Embedded with the Enemy

The idea that the press exists to cover all aspects of a war isn’t new. Reporters have a history of putting their lives on the line to cover the events on the ground as they happen. And as long as we’ve had photojournalists, we’ve had daring individuals who go out of their way to get the shot less taken. But there can be a fine line between aggressively documenting events as they happen — and actively supporting one side in a conflict.

Robert Capa and the Spanish Civil War

During the Spanish Civil War, photojournalists far and wide, including Black Star photographer Robert Capa, rushed to cover the conflict. Neutrality, however, wasn’t one of Capa’s aims.

According to Richard Whelan, Capa and his girlfriend were “eager to use their cameras to win worldwide support for the Spanish Republic and the anti-fascist cause.” This doesn’t exactly lend itself to an impartial reporting of events, even though it does result in passionate, award-winning photography.

In a modern parallel to Capa’s photo advocacy, the photojournalists who travel to the Middle East today often arrive with presuppositions and loyalties in place — which can lead to some ethically questionable scenarios.

Heroic Portrayal of Our Enemies?

Last August, I commented on a case in which Associated Press stringer Kevin Frayer accompanied a group of Palestinian tunnel diggers working to illegally transport weapons across the Gaza border. Frayer’s motivations haven’t been disclosed — but it’s a given that he was risking both his Israeli media accreditation and his life in that photo shoot.

Whatever his rationale, Frayer clearly gave the terrorists an opportunity to pose for propaganda’s sake, painting them as heroic suppliers to a downtrodden people — a depiction that is highly debatable on a good day.

More recently, I was tipped to a wire stringer covering a midnight Taliban weapons transfer. In this case, an unnamed Associated Press stringer was on the scene, documenting every last step that a group of Taliban thugs undertook to transfer their weapons in secret in the middle of the night. While it’s entirely possible that the stringer in question just happened to be awake at that hour, it’s not beyond imagination to think that the stringer was tipped off about the transfer ahead of time, and agreed to show up and cover the events for posterity.

To what purpose does it behoove us to send wire photographers along with terrorist thugs to cover their illicit activities? Is this really “the news,” or have we begun to cross over into a world in which the press represents the other combatant in any given conflict?

Keep Your Friends Close, and Your Enemies Closer

I’m not beyond thinking that I may be overly sensitive on this issue — even wrong. For instance, I often debate with Bob Owens of the Confederate Yankee blog on this topic. He takes the position that it’s not unethical for reporters to “embed” with terrorist forces, because having access to information about their activities is better than not having it.

It’s a fair argument, and I admit that it’s persuasive to me. There is, however, a fine line that exists between documenting terrorist activities and helping the terrorists disseminate propaganda. I’m not sure that all journalists covering enemy forces are on the “safe” side of that line.

The big question is this: Does the press exist to bring impartial news about current events to readers around the world? Or does the press exist to actively promote one side or another in any given conflict?

If the goal is the former, photojournalists must remain vigilant that their work doesn’t present things in a biased manner. If, however, a photojournalist or news organization has the goal of photo advocacy, let’s at least be honest about this agenda.

After all, it’s only fair to the readers.

[tags]photojournalism, photojournalism ethics[/tags]

3 Responses to “Embedded with the Enemy”

  1. I think a lot of the best photojournalism has been in the name of advocacy. Magazines often have a point of view on issues that carries over into the photography. Press freedom is ultimately about independence, not objectivity. I think the challenge is with newspapers that are trying to be objective, which is such a difficult ideal to achieve, and also trying to present powerful photography at the same time -- because often the most powerful photography has a strong point of view.

  2. With this post and the one on gay marriage, it looks like this blog has become Fox News for a day. I hope it's an aberration.

  3. The media that the material is running in is also slanted, but usually in the opposite direction. Those who record events -- rather than those who publish those records -- have usually supported the underdogs, because, lets be honest, how often do the top dogs need support?
    It's like protecting the strong against the weak (which really is how most media companies operate nowadays...)

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