Free Lance Fauxtography, Reuters Style

Molhem Barakat

Molhem Barakat

Last year’s death of Molhem Barakat — a Syrian freelance photographer for Reuters who was under age and had previously sought to be a suicide bomber — continues to raise questions about the integrity of the wire service’s images.

The talented teenage photographer was killed covering fighting in Aleppo last December.

The NY Times explains:

Interviews with numerous Syrian photographers, most requesting anonymity because they have worked as freelancers for Reuters, said many of the freelancers are activists — in one case a spokesman — who supported the rebels. Three of them also said that the freelancers had provided Reuters with images that were staged or improperly credited, sometimes under pseudonyms. And while Reuters has given the local stringers protective vests and helmets, most said that the stringers lacked training in personal safety and first aid.

Jim Gaines, Reuters’s global editor, said that the agency would not use combatants but did rely on activists for pictures. “We use activists in Syria partly because they have access and partly because you have to be among friends to be safe,” he said. And although “we scrutinize all images and captions” to ensure they are free from bias, Reuters does not “as a general practice” inform subscribers that activists took the photos.

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Reuters had no problem crediting the IDF (and rightly so) for handout photos of weapons seized aboard the Klos-C. More importantly, just as Israeli soldiers (and the activists who love ’em) don’t moonlight as freelance Reuters photographers, neither should Syrian rebels and their partisan supporters.

The Times reports some specific examples:

Among the 26 Syrian photographers in Reuters’s Syria freelance network is Abdul-Rahman Ismael, a spokesman for a rebel group; his work was credited to Abdalrhman Ismail. On Jan. 9, The New York Times ran a Reuters photograph credited to Mr. Ismael that accompanied an article in which Mr. Ismael was also quoted by The Times as an activist . . . .

Three photographers who worked for Reuters in Aleppo claimed that at times when a photograph didn’t turn out as hoped, some of the Reuters freelancers staged photographs. One of them directly admitted to staging photos.

The Times touched on two other issues that also deserve attention:

1. The identity of the freelancers.

The Syrian photographers understandably need anonymity to protect themselves from the Syrian government. But instead of using a pseudonym, the caption should directly explain that the image is anonymously credited to protect the identity of the photographer. That’s transparency allowing readers to better judge the image for themselves.

If Reuters isn’t comfortable crediting anonymous images for the long haul, the wire service better come up with a better system to honestly document the civil war.

2. Is Reuters doing enough to protect its freelancers?

When Barakat died last year, there was very much a question of whether Reuters was doing enough to support its freelancers with flak jackets, helmets, safety training, and general photography equipment.

What’s at stake here? News services being used by one faction or another through the freelancers. Muddying the integrity of photo credits. Staged photos. And an international wire service that may not be ethically doing enough to protect the lives of its personnel.

We saw something similar during a 2010 Israeli-Lebanese border skirmish that was suspiciously too well-covered by Reuters photographers. (See Border Clash: A Case Study in Reuters Photography).

Who says the camera doesn’t lie?

(Image via Facebook/Molhem Barakat)

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