The Syrian civil war and other Photoshopped conflicts
Don’t you trust mainstream media reports on the Syrian civil war? I don’t see why you should. The only thing we know for sure about the conflict is that it’s a tragedy and a crime – on all sides. As far as actual events in that fractured country are concerned, the further we move away from major corporate news outlets, the closer we are likely to get to something approaching the truth. If you don’t believe me, just check out this press photo from the Austrian mass-market tabloid Kronen Zeitung:
The picture shows an Arab man carrying a child and accompanied by a veiled woman, running for their lives through the rubble of a bombed out city. The article beneath it describes how Syrian president Bashar Assad is preparing for “the mother of all battles” in Aleppo. (Now where have I heard that line before?)
Moving stuff, right? Kinda makes you wanna – I don’t know – send in the drones or something. The trouble is, this picture isn’t worth a thousand words, but instead boils down to just one: FAKE!
In fact, the Arab couple appeared in an identical press agency photo a couple days earlier, but without the cratered cityscape behind them. Here it is – in fact, this neutral shot could have been taken in some neighborhoods of Brooklyn:
Numerous bloggers and journalists noticed the fake immediately and Krone has been trying to downplay its “error” ever since. But the damage has arguably already been done. Millions of readers around Europe have already been implanted with an image of the Syrian conflict as a battlefield just itching for some sort of NATO-led “Libyan” solution.
Should this surprise us? In fact, faked war photos have been around for as long as there have been cameras. Many of our most famous images were staged rather than genuine (even Civil War photographers seem to have rearranged battlefield corpses for greater effect), or else are seriously misleading, such as the stunning Iwo Jima flag raising. There is even some doubt as to whether Robert Capa’s iconic photo of a Spanish Republican fighter at the moment of death is real or a clever forgery. Fake or not, these images are what we think of when we recall those dramatic events.
The Iraq War was an unlucky one when it came to uplifting images. In 2003, American star photographer Brian Walski manipulated a photo from the Iraq War by copying and shifting around human figures to create a better “composition” for the front page of the LA Times. He was fired immediately.
Photoshopped for greater drama
When people think back to the images of the Iraq War, it’s usually a draw between the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad (usually cropped to disguise the fact that there are actually more journalists than Iraqis on hand) and the various torture photos from Abu Ghraib prison. Which ones you remember largely depends on your politics.
Psy-ops experts and political spin doctors put images first. In Barry Levinson's satirical 1997 movie Wag the Dog, a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) is hired to manufacture an imaginary civil war in Albania and hires a pretty blond actress (Kirsten Dunst) to dress in Balkan apparel and run past a blue screen carrying a big bag of Tostitos. Later, the images will be digitally manipulated, adding a bombed out city to the background and a white housecat into her arms. Her job is to play the role of poster child for the suffering of the Albanian people in a fake conflict ginned up for domestic political purposes.
Kirsten Dunst helps Dustin Hoffman "wag the dog." The movie is clever, but is now too realistic to be funny.
That producer knew what he was doing. As Susan Sonntag wrote in her essay “Regarding the Pain of Others,”
What is odd is not that so many of the iconic news photos of the past, including some of the best-remembered pictures from the Second World War, appear to have been staged. It is that we are surprised to learn that they were staged, and always disappointed. . . We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death. . .No sophisticated sense of what photography is or can be will ever weaken the satisfactions of picture of an unexpected event seized in mid-action by an alert photographer.
Real photo, fake woman: On October 10, 1990, this Kuwaiti princess posed as a lowly nurse before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and narrated a tear-jerking cock-and-bull story about invading Iraqi soldiers tossing Kuwaiti babies out of incubators. The rest is history.
Wars always need iconic images if they are going to “sell” themselves to a skeptical public. If you don’t luck out with an Iwo Jima image, you’re likely to end up with a naked Vietnamese girl, running down the road with American napalm consuming her flesh. The war of images is just as vital to victory as a government’s arsenal of bombs and its “body counts.”
This photo is no fake, sad to say.
So I’m not surprised that corporate publications like Kronen Zeitung are using Photoshop to sell papers and (call me cynical) also soften Europe and America up for yet another open-ended Mideast war on shaky foundations. I’m just surprised they aren’t doing a better job of it.
But why quit when you're on a roll?
"Spectral evidence" for WMDs: Secretary of State Colin Powell didn't even bother Photoshopping a photo when he went to the UN Security Council to shill for the Iraq War in 2003. Saddam Hussein's "mobile chemical weapons labs" existed only as a Neocon fantasy and a crude drawing. Even so, this brain-dead hoax was more than enough to persuade virtually an entire nation to support a decade of unprovoked war and occupation.