Perlmutter: Photojournalism in Crisis

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David D. Perlmutter, Professor and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies & Research at the University of Kansas School of Journalism & Mass Communications, has an excellent piece on the Fauxtography Scandal—with a big salute to all the blogs who pushed the story forward: Photojournalism in Crisis.

(August 18, 2006) — The Israeli-Hezbollah war has left many dead bodies, ruined towns, and wobbling politicians in its wake, but the media historian of the future may also count as one more victim the profession of photojournalism. In twenty years of researching and teaching about the art and trade and doing photo-documentary work, I have never witnessed or heard of such a wave of attacks on the people who take news pictures and on the basic premise that nonfiction news photo- and videography is possible.

I’m not sure, however, if the craft I love is being murdered, committing suicide, or both.

Perhaps it would be more reassuring if the enemy at the gates was a familiar one—politicians, or maybe radio talk show hosts. But the photojournalist standing on the crumbling ramparts of her once proud citadel now sees the vandal army charging for the sack led by “zombietime,” “The Jawa Report,” “Powerline,” “Little Green Footballs,” “confederateyankee,” and many others.

In each case, these bloggers have engaged in the kind of probing, contextual, fact-based (if occasionally speculative) media criticism I have always asked of my students. And the results have been devastating: news photos and video shown to be miscaptioned, radically altered, or staged (and worse, re-staged) for the camera. Surely “green helmet guy,” “double smoke,” “the missiles that were actually flares,” “the wedding mannequin from nowhere,” the “magical burning Koran,” the “little girl who actually fell off a swing” and “keep filming!” will now enter the pantheon of shame of photojournalism.

A few photo-illusions are probably due to the lust for the most sensational or striking-looking image—that is, more aesthetic bias than political prejudice. Also, many photographers know that war victims are money shots and some will break the rules of the profession to cash in. But true as well is that local stringers and visiting anchors alike seem to have succumbed either to lens-enabled Stockholm syndrome or accepted being the uncredited Hezbollah staff photographer so as to be able to file stories and images in militia-controlled areas.

It does not help that certain news organizations have acted like government officials or corporate officers trying to squash a scandal. The visual historian in me revolts when an ABC producer informs me that Reuters “deleted all 920 images” by the stringer who produced the “Beirut double smoke” image and is “less than willing to talk about it.” Can you say “18-minute gap,” anyone?

Read the whole thing…

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