Fabricated Histories, Celebrated Photographers And A New Frontier For The Embedded Photographer

Time Magazine’s Lightbox photography blog had a rather bizarre story earlier today. Titled Real Photographer, Fake War: Jonathan Olley and Zero Dark Thirty, it focused on the film studio photography work of photographer Jonathan Olley who once also happened to have worked as a news photographer in some conflict zones. What seemed to have attracted the Lightbox photo editor’s interest was the easy parallel between the fact that Mr. Olley had once covered real conflict and today covered staged conflicts for Hollywood directors. What however caught my interest was this statement:

The film, from Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, traces the hunt for Osama bin Laden through the career of one female American intelligence officer, played by Jessica Chastain. While the film has received criticism —from politicians and the military, not to mention historians who challenge the film portrayal of events— the virulence of the critiques may fairly reflect how realistic the movie is presented.

We have arrived in the land of the seriously bizarre and distorted.


Those of you who read my posts know that I have criticized the editors of Time Magazine in the past. It is a publication that has been on the frontline of America’s war propaganda machinery, and staffed with writers who express opinions that are abhorrent, and immoral. But what has also intrigued me is the way in which its speaks about photography, and uses the voices of photographers, to decontextualize, confuse and at times befuddle the reader.

For example, in the statement above that the criticism against the film Zero Dark Thirty are virulent because of ‘…how realistic the movie is presented’, is not only wrong, but simply irresponsible. In fact, anyone who has read even a few items of the statements made against this film will know that the criticisms center on 1) the film’s suggestion, completely wrong and unsubstantiated, that the use of torture led to the discovery of Osama Bin Ladin’s hideout, and 2) that torture is an effective and essential tool in America’s wars against terror.

Glenn Greenwald was vehement in his criticism of the film and summarized its odious message as follows:

This film presents torture as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America. There is zero doubt, as so many reviewers have said, that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists. No matter how you slice it, no matter how upset it makes progressive commentators to watch people being waterboarded, that – whether intended or not – is the film’s glorification of torture.

Peter Mass, writing in The Atlantic, penned a piece called Don’t Trust Zero Dark Thirty went further and and argued that there was an even more insidious problem with the film – that Zero Dark Thirty was a new achievement in government embedded film making:

…what’s far more important and troubling about a film that seems destined for blockbuster and Academy Award status. Zero Dark Thirty represents a new genre of embedded filmmaking that is the problematic offspring of the worrisome endeavor known as embedded journalism.

You would not know any of this of course from the Time Lightbox post, or from the statements made by the photographer himself. In fact, to create a completely specious parallel between real wars and staged ones for the box-office, the Time Lightbox editors quoted the Katherine Bigelow, the director of the film, who claimed that:

“What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film,” Bigelow told the The New Yorker in an interview about the movie last December. Who better to photograph a movie about a war, than a photojournalist who had seen one up close.

What they left out was that this same director, when confronted and challenged on the false connection between torture and the finding of Bin Ladin, backtracked and hid behind an ‘art’ argument and jettisoned her ‘journalistic approach to film’ defence. Zero Dark Thirty has been criticized for being an overt act of government propaganda, offering fabrications and justifications for some of the most immoral, and illegal practices our governments adopted in the wake of September 11th, 2001.

As Jane Mayer of The New Yorker wrote in her piece Zero Conscience in Zero Dark Thirty:

…what is so unsettling about ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it. In addition to excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years, the film also seems to accept almost without question that the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden. But this claim has been debunked, repeatedly, by reliable sources with access to the facts. . . .

But you would not know any of this from the editors of Time Lightbox who present the film as a giddy, sensational, exciting jaunt through America’s ‘war’, one fit to be photographed by someone who covered a ‘real’ war. It takes a tremendous amount of ignorance to claim that these criticisms are so vehement because of ‘.. how realistic the movie is presented’ when in fact what they are about it is how much a lie and fabrication it actually is.

In fact, this entire piece reads like an unthinking hagiography of a film that has been resoundly criticzied for being a work of propaganda. To offer such a thoughtlessly celebratory piece can only suggest a willful intent to mislead the many who read the magazine and the blog, or a determined effort to continue to remain apace of the American war machine’s obfuscations of its wars and repressive measures.

The editors also don’t seem to notice that Jonathan Olley’s three Hollywood stage shoots have been for The Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty – all films that have variously been criticized for their uncritical, ahistorical representations of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and its various illegal, repressive measures. (Aside: I don’t know Mr. Olley and do not suggest I know his motivations and aspirations as a photographer. I also do not begrudge his right to shoot as he wishes and for whom he wishes. I am more interested in asking questions whose answers can provide us some interesting insights).

At one point the desperate parallels being created get near giddy and silly:

…with three films under his belt, Olley says his commercial photography work on Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty, requires the same skill and attention to detail as covering any war.

I wonder if this was written simply because it sounds good, when in fact, a close examination would reveal that it sounds completely nonsensical. Producing public relations stills from a Hollywood set could hardly require the same skills as working as a reporter / photojournalist covering a conflict. Unless of course what the Time Lightbox editors mean is covering war as an embedded photographer in which case I can certainly see the parallels. You just wait until you get permission to come ‘on to the set’, and are then directed to shoot what they allow you to shoot.

Perhaps in the end what most concerned me was the easy way the editors of Time Ligbtbox chose to conflate reporting real conflicts with filming staged ones. The close juxtaposition of Mr. Olley’s images from Sarajevo and other conflict zones below the main slide show of his Hollywood stills offered greater gravity, and ‘journalistic’ credibility to the scenes offered in the films. This is completely specious and concocted. In fact, as you read the text of the post, you realize that the reason why a ‘conflict photographer’ was chosen to shoot the stills was to precisely blur the lines between photojournalism as reportage and photojournalism as propaganda. As the post informs us:

What follows is a stunningly efficient raid — carefully choreographed…Through it all, photographer Jonathan Olley was there.

But these bullets and bombs were mere props. The soldiers: actors instead. The drama: cinematic climate written and directed by the movie industry’s best. But in the world of Hollywood, Jonathan Olley’s photographs are almost too real.

Perhaps the editors themselves do not understand the role that they are playing and how they are helping ‘normalize’ what is otherwise a seriously problematic, if not outright dangerous, Hollywood fabrication. They are helping ‘normalize’ a film that has been roundly criticized for celebrating an illegal, immoral, and inhumane practice that we once would have been ashamed to be associated it, and still ought to be ashamed about. Its not just a movie. Its not just about a pretty picture. You cannot remove the subject, and simply celebrate the aesthetics. As Peter Va Buren has warned:

Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. As an act, it is all about pain, but even more about degradation and humiliation. It destroys its victims, but also demeans those who perpetrate it.

If the editors still cannot understand why they can’t speak so blithely about a subject so vile, then perhaps they should re-read Mark Danner to broaden their understanding. They can find some of his writings on this question here, here, here and here. And there is a lot more. For otherwise it appears as if the editors have been tricked into a role not quite unlike that which Bigelow has been accused of playing –  garlanding Hollywood fabrications with the credibility of journalism, all in the service of a state’s continuing efforts to mask its crimes. It becomes, as Peter Mas pointed out, perhaps a new level of government embedding.

As the writers of the post tell us:

Today, with three films under his belt, Olley says his commercial photography work on Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty, requires the same skill and attention to detail as covering any war.



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