Taliban tactician holding a rifle that is not his - photo by Zackary Canepari - published and retracted by The New York Times
Taliban tactician holding a rifle that is not his – photo by Zackary Canepari – published and retracted by The New York Times

The picture above has led to the end of a talented photographer’s career at the New York Times. It should have led to the end of the careers of the editors instead. but alas.

The following recently appeared on the pages of the New York Times:

“A picture on May 5 with the continuation of a front-page article about the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and the strategic advantages it offers to Taliban insurgents fighting American troops, showed a silhouetted Taliban logistics tactician, who was interviewed for the article, holding a rifle, creating the impression that the weapon belonged to him. The Times subsequently learned from the photographer that the rifle belonged to the owner of a home in Pakistan where the interview took place, and that the Taliban tactician had held the weapon only for the purpose of the photograph.

“Had The Times known this information at the time of publication, it would not have used the photograph to illustrate the article.”

There have been a round of blog and online discussions on this matter so I will not repeat most of what has been said. In fact, most of it is trivial, misleading and completely misses the point.

When I read this public ‘apology’ by a paper that I have repeated accused of indulging in shoddy, manipulative and in fact irresponsible journalism (see my two blog posts titled The Worlds Most Dangerous Nation and Only Interesting If Its Madness) when it comes to regions Pakistan/Afghan I could not help but laugh.

I found their language and their justifications condescending and manipulative.

It is condescending because it attempts to convince us of the ‘integrity’ of this newspaper which will not let stand even the most ‘minor’ infractions. It attempts to create in our minds the idea that this publication adheres to only the highest and most rigorous standards of journalistic ethics. So high that even this young photographer’s minor infraction deserves a public flogging and a kowtowing to the readers.

We are supposed to forget that this is a newspaper that has repeatedly sent its photographer’s into the US military embedded photographer program, and that continues to in fact provide most all its reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan from these embedded (read: censored, controlled, scripted, manufactured, crafted, sculpted, curtailed, manipulated, overseen and monitored) positions and perspectives. We are supposed to believe that journalist ethics are less about the way we gather the news and more about the way we present it.

We are supposed to forget that this is also one of a number of American newspapers whose journalists failed to ask even the most basic of questions and failed to examine even the most public of facts during the build up to the invasion of Iraq. Their ethical reporters were on the front lines of journalistic jingoism, helping sell the war to the American public.

And far from being an anomaly in the past, it even now continues in its refusal to ask hard questions about what in fact is actually taking place inside Southern Afghanistan, and continues to publish reports and pieces by a number of its journalists whose entire reporting relies on official government sources from the American, Afghani and Pakistani sides.

The same news publication’s journalists and photographers continue to win international and domestic awards despite the fact that they have mostly been at the mercy of a masterfully planned and executed military propaganda machinery.

And yet the newspaper has never taken it upon itself to let us know that it understands that the perspectives it reports in its pages when it comes to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are completely and near-absolutely colored by military and political interests that rather not tell us the truth but only that which will help us continue the misguided and unjust conflicts in the regions.

Into this foray arrives a young photographer, who produces for effect a picture that he knew he would need to produce to have it published in this newspaper. He should have been sanctioned for his manipulation, but a public flogging seems completely over the top. It has unnecessarily, and for a trivial manipulation, damaged the career of an otherwise talented and hardworking individual.

In the scheme of journalistic manipulations, from reporting from within the embed program to mindlessly repeating the inanities of ‘power brokers’ just to maintain access to them, Zachary Canepari’s infraction is trivial. It should have elicited nothing more than a behind-the-door reprimand. Lets keep in mind that neither the photograph nor the manipulation were important to the story that was run, or affected what the story attempted to discuss.  In fact, it was a pointless illustration (its just a silhouette!) and the story could in fact have stood on its own even without it!

The apparent apology is also manipulative. It places the entire responsibility on the shoulders of the young photographer and hence (as has been done many times by many publications in the past) acquits  the editors at the publication.

