Digitally Erasing a Massacre
Why Hezbollywood Was Born
By ANDREW FORD LYONS
If a regular old picture is worth a thousand words, how much does a digitally altered image fetch on the international market today? I ask because a lot of words have been spilled over one digitally altered photograph in particular.
I've spent a great deal of time as of late poring over a pair of images, both allegedly derived from a single click of the shutter by Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj on August 5. Both depict a Beirut skyline filled with black smoke after an Israeli bombardment. The one cited as the original unedited version shows a jet blue sky over white, sun-soaked buildings from which inky smoke plumes rise. In the obviously altered second photo, the sky is washed out and pale, the skyline is noticeable higher in the frame, the buildings are darker and have strangely sharpened edges, and the cloud plumes have been digitally cloned with no dramatic or even realistic effect. Smoke just doesn't look like that.
Because of this and one other photo attributed to Hajj - one containing a suspected alteration to the weapons being fired by an Israeli jet - he no longer works for Reuters, and the news agency has pulled from circulation 920 other photos he has taken for for the agency, though it said there is no indication those were tampered with.
Of course, altering the content of an image meant to depict actual events is unethical. And until people hear from this particular photographer himself, we won't know the full story. My own attempts to gain further information for the Reuters news agency were met without response. In the meantime, the rampant speculation about staged and altered photographs in Lebanon has its poster child. Bloggers on conservative, pro-war websites like Little Green Footballs, IsraPundit, The Jawa Report and others had already been floating test conspiracies about the aftermath of a July 30 Israeli air raid on a Qana apartment building being staged. Hajj had taken photos there as well. When Reuters issued a "Photo Kill" announcement for that one Beirut skyline shot, these and other pajama pundits seized on it. Not only did they suggest that Hajj's Qana photos might also be false, but that other photographers' work also was suspect, and well, maybe there was no massacre of civilians at all.
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As someone who has worked as a photojournalist and editor, and who once outed another photographer for altering a photo (though not one of nearly such a dramatic subject as a Beirut missile attack), I wondered why Hajj would ruin an entirely useable, clean image in such a crude and obvious fashion. This faked image just didn't jive with those of his earlier work, which is replete with crisp, clean photos, their details sharp, darks and lights in high contrast and colors brilliant. Of the two Beirut photos in question, the first more closely matches his resumé. The edited one is muddy in places and washed out as well as blatantly faked. Some speculate that the extra smoke was added for dramatic effect. It didn't add any. Aside from the artificiality, it also lacked the more marketable composition of the so-called original. Not only was it a forgery, it was just a bad photo.
According to a published statement by Reuters public relations person Moira Whittle, Hajj denied he attempted to manipulate his images. He did say he had used software to remove dust marks from the lens, a standard practice among photographers that still would not produce the image Reuters had initially released, then retracted. Interestingly, according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, photographers for Reuters are seldom the last to have control over their images. The article says "all photographs taken for Reuters around the world are sent to Singapore, where they undergo certain editorial processes before being distributed to the agency's many clients."
If true, one wonders if the "dust marks" comment had been made by a photographer who had even seen the heavily altered image in question.
The Beirut photo fiasco opened the floodgates for all coverage to be lambasted by those who believe one side, the Israeli one in this instance, is more justified in it's bloodletting than the other. But if it's unethical to add puffs of black smoke to a Beirut scene, for whatever reason, what are the ethics of using said puffs as an equally artificial smokescreen to justify the attempted whitewashing of an entire war zone, denying that innocent civilians are suffering, and holding up their killers as blameless victims?
There are things we don't know and things we do. What is not known is how the digitally falsified image of Beirut came about. We do know that on June 30, 2006, an Israeli airstrike on the nearby southern Lebanese town of Qana destroyed an apartment building and killed many of those inside. The photos from that single attack gushed like blood from a shrapnel wound, and that seems to be what's really bothering the folks who spend their hours studying every photo out of Lebanon pixel by pixel.
Qana was too real, too immediate. It's difficult to position an argument on the need for wholesale carnage when it could be printed in text wrapped around images of young corpses in the next day's morning edition. Much better to simply attack the images themselves. Out of the thousands of pictures that have come out of Lebanon, these people found one to hang their helmets on. Conservative bloggers began to analyze photo time stamps from the Qana coverage, suggesting without proof or merit that they indicated a lapse between the incident and the coverage for a set to be designed and used for a fake news story. They suggested it proved that missile attack hadn't destroyed the building, that it somehow proved that aid workers brought in already dead bodies to parade in front of cameras. Everything was game.
