Monday, October 9, 2006
Readers will almost certainly remember this photograph by Tyler Hicks in Lebanon:
That photo was miscaptioned by the New York Times and became a part of the recent fauxtography scandal.
Hicks has explained the circumstances surrounding the photo at this photographer's site: Tyler Hicks: Lebanon Caption Controversy Wasn’t My Fault
“TYRE, LEBANON. WEDNESDAY, JULY 26, 2006: Israeli aircraft struck and destroyed two buildings in downtown Tyre, Lebanon Wednesday evening. As people searched through the burning remains, aircraft again could be heard overhead, panicking the people that a second strike was coming. This man fell and was injured in the panic to flee the scene. He is helped by another man, and carried to an ambulance. (Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)”
The New York Times published this photograph in the next day’s newspaper. The caption published in the newspaper read as follows:
“After an Israeli airstrike destroyed a building in Tyre, Lebanon, yesterday, one man helped another who had fallen and was hurt. Cars packed with refugees snaked away from the town. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)”
The problem came later when this photograph appeared among a slide show of my photographs on The New York Times website. The web published the following caption:
“The mayor of Tyre said that in the worst-hit areas, bodies were still buried under the rubble, and he appealed to the Israelis to allow government authorities time to pull them out.”
As you can see, the caption was totally misleading. I received an apology from the person responsible at the website, stating that the photo had been captioned from “…a generic sentence taken from the article [written by the reporter] that made it appear the man was injured in the attack instead of the aftermath. We should have used the caption information you filed with the photo…”...
Readers may find the entire piece interesting, as well the resulting comment thread, where one photographer in particular seems intent on getting his peers to see beyond the caption issue, and into the ways a photo itself can be manipulative. For instance, if this was an empty building, and no one was, in fact, killed, then isn't this photo itself a distortion?
Because even if the caption is technically correct, and the scene not intentionally staged by the photographer, somewhere in the quest to frame an artful photograph, reality may fall through the cracks.
Edit: I thought perhaps I should expand on the issue here. The photographic community, as represented by many of the commenters in the thread, is focused on the fact that the NYT got the photo caption wrong, and that the photographer himself is blameless, since he submitted a technically accurate caption to the paper. This is true as far as it goes, but it's a bit of a legalistic argument as well. It's not enough.
Even with a technically correct explanation, the photo itself (any photo) may allow the photographer to editorialize, simply by their choice of picture, which may, in itself, contain a misleading image as in the one above (the man is not dead, he was not injured by the Israelis, in fact, there may have been no one injured in that particular incident) without including the complete context, the photos on either side of this one -- the "rushes" as it were.
This may seem like pretty subtle stuff, and it is, but it's the source of the distorted reality provided for us by the media -- print and image -- on a daily basis, perhaps not even intentionally. Iâ€™m afraid â€œthey,â€ the pros, will never get it â€“ the fact that at some level, some photos are â€œnewsworthyâ€ because they accurately illustrate events, and others, though they may be tempting to purvey, really belong in the photographerâ€™s back pocket for display in an art exhibit at a much later date because what they say about real events may be so misleading. This is the case, I believe, with the "pieta" photo above. Even the professionals, in their rush to get a good, paying photo arenâ€™t really big on this difference, and itâ€™s probably one that is so much a part of the system, any of them individually is powerless to do anything about it anyway. It's up to us to demand more. It's not just about pretty images, it's about a truthful portrayal of important events. How else can we really understand?