs, satisfy different necessities. A deeper thought on this could bring both the audience and the publishing industry to re-value photojournalists’ work – hence the unlikelihood of substituting them with any “improvised reporter.”

First, any image uploaded on a social network can be framed as a “selfie” – word of the year, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It does not really matter if it is a self portrait, because all of this pictures aim to build our image (both the desired one and the real one). While – at least theoretically – reportage photography should be “about the issue and not about yourself” (as Brent Stirton, a photographer deeply devoted in social activities, told me during an interview I recently published on

Photo by Jerome Sessini – Magnum Photos – CUBA. La Havana. January 6, 2008. Downtown Havana. Rationing store.

This very important distinction has been already highlighted by John Szarkowski, Director of the Department of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from 1962 to 1991: in Mirrors and Windows, exhibition at the MoMa in 1978, where photography  take one of two forms. In metaphorical terms, the photograph is seen either as a mirror–a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window–through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality.

Obviously, there is no clear distinction between these two forms, and reciprocal influences are evident…but this would be another debate.

Another important distinction is that when we upload something on a social network our main desire is to share it in real time: this is the real driving force, to the extent that if we post something happened just a few hours before it is mandatory to use the hashtag #latergram, or #throwback if the pic is years older.

These “instant” dynamics are the opposite of what it takes for a serious and in depht journalism, which is based on verification, research, control of the sources, thoughts (all things that cost a lot of money, i know). For sure social networks are useful for the speed and capillarity in spreading the news, but speed and immediacy don’t leave any space to verification. And this can be quite problematic when we are dealing with journalism. Authoritative news outlets should be the cornerstones to verify the news and examine them in depth. They cannot – and should not – be as fast as  social networks.

Photo by Peter van Agtmael – Magnum Photos – USA. South Carolina. 2011. ‘Wounded’ soldiers are treated during a combat lifesaving course that attempts to train soldiers to treat common wounds during simulated combat.

Even news agencies – even if their main goal is to spread dispatches and not in-depth analysis, shall be authoritative and verify the reliability of the photographers and journalists they work with, even though this checks cost money and could slow down the work.

Molhem Barakat, a photographer, has recently died in Syria: he was 17, maybe 19 – his age is not clear and his death raised a legitimate polemic. Barakat in fact was a freelancer who had been regularly selling his pictures from the frontline to Reuters since may. Not only a minor, but according to the reporter Hannah Lucinda Smith, Molhem was an “aspiring suicide bomber” who tried to join an Al-Qaeda offshoot earlier this year but was turned down for being unsuitable.

I asked Marco Longari, Chief Photographer and Responsible for the Photographers in Jerusalem and Palestinian Territories for AFP, to give me his opinion on the Barakat case and about the state of photojournalism in general. I asked Longari what he thought about the fact that nowadays the big agencies have transformed and monopized the photojournalism market thank to their presence everywhere in the world and the low prices at which they can sell photos, prices impossible to compete with for small agencies and freelancer photographers.

Photo by Alex Webb – Magnum Photos – MEXICO. Juarez. Chihuahua. 1975.

Longari says that big agencies must bear the responsibility of their role of leaders of the market. For sure, the costs they have are enormous in order to guarantee a worldwide presence (fixers, logistics, drivers, etc), but these do not justify the fall in price for the work of the single photojournalist. Longari is a highly respected professional who really cares about the ethics involved in his profession. He tells me that when he started he was subject to the third degree: it was essential for a photo-journalist to be “bona fide”, because he was representing the newspaper he worked for.

Longari personally verifies the photojournalists working for AFP from the territories he’s in charge of.  It’s not just about “reporting”, it’s also about verifying, and having the responsibility of veryfing cannot be ignored. He then talks about the importance of regulation and seriousness: what bother him the most is rough approximation. Marco urges me not to mix up the mission of news agencies (to cover the spot news and send dispatches) with the one of in-depth analysis that agencies such as Magnum, VII and Noor should have: even though the financial resources for this kind of in-deph analysis are inexorably declining. Longari fears that the speed of our times has contaminated the audience to the extent that he no longer knows wether the public could still take in extensive analysis or a 40-photo story.

Photo by Christopher Anderson – Magnum Photos – AFGHANISTAN. Kunduz. 2001. Taliban fighter seen through the windshield of a Toyota HiLux that has been smeared with mud as camouflage from American bombers surrenders to Northern Alliance troops outside of Kunduz.

I wish tha the audience can still be interested in a 40-photo story, as I wish they can be able to see the difference between a low end photogallery of amateur pictures, and one composed with photographs by a professional photographer. Above all, I wish that the publishing industry will be able to see this differences, otherwise the risk, as highlighted by Grazia Neri in her beautiful “La Mia Fotografia” (My Photography), is to lose our history and without history there will be no society, no democracy. 

Even from a “mere” business point of view, the winning strategy for a declining publishing industry is to work for the quality of the images, not for the quantity: if you want to attract readers, you must show them orginal contents, not “replicas” of the ones easily found on social networks.

I asked Donald R. Winslow, a veteran photographer and Editor in chief of  News Photographer magazine for National Press Photographers Association his thoughts about the Reuters/Molhem Barakat case.

“There are far too many serious unanswered questions surrounding the death of teenage photographer Molhem Barakat last Friday in Aleppo, and sadly Reuters and Reuters News Pictures has remained totally silent all this time, and they have not responded to many direct requests for more information. 

First of all, we need to hear from directly Reinhard Krause, the global director of photography for Reuters, about what was going on there in Aleppo and what Barakat was doing. How was he killed? What were the circumstances?

Secondly, what was Reuters doing employing a teenage photographer in an extremely hostile and dangerous war zone? And why did Reuters fail to include Barakat’s age in their own news stories about his death? Barakat has been shooting for Reuters since the early spring. Is Reuters denying they knew his age all along? 

Photo By Tim Hetherington – Magnum Photos – AFGHANISTAN. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province. July 2008. ‘Doc’ Kelso sleeping.

Several people who say they knew Barakat said Reuters was paying him $100 USD for sets of ten photos and that he got bonus pay if one of his images made it into the LENS blog in The New York Times. How as Barakat being paid?  Did Reuters provide him with cameras? Laptops? Phones? Did he have any first aid training? A kevlar vest? Helmet? 

The Reuters public relations comment where they refuse to comment on Barakat ‘to best protect the many journalists on the ground in a dangerous and volatile war zone’ is bullshit. If it’s such a ‘dangerous and volatile war zone’ then why did you have an unprotected, untrained, teenager shooting your photographs for you there?”

As I previously said, there were news stories that Barakat was ‘an activist,’ and that at one time he had tried to volunteer for an Al-Qaida linked group because he wanted to be a suicide bomber.  Did Reuters do any background check on Barakat or verify him in any way? 

Photo by Josef Koudelka – Magnum Photos – PORTUGAL. 1976.

He furthermore adds: “No professional photojournalists from large media organizations are covering Syria on a routine basis because it’s too dangerous and death or kidnapping is nearly unavoidable. So under those conditions, what’s the moral obligation with Reuters? The Associated Press? Agence France-Press? Is it acceptable to be publishing and circulating photographs from ‘activists’ who are embedded with the FSA rebels, who are shooting the story of the war from only one perspective, who are making photos that are only furthering the cause of the uprising?”

Picture editors at media outlets who have a contract to receive Reuters News Photographs have a reasonable expectation that the pictures coming to them are by professional photojournalists, and that the pictures have been made while abiding by a Code of Ethics and are accurate and true. If a photograph comes into the picture desk of The New York Times from Reuters, how is the picture editor supposed to know if the photo has come from a professional, ethical journalist, or from a teenage activist who is different from the rebels only in that he is holding a camera instead of bomb or pistol?


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