The Lebanese Red Cross uncovered 27 bodies amid the rubble of the Qana building. About 17 of them were children. Area residents and some local officials initially said that about 60 people were unaccounted for. Some days later, the organization Human Rights Watch was able to estimate the civilian deaths from the missile attack on that particular building to be what the Red Cross had reported.
But as the New York Times article that appeared later that day said, "Whatever the actual toll, the deaths in Qana set off a chain reaction." The story goes on to cite protests in Beirut against the U.S., Israel and the United Nations, as well as the litany of predictable statements to from Hamas and Hezbollah, which was still allegedly holding two Israeli soldiers hostage.
Those reactions weren't particularly interesting or unpredictable. I was far more intrigued by the response here in the United States, especially among the media, pundits, lobbyists and various wonks employed by some Christian, conservative and pro-Israeli special interest groups. Ostensibly, Israeli forces were blowing the hell out of southern Lebanon in order to free those two Israeli soldiers who were seized by Hezbollah fighters on July 12. Israel was also pounding the Gaza Strip, supposedly over the abduction of a soldier there as well. On June 25, the day after the army entered Gaza in an operation that included the seizing of a pair of alleged Palestinian fighters, a group of actual confirmed fighters used a secret tunnel to take an Israeli soldier to barter for the release of those two and other political prisoners held in Israel.
As the civilian death toll in Gaza topped 100, the relentless pounding in Lebanon had killed between 600 and 900 people. Either end of that estimation should provide for more than enough outrage, but Qana got the attention, perhaps because Qana is special: On April 18, 1996, Israeli howitzers fired on the United Nation's Fijian battalion headquarters where nearly 800 Lebanese civilians had taken refuge from "Operation Grapes of Wrath." More than 100 of civilians in that compound were killed. Outcry was international, and suddenly there were witnesses, mediators and media involved. It changed the course of the rest of the operation there.
But while that decade-old massacre remains an open, raw wound for the people of Lebanon, here in what Noam Chomsky refers to as "The United States of Amnesia," there is no recollection of it having taken place. No one recalls what happened in Qana in 1996. Most people in the U.S. likely didn't know what was going on in Qana in 1996 while it was going on. Most people in this country don't know Qana exists. A lot of them might know the story about Jesus turning water into wine, but they don't know he supposedly pulled off that stunt in Qana. It's just another khaki place on the TV screen that bombs run into.
This time around, with the downpour of news detailing the carnage in Lebanon, I wondered why so many talking heads and bloggers were taking so much time to argue the Israeli case for blowing up this one apartment building and challenging the death toll of doing so. As horrible as the killing of those 27 civilians was, why did that need so much more slick PR than the rest of the bloodshed?
Why, for example, was Paula Zahn using unsubstantiated, grainy black-and-white arial photos on CNN that were provided by the Israeli military itself as proof positive that the building had to be attacked? From the looks of them, those could have been just as fake as the Beirut skyline photo. On the July 31 performance of the show Paula Zahn Now, she used the photos to castigate Mohammed El-Harake, the consul general of Lebanon. Here's a snippet:
EL-HARAKE: I have witnessed 600 civilians killed, my city completely destroyed, wounded by thousands. And now you're asking me if these people who killed all these people are capable of killing civilians? Yes, they are capable of killing civilians.
ZAHN: Are you defending Hezbollah and their tactics, their tactics of moving freely among the civilian population your people? Do you defend what they're doing?
Much of the spin was hitting the internet, radio and TV on August 4. While perusing the various articles and back-and-forth reader commentary on websites and blogs, I came across something new: "Hezbollywood." The mutt offspring of Hezbollah and Bollywood threw me a bit. Who came up with it? A Google search produced more than 120,000 hits. That's a lot, most of them in near-identical posts in comment areas on various websites. None of them seemed much older than late July.
To the best of my searching, it appears as though the right-wing website Israel Insider coined the word. It's snappy, though, and essentially punctuates any argument that claims the Israel military is not killing civilians in Lebanon, at least to the extent being reported. Rather, the Hezbollywood thesis rests on the notion that Hezbollah itself is employing tactics reminiscent from the 1997 Dustin Hoffman film Wag the Dog, in which Hollywood types team up with shady U.S. government officials to manufacture a fake TV war to distract the voting public from a White House scandal with pedophiliac overtones. The movie's premise was fairly ridiculous. As anyone who lived through the Clinton administration knows, people are far more willing to follow the delicious details of of an Oval Office sex scandal than spend time thinking about how many bombs the U.S. is dropping on foreigners or selling to foreigners to drop on other foreigners.
