“Our” vision, “their” vision or no vision?

Covering conflict is one of the consistent features of photojournalism throughout its history. From Roger Fenton in the Crimea and Mathew Brady and company in the Civil War up through the photographers who are covering Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, we have seen images that convey fighting and aftermath.

Political shifts in the last decade or so have changed some aspects of conflict. Wars are to some degree between sovereign nations, but wars are also being fought between groups of people with a particular view, or between nations and those groups. It seems rules of covering war have changed too. It’s always been a risky proposition, but there has been some respect for those who are there to tell the story. That, in turn, is changing the vision we have of conflicts.

A couple of blog postings this week more sharply focused what had been some fuzzy thoughts for me. Donald Winslow’s thoughts on the legacy of Eddie Adams are featured on the New York Times Lens blog. Michéle Léridon has some thoughts on the AFP Correspondent blog about covering the “Islamic State.”

Both authors note that photojournalists are not the only ones supplying photographs and increasingly are not there to make photographs. The risks to photographers are too great to send them into conflict zones where they have no protection. Some freelance photojournalists are trying to fill the void and paying with their lives. So we don’t have the photographs that would reflect the “disinterested” view of the photojournalist. I put that in quotes because, yes, the photographer is representing the western view (“our” vision) but is not there as a representative of the government. (Debates about the neutrality of embedded photographers aside.)

In that void come photographs provided by the groups with a stake in the conflict, such as the current group hoping to set up an Islamic state in the Syria/Iraq area. They are producing and distributing their own photographs and videos (“their” vision). As Winslow notes, “As they attempt to control the message, honest and ethical journalism risks being shoved aside in favor of images that are pure propaganda, if not outright fabrications.” Léridon also notes AFP’s goal of not being used as a vehicle for propaganda.

So if we don’t trust their vision and can’t get our vision, is the alternative no vision? Do news organizations refuse to give space to images they can’t obtain through their own channels? Is publishing their images giving them what they want? If no one knows about a conflict, will it fizzle?

It’s a hard question, and one that’s not new. Photographers, editors and publishers have struggled with the aspects of conflict that should be presented to the public, and the decisions have varied depending on the nature of the conflict and the role the organization sees for itself within the larger society. I don’t think the answers are any easier now. I don’t want to see photojournalists injured or killed for trying to bear witness for the rest of us, but I don’t want just the images that people with a vested interest distribute, the content of which can’t be verified for accuracy. And I don’t think just ignoring it while the combatants do their thing is the answer either.

I don’t have the answer, but I’m glad people are asking the questions. Take a look at the pieces by Winslow and Léridon.

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