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‘Corporate Mainstream Media Aligned With Political Powers And Israeli Narratives’: British-Indian Photographer On Covering Gaza

Representing and reporting the truth about the atrocities in Gaza could have been a redemptive moment for photojournalism. Regrettably, it’s the same old story.

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Scribes Take a Hit: Friends carry bodies of Palestinian journalists Muhammad Sobh and Saeed Al-Taweel
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The systematic and wilful murders of the Palestinian people by successive Israeli governments have been going on since the 1960s. So discussing only the events of October 7, 2023, is like entering the narrative halfway through the story. 

Israel and its enablers have for decades sought to equate any criticism of Israel or its policies towards Palestinians with allegations of inherent anti-Semitism. Individuals who have sought to offer context to the Palestinian resistance, or voiced solidarity with the Palestinian cause, have faced public penalties. In the past 70 days, this has manifested in job losses, student suspensions, cancellations of events and speakers, demonisation of protestors, and the criminalisation of dissent. 

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Yet, social media is teeming with overwhelming support for Palestine; ordinary citizens around the world are outraged, mobilising in large numbers to organise protests on the streets, participating in boycotts against corporations, and calling on world leaders for a permanent ceasefire in Israel’s latest, and most brutal, assault on Gaza. However, this support for the Palestinian cause does not stem from accurate or evidence-based news from media organisations. 

Indeed, what we are observing is the brazen alignment of corporate mainstream media with political powers and Israeli narratives in their coverage of the assault on Gaza. Entities such as the BBC and The New York Times have faced protests, both sizable and modest, for their apparent bias in favour of Israel while reporting on the issue. 

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This backing for Palestinians can largely be attributed to the steadfast dedication of local photojournalists who have persistently reported from Gaza since October 8. Photojournalists such as Motaz Azaiza, Samar Abu Elouf, Plestia Alaqad, Mahmoud Bassam, Loay M Ayyoub, Yasser Qudih, Mohammed Zaanoun, Mohamed Al-Masri, Wissam Nassar, Adel Al-Hawajri, and many others are risking their lives every day to reveal what is happening in Gaza. These photojournalists are meticulously reporting through photos, videos, blogs, and social media posts, and exposing the horrors unfolding in Gaza. Despite losing their families and friends in the past weeks, they are going above and beyond their professional duty by consistently sharing stories of human pain and suffering in Gaza.

However, there are a few fundamental questions that need to be addressed. For instance, how many of these photographs are finding their way into mainstream newspapers, magazines, or websites that are celebrated as the leading voices in journalism? Why haven’t the majority of North American and European media outlets showcased or amplified the work and efforts of Palestinian photojournalists? And why are the photojournalists, who bestow upon themselves the crown of humanity and morality, silent in the face of such a profound tragedy? 
The insignificance of contemporary photojournalism, in its decrepit state, has been evaluated by numerous individuals. Asim Rafiqui, a photographer, critic, and educator, has been articulating the dispensability of obsolete photojournalistic practices for more than a decade now. Anyone, with even a modest level of social, economic, or political awareness, can readily discern the shortcomings within the realm of photojournalism

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To begin with, there persists an insistence on perpetuating the myth of photojournalists as heroic figures or lone saviours committed to rescuing the world. This myth is passionately promoted in photojournalism schools, workshops, exhibitions, festivals, TED talks, and private discussions. In almost all photojournalism schools around the world, aspiring photojournalists get to view ‘War Photographer’, a documentary by Christian Frei, which profiles photojournalist James Nachtwey. But nowhere do they discuss how photojournalists, like Nachtwey, working for wire agencies, newspapers, or magazines do not operate as isolated ‘individuals’ guided solely by moralistic ideals; instead, their professional actions are significantly influenced by their employers and consumers. Nowhere do schools attempt to explain that photojournalists operate within the confines of the publication or agency’s inclinations and character. Or that, photojournalists, driven by their individual ambitions or goals, follow editorial directives that may be biased, and work within the broader corporate, socio-political, financial, and cultural context. 

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Photojournalists, along with their editors, publishers, and curators, are acutely aware that their professional existence is contingent upon aligning with the political, military, and profit-driven ecosystem, which allows them to be present and ‘witness’ events. But they choose not to discuss any of it and want their readers to simply view them as independent ‘humanistic’ and ‘photojournalistic’ voices. Such discussions are crucial as they would further prompt many relevant questions. Like, why, despite covering numerous wars and disasters worldwide, did Nachtwey not document the impact of the American invasion on millions of Iraqi and Afghani men, women, and children? 

Another failing of photojournalism lies in its myth of ‘objectivity’. This ‘objectivity’, which often is a white-male perspective, expects photojournalists to pursue ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ without being biased or involved. This myth of ‘objectivity’ persists, even though any discerning mind can grasp that every form of journalism inevitably results from a multitude of subjective decisions. 

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Photojournalists are expected to uphold an aura of ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’. In doing so, however, they often forget to assess the underlying socio-economic, political, cultural, or historical factors that precipitated the events they are documenting. For them, ‘truth’ remains confined to what is captured in front of the camera. But we exist in a world where the significance of contexts, analyses, modes of inquiry, and informed narratives cannot be overstated. If photojournalists lack the insight that their inability to investigate leads to conveying only partial truths, then what is the point of them expressing anything at all?  And where does ‘objectivity’ lie when photojournalists routinely embed with militaries? How difficult is it to understand that reporting while embedded with a combatant unit inherently lacks ‘objectivity’. 

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Associated Press photojournalist Ohad Zwigenberg recently embedded with Israeli troops in Gaza. It raises an important question: while similar endeavours by Chinese or Russian photojournalists embedded with their respective militaries are characterized as propaganda, why is the work of Associated Press or Agence France-Presse photojournalists in similar situations consistently presented and accepted as ‘objective’ and ‘photojournalism’?

Furthermore, photojournalism still adheres to the simplistic notion of ‘show and tell’. While ‘show and tell’ may be effective as an elementary class activity, the expectations of adult readers extend beyond mere presentation. Readers seek profound insights to understand the challenges that afflict our global society. Photojournalism typically eschews extensive research, dismisses comprehension of cause-and-effect relationships, and never attempts