But Hezbollywood was something new. The war was real enough. The attempt now was to come up with a fake story about the real story - the massacre at Qana- being faked. While someone at Israel Insider may be clamoring for a bonus for thinking up "Hezbollywood," the idea that all these civilian casualties were somehow forged was making the rounds elsewhere as well. It seemed as though neo-con bloggers and right-wing pundits had all received their talking points and were on message.
Conservative British blogger Richard North, who runs a blogspot site called "EU Referendum" - popular amongst the armchair general set - spared no bandwidth to critique nearly every photo resulting from the Qana bombing. In one of his longer posts, North concludes all the photos taken in Qana were "staged for effect, exploiting the victims in an unwholesome manner. In so doing, they are no longer news photographs - they are propaganda."
It was an interesting screed, especially the part about "exploiting the victims." In other posts, North denies the existence of civilian victims, claiming that the events were staged. Not long after North's posting, and similar ones aping it elsewhere on the internet, disgraced right-wing pundit Rush Limbaugh became one more talking head in a growing cacophony: "These photographers are obviously willing to participate in propaganda. They know exactly what's being done, all these photos, bringing the bodies out of the rubble, posing them for the cameras, it's all staged. Every bit of it is staged and the still photographers know it."
Other conspiracy theorists took things further, doubting that the apartment building in Qana was targeted by Israeli air raids (in spite of Israeli statements saying it had been and providing their own photos as proof), and alleging that the bodies were brought in from nearby morgues, or were the remains of people forced to stay in the building by Hezbollah.
All of a sudden, every right-wing blogger and broadcaster was a character in the television show CSI. They all analyzed photos and footage, offering commentary on structural integrity, wounds on bodies, the amount of time it reportedly took for emergency workers and the press to arrive and so forth.
My favorite theories incorporated elements, sometimes contradictory, from other theories. The website PipeLineNews.org, for example, says that the "The Israeli Air Force was not responsible for the collapse of the building in question" and that Hezbollah was using it to fire rockets from "at the time of the IDF air strike." The same article alleges that those civilians in the building "were not permitted to leave" by Hezbollah, and thus were killed as "human shields" in the attack, but that the corpses brought out of the wreckage looked as though "they died much earlier and under different circumstances."
No one who actually witnessed the attack was saying these things. The accusations come from those pecking at computer keyboards or speaking from radio studios far from the scene. So it was weird that the conspiracy theorists gained enough traction to spur the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse to make public statements on August 1 in defense of their work.
"Do you really think these people would risk their lives under Israeli shelling to set up a digging ceremony for dead Lebanese kids?" Patrick Baz, Mideast photo director for AFP, was quoted as saying in a story about the controversy. "I'm totally stunned by first the question, and I can't imagine that somebody would think something like that would have happened."
Immediately after the news agencies' statements, North and others declared their victory in spite of the fact that the photojournalists stood by their work. By making the actual news folks pay attention to them, North and company decided they had won. "The news agencies that stitched up the photos at the Qana site have all huddled together" gushed North in one particularly self-congratulatory posting, "and got AP staff writer David Bauder to issue a story rebutting lil ol' EU Referendum. And the imaginative title? 'News agencies stand by Lebanon photos'." Elsewhere on his site, North enthuses: "We have helped to plant seeds of doubt in some and strengthened doubts in others about the MSM (mainstream media) reporting of the Middle Eastern conflict, in particular of the war in the Lebanon."
Maybe they did win. While the bombardment of Lebanon has claimed hundreds of lives, the controversy over a single demolished apartment building kept the media spotlight on Qana. The argument here in the United States shifted away from the brutality of Israel's actions and U.S. culpability for it, and became entrenched in whether casualties on the ground took place at all. Debate about the morality or reasons behind the death, destruction went up in a cloud of digitally manufactured smoke.
There's a fair chance it won't return. Like the Qana attack in 1996, like the rape and murders carried out by U.S. soldiers in Haditha, the Qana attack of July '06 will vanish from American memory before long. The game plan is simple: Question it for a week or two and people will get bored and want to talk about Mel Gibson. While Hezbollywood may be interesting for a week, Hollywood will always come up with something better.
Andrew Ford Lyons is an English teacher,writer and activist with the International Solidarity Movement from Olympia, WA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org