Writing on photography

The Proxy Journalists of a Proxy War

In a war with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands it might seem unlikely that one more casualty would lead to widespread coverage, but the killing of the teenager Reuters stringer Molhem Barakat in Syria last December resulted in exactly that, and with good reason. Many raised important questions about the ambiguities of Barakat’s relationship with Reuters, precisely what support and instruction they had given him, and the extent to which this had or hadn’t contributed to his death. The calls for real accountability from Reuters shouldn’t end, even if to date they seem to have mostly fallen on deaf ears. I think it’s important though that we don’t let anger about the circumstances of this death obscure another related issue which just as desperately needs answers; exactly why and how news agencies use local activists to gather news.

News agencies might deal in information, but of course that doesn’t mean information flows freely from them. Barakat’s killing and the allegations that have emerged since have forced a small degree of openness from Reuters. Jim Gaines, the company’s global editor explained the practice to the New York Times stating ‘We use activists in Syria partly because they have access and partly because you have to be among friends to be safe’ both fairly reasonable justifications in a war where journalists are increasingly seen as legitimate targets. I can’t be the only one hoping this might be the first of more insights into this murky relationship between agency and activists, but whether we get these might depend on whether more allegations emerge which Reuters feels compelled to defend itself against.

It’s widely recognised that Syria is a proxy war, even if the details of who is fighting on behalf of who, and why often remains clouded and uncertain. For some it looks rather like a replay of the old Cold War rivalries, with a nominally democratic west facing off against authoritarian east. For other observers it seems to be more of a regional conflict over a mixture of politics and theology, with Iran backing the Assad regime in opposition to the many Saudi sponsored rebel groups. In either case, anyone who knows a little history will be well aware that proxies have a nasty way of turning out to be not quite what their sponsors imagined. This is something we should keep in mind now that Syria is looking like it is increasingly being covered by proxy journalists.

In a piece published ten days ago James Estrin and Karam Shoumali spoke with a number of Syria photographers including some who had worked for Reuters and other large agencies. As well as confirming that many Syrian freelancers are activists, it was alleged that ‘freelancers had provided Reuters with images that were staged or improperly credited, sometimes under pseudonyms’. Gaines defended Reuters, stating that all photographs and captions are examined to make sure they are free from bias, not particularly reassuring when you consider that it’s notoriously difficult to determine whether a photograph has been staged. After all we’ve been arguing about whether this is the case with just one of them for nearly a century.

Of course it’s also not just what might have been included in the frame which is significant, but also what might have been left out of it, whether in the sense of what isn’t framed in an individual photograph or the broader question of what types of subjects activist-photographers choose not to focus on. Does it seem likely that activists would file photographs which could be detrimental to the way their cause is perceived outside Syria? I doubt it. It also seems unlikely that a news agency would so readily use similar photographs from pro-regime sources. Are attitudes towards these rebel activists tempered by the fact most in the west view the Assad regime as irredeemably vile? Are we more willing to overlook our concerns about the veracity of these rebel produced photographs because on some level we sympathise with the people who’ve made them?

The further revelation that Reuters does not routinely inform clients that photos were taken by activists raises yet more questions. Trading in photographs of uncertain origin and questionable motive is one thing, but a degree of transparency about this at least leaves viewers and publishers with the space to make their own minds up about what these photographs say. We can probably all agree that a photograph made for the most obviously propagandistic purposes can still have completely unintended informational value. Just look at the way analysts pore over every image from North Korea for signs of illness in the leadership, or recent purges in the party ranks.

Photography was for a time criticised for its basic inability to discriminate about what detail is included in a frame, but latterly we’ve come to realise this is also one of its great strengths. Information which seems insignificant at the moment of shooting has a way of ending up in the foreground later on, and what was once the principal subject has a way of seeming much less interesting than the thing partially hidden behind it. The Syrian Presidency’s Instagram feed is a piece of rather clumsy propaganda, but as others have said it’s also an accidentally intriguing insight into a banal, bureaucratic side of the conflict. I find myself increasingly fascinated by Bashar al-Assad’s rather tacky office stationery. It’s an element of the war which we don’t see much of from photographers focusing on the heat of battle, but which I think tells us as much, or perhaps even more, than yet another photograph of a man firing a gun at an unseen enemy.

Returning to Reuters, their refusal to leave space for that doubt in the photographs they distribute gives me a sense of deja vu which recalls the regular debates about image manipulation. Photojournalism desperately wants to be an industry built on foundations of truth, but at the same time there’s this reoccurring unwillingness to be open and frank about the ways journalists and agencies operate and the inherent difficulties and ambiguities in the materials and practices they use. As I’ve already said, doubt is far less problematic than an unwillingness to admit that doubt. Reuters had a responsibility to Barakat, which many feel they failed to fulfil. Beyond that the company can also be said to have a responsibility to the people who publish and view their photographs to explain much more precisely how and why they use activists. Answers are still needed, for our benefit, and for theirs.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography