When a photo tells a different, true story

Anja Niedringhaus was a German photojournalist who worked for the Associated Press (AP).  She was the only woman on a team of 11 AP photographers that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for coverage of the Iraq War. That same year she was awarded the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism prize.

On 4 April, this year, she was killed in Afghanistan, while covering the presidential election, after an Afghan policeman opened fire at the car she was waiting in at a checkpoint, part of an election convoy.

Anja got her peak of celebrity in 2003 thanks to a photo that became ‘the image’ of a suicide attack in Iraq during which at least 28 people were killed, including 13 Italian Carabinieri, four Italian Army soldiers, two Italian and nine Iraqi civilians. More than 100 people were injured, including 19 Italian soldiers. The photo shows Italian Corporal Mattia Piras in an apparent gesture of desperation.

nass1The image was accompanied by a quite simple caption:
An Italian Army soldier gesture next to the barracks building which was destroyed by a car bomb, at the headquarters of Italy’s paramilitary police in Nasiriyah, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2003. At least 17 Italian soldiers and eight Iraqi civilians died. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

But the gesture was obviously to be interpreted as one of desperation. What else? Anja had just captured the moment able to tell the story, as she has done many times during her too short career.

Earlier this week an Italian TV reporter, Angelo Figorilli, who was there at the same time, looked back at the archives to see if he had the same image on video. Result was a two minute video story demonstrating that the ‘gesture’ was not reflecting any particular sentiment: the corporal was just adjusting his helmet. However, the reporter stressed how this only adds to the merit of the photographer. The story to be told was of desperation and whether or not that was the reason for the gesture, the conveyed message was factually describing the event.

Here are snapshots from the video coverage, taken from a different angle, just immediately before and after one can see the flashlight of the photo camera. The entire video can be watched here.
nass2 nass3nass4






More recently, in January, another Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer was fired by  the AP after admitting that he doctored Syrian war rebel picture by photoshopping camera out of original image.

According to the Daily Mail, the photographer, Narciso Contreras had manipulated a photo of a Syrian rebel by using a common Photoshop technique called ‘cloning’ in order to remove a fellow reporter’s camera out of the picture.

Where is the difference between the two cases? Contreras intentionally edited his photo to remove an object that was disturbing the actual message captured by the image. Niedringhaus just left to the viewers the right to ‘interpreter’ the image, without editing and without suggesting anything with her caption. Still she knew very well that the perception would have gone far away from the specific reality behind the image.

Indeed, the aim of both was the same: to produce a photo that was telling the right story. Still, the AP is right in sticking to ethics that only allow minor technical adjustments.

We are now at the time of Pinterest and Instagram. Images taken by ordinary citizens who are not bind by any ethics quickly become symbols of major events. Nobody can control whether the image was edited. Or even whether the image was actually taken where and when the author pretends.

But, according to an interesting post by David Peterson “The Stories You Tell Don’t Have To Be True.”

If you want to tell better stories with your photography, just go ahead and throw the truth right out the window. Videographers and film makers do this all the time. Their goal is to create a more heightened experience of something real. It’s true in some ways, but it’s exaggerated to give it more style and impact.
When you’re taking pictures with a story in mind, go out and find the most dramatic shooting locations you can. Get rid of the clutter. Focus on your subject and what it is doing. Yes, there’s a McDonalds right behind your car, and yes, you really aren’t miles away from civilization. But you aren’t here to tell the truth. You’re here to make art.

The problem is that photojournalists are supposed to be artists who tell stories. And their stories must be factual. The only question I would ask about the Nassiriya photo by Anja Niedringhaus is: is the photo conveying a true message? Definitely yes. It is actually to be ascribed to the author that she could find the right message even behind an occasional gesture that was totally unrelated. She captured the moment going beyond reality, as her colleague Figorilli noted.


About fveltri

Former NATO and military spokesperson, currently Public Affairs consultant and President, ComIPI (www.comipi.it)
This entry was posted in photojournalism, public affairs, public information and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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