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ON WAR PHOTOGRAPHY

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By David Levy

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The Montréal Review, December 2012

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Iraq War Series by Zoriah Miller © Zoriah / www.zoriah.com, blog use permitted: use credit: link to zoriah .com

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In our time the destination of the war photo is the net. Uncensored, rapidly disseminated. A topic I discussed with the photojournalist Zoriah Miller, known professionally simply as Zoriah.

David Levy: Photojournalists used to work exclusively for magazines but your work seems to be produced for the net. 

Zoriah Miller: I chose many years ago to stop doing work for the magazines.I hated dealing with them.the way that whole world works...I stopped doing newspaper and magazine work 2006-2007. I think still quite a lot of photographers do that.The internet has been a nice alternative.it allows you to showcase your work the way you intended.

DL: Does the net mean there are fewer constraints on the work of photographers?

Z: When you have your own website it gives you the freedom to show things the way you want to show them, the way you believe is okay. What kind of censorship is going to come up on the net if any? One of the other things that is difficult about the net is because it is so immediate, you can put your photos on it so quickly, you can also be quickly removed from situations or punished for what you do.

DL: Who would punish you?

Z: In my case, when I took photos of dead US soldiers in Iraq. Within a couple of hours of posting them I was disembedded and held in detention.  

DL: I understand it happened in June 2008 when you were embedded with a marine company in Anbar province in Iraq. You arrived at a scene after a suicide bomber had detonated his bomb. Three marines were dead. Your photos showed body parts, mangled corpses. After less than ten minutes you were escorted from the scene... 

Z: There was a report in The New York Times: 4,000 U.S. Deaths, and a Handful of Images.

DL: The previous U.S. administration did not allow photographs to be taken of the planeloads of coffins arriving in the U.S. from Iraq.

Z: I suppose they just didn't want people to be reminded.

DL: Quite by accident I discovered your photos of men at work in a tunnel linking Gaza to Egypt. How did you manage to get in there?

Z: I was in Gaza in 2008 with this film crew from Warner Brothers. I wanted to go through a tunnel and cross over into Egypt.  

DL: Did it involve a major negotiation with Hamas?

Z: No, I was using contacts with local journalists, contacts that I had in Gaza. It was of course much easier to arrange to get into a non-Hamas tunnel.

DL: Are there Hamas tunnels and non-Hamas tunnels?

Z: Like there is private enterprise and government run.I was on my way to one of the private tunnels in Khan Yunis, the city closest to the Egyptian side, but it collapsed while we were driving there. We were told there wasn't anything we could do because the only other option was a Hamas tunnel and they didn't allow journalists into their tunnels.

DL: Did they explain why not? 

Z: I suppose for security. They worry about journalists who are spies.I found a small Hamas military outpost that had a commander in it...I'll just say that I was able to convince the Hamas commander that I wasn't a threat that it would benefit them to allow me to photograph their situation..

DL: You're editing this.

 Z: Yes, I am, I decided to leave out a part of it...

DL: Could I ask you which part?

Z: Let's just say that - let's see, what's the best way to put it. Basically.they were afraid that their faces would be shown and that they would be seen in publications and that they would be targeted by the Israeli military.

DL: Or their own people as collaborators?

Z: They just didn't want to have their faces shown.There were certain people whose well-being they were worried about. I let them take a photo of me to keep as a kind of show of faith.

 DL: Were they good photographers?

Z: Well with their cell phones let's just say they were adequate.

DL: Did the men you photographed ever get to see your photographs of them?

Z: I would guess most of the people wouldn't see them.

DL: It wasn't important for you to have them see these images?

Z: No.I don't think they cared so much. My point in doing it was to show the risks that they took.Tunnels collapse.It was quite an experience.

Zoriah Miller © Zoriah / www.zoriah.com, blog use permitted: use credit: link to zoriah .com

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We didn't talk about the competition photojournalists may be facing from a growing army of iCitizens, ordinary men and women armed with smart phones active on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. "What struck me at the 9/11 anniversary", said Douglas Coupland, "was that in 2001, the people on New York City's sidewalks had no smart phones with which to record the events of the day. History may well look back on 9/11 as the world's last underdocumented mega-event." (31)

The cell phone video of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan in Tehran in June 2009, caused by a gunshot fired during a peaceful protest, went viral on social networking sites.

This does not put the pros out of business. This Is Not a Film, an Iranian documentary film by Jafar Panahi  and  Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, was smuggled to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival from Iran in a flash-drive hidden inside a birthday cake. In Syria authorities will now no longer allow camera crews into the country. iCitizens armed with smart phones have tried to fill in the gap. The government's attempt in December 2011 to ban the iPhone would appear to have been unsuccessful. Dozens of videos shot in Syria with smart phone cameras get posted on YouTube.

Some iCitizens feel the need to dress up the smart phone visuals. A video was posted from Homs with special effects smoke dramatically rising from the scene. The claim from the cameraman was that the enhancement attracted justified attention to a brutal situation. 

The articulation of a point of view requires selection and arrangement, not to say calculation. One is warned that combat footage that looks too good to be true probably is.

An iPhone documentary, the 25 minute "Syria: Songs of Defiance," broadcast on al-Jazeera is the work of an al-Jazeera reporter. It includes voice-over narration in English, to facilitate global access, and editing to give narrative form to the raw often incoherent imagery of the on-site iCitizen. (32)

iPhone material may not look all that great on a TV screen whatever the ratio setting. Despite its marginal broadcast quality, the imagery does offer two elements war photographers prize: immediacy and authenticity. I've asked the folks at Apple if the corporation is planning an iPhone upgrade to better accommodate the use of iPhone images on broadcast channels. They wouldn't say it would happen and they wouldn't say it wouldn't.     

I spoke by telephone to the photojournalist John Wreford, a long-time resident of Damascus about the iPhone ban:     

"It is hardly taken seriously by the government or by anyone else. Mobile technology came rather late to the attention of government ministers. They didn't have a clue what Google and Facebook were... They hear about these things and want to ban them. But nobody imposes the ban.

Ever since the revolution began there has been a paranoid reaction from the government towards anybody with a mobile telephone, really doesn't matter what the make is. Mobile phone technology is being used to document everything that is going on. For that reason the regime is quick to seize mobile phones.  Anybody who gets stopped by security is immediately asked for their phone. In the past it would never have been of any importance. Now it is. iPhones are not particularly popular in Syria. The models that are available are very expensive. A lot of the activists are not using iPhones unless they're brought in specifically for the purpose of documenting what is happening."

Photo: John Wreford, Damascus. War or peace the laundry must be done.

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The Abu Ghraib photos are like school classroom pictures in that neither tell you anything about the military or educational power structures.                      

Few photos from Vietnam can match the account of the war in Michael Herr's  Dispatches.  No picture is l ikely to tell you as much about the American experience in Afghanistan as Michael Hastings's The Operators.

There were no cameras in Homer's time. But for the grim reality of battlefield action The Iliad is tough to equal. An epic of killing and dying, it records the deaths of 250 warriors, most in unsparing detail. One is described as being "struck in the right buttock, and the spearhead drove straight on and passing under the bone went into the bladder..He dropped screaming to his knees, and death was a mist about him." Homer, said a medical authority, knew where all the major organs were, even if he may not have known what their functions were. (33)

Notes & Bibliography

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David Levy is a contributing editor at The Montreal Review and author of "Stalin's Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage" (Enigma Books, 2011)

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