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Un-Bearing Witness

Posted By Dennis Dunleavy On June 4, 2008 @ 10:09 am In Photojournalism | No Comments

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The camera, dislocated from its user, is worthless. Laying unattended on a dirt road in Iraq, the camera is the focal point of a picture that appears to be a scene of violence and suffering. A shadow is cast across part of the camera’s body. People died here.

In the background, a man dressed in desert camouflage lies in the shadow of a military vehicle. The man is prostrate and motionless. We cannot see the man’s face. Is this man the photographer, or, was the camera just left in the open as the photographer attended to other business? To the right someone appears to be walking by, ignoring the man.

Any and all interpretations of the picture seem to be futile conjectures — mental exercises leading to a dissatisfied sense of not knowing anything new or different about this war. We cannot understand what is going on here until we are given an appropriate context for signification. This image, albeit curious, is confusing and essentially meaningless without words. Yet, it does serve some greater purpose — for Reuters’ interest in corporate branding.

Propaganda for the Reuters Brand

The image is part of a recent Reuters’ interactive media presentation commemorating five years of war in Iraq. The production, “Bearing Witness” [2], is Reuters’ attempt to make sense of its role in the Iraq War.

The presentation, despite its elegiac qualities, is predominantly a neatly crafted piece of propaganda. The images clearly showcase some of the media company’s best visual reportage from the war, complete with a seemingly endless supply of bloody and burning bodies. Nevertheless, despite the compelling content, “Bearing Witness” appears to more about branding Reuter’s corporate identity as a purveyor of news than it is about edifying and enlightening the viewer to critically think through the relationship between “big” media and the government’s efforts to control the message.

Perhaps this analysis may be harsh for some, but at a time when the mainstream media has slowly begun to divest itself from the Bush administration’s War on Terror rhetoric, the Reuter’s piece comes across as far too self-serving and congratulatory. The piece sends a carefully crafted message to the viewer about what it perceives to be its contribution to humanity in covering the conflict. The message says, “Look what we’ve done for you — look at how we have risked our lives for you to make these amazing pictures.”

Marketing Bloodied Eye-Candy

There is no question that pictures from Iraq help to inform us about the war and shape our conscience. There is no question, as Reuters’ bureau chief in Iraq, Andrew Marshall, puts it in the video that, “Covering the news in hostile places is a worthwhile thing. It can bring about change. It can inform the world, and it is worth risking our lives.”

What the images do not tell us, however, is how the media has been complicit in shaping a one-sided view of this conflict. There has been little independence and due diligence in accepting the terms of engagement laid out for coverage of this war by the Bush administration. There has been little scrutiny given to Reuters’ dependence on Iraqi freelancers to do its bidding.

It appears as though Reuters assumes that the presentation will be viewed as legitimate reportage — something that may help save us from the bias of personal opinion. However, to suspend judgment of the apparent branding going on here also implies that we should suspend our need for a socially responsible press — one that is not afraid to criticize sources of power and greed in the world.

The pictures do offer proof of the terrible and oft-times senseless violence of this war. But in this context, they appear to be little more than bloodied eye-candy.

[tags]photojournalism[/tags]

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[2] “Bearing Witness”: http://iraq.reuters.com/

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