Editors (and not just photo editors, but the main editors) have significant influence in determining what kinds of pictures are made because they have a significant influence on what kinds of pictures are published. And the dirty little secret of photojournalism is that all photographers, particularly young and ambitious ones, learn quickly what editors want.  All photographers want their pictures published and they, either through experience or by watching the work of others, quickly absorb and understand what kinds of pictures a certain editor is looking for and prefers to run.

No where is this ugly reality more true than at wire agencies. Having watched the mind numbing repetitiveness of images being produced by local Palestinian, Afghani, and Kashmiri wire news photographers, I could not help but understand that they are simply taking orders from the desk editors, who are in turn, simply taking orders from their client publications. Wire photographers only shoot what sells, and what sells is what the editors are buying. The machinery of mass produced conflict imagery is little examined or understood, while the fantasy of the ‘independent’ photojournalist ‘exploring’ and ‘discovering’ the world carefully managed and sold.

And even major news magazines do this, as I have learned from direct experience. Editors will in fact even call their photographers and tell them what kinds of images they want. The same has been confirmed to me by a few other photojournalists working for major American news magazines – that editors will tell them what they want in the image, in particular, the kind of ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’ they are looking for.

This has happened to me on at least 2 occasions while working for two different American weekly news magazines. The editors, disappointed that my images from one of Pakistan’s frontier cities, were not ‘appropriate’ insisted that I had to produce images with a greater atmosphere of ‘menace’ and ‘threat’! When I failed to do so, they simply went to their archives and used the work of another photographer because it fitted the ‘atmosphere’ they were trying to create more than my work did.

On another occasion and with a different weekly news magazine I had an editor explicitly ask me if I could confirm that the people in the region of Mohmand, (FATA) Pakistan that I had photographed were ‘Al-Qaeda and/or Taliban supporters’ because that would be the only way she could actually consider running the work. When I refused to ‘confirm’ this, the work was shelved.

Photographers learn quickly what will publish and what will not.

Zachary Canepari, an otherwise fine and talented young photographer, has recently been shooting a lot of assignments for the New York Times newspaper. I find it impossible to believe that he was not  aware of the kinds of images and the mood that the editors were looking for.

Organizational cultures influence our behavior within them. We become aware, without even explicitly being told, which behaviors are awarded and which sanctioned. Young photographers shooting for the New York Times, (or other mainstream American newspapers) quickly learn how certain regions of the world need to be depicted and the kinds of images that in fact get published.

It is why we continue to see a the same sorts of pictures being produced from places like Afghanistan and Pakistan that we have been seeing for years; burqa clad women, bearded and demonic looking protestors, maniacal mosque worshippers and fanatical mullahs. And it is why it comes as no surprise that these shallow, embedded and conventional depictions continue to win major awards.

The visual language that a photojournalist employs does not occur in a void but in fact reflects a publication and editorial environment where that language is understood, received and celebrated. Those that speak this language the best are awarded with publication, fame and ‘authority’. This remains a little discussed fact and most all editors in fact distract us from this broader reality by constantly nit picking on minor image manipulation issues. As was recently done when a jury dismissed the work of a Danish photographer for making the sky look a bit too blue!

The outcome of that last non-existent controversy was the photographer declaring that in the future he would only participate in competitions with pictures made in ‘black & white’!

Can there be a better description of the idiocy of these discussions than this one? A competition that will accept the absolutely artificial and manipulated representation of the real world that is b&w photography,is the same one whose jury was ‘angered’ that a photographer had made his sky a bit too blue!

We are truly in the land of morons!

There are serious questions about journalistic integrity and ethics that need to be asked. From the kind of language that is used in reporting, to the means by which news is in fact actually gathered to how suceptible to power it has become. These are questions at the heart of the crisis that inflicts American journalism today. However, useless discussions about the extent of Photoshop manipulation or ‘set up’ images seem rather besides the point and nothing more than the grand standing of photo editors who realize that these trivialities are pretty much all that is left for them to pontificate on as the broader decisions about content and context have been taken away and handed to MBAs and advertising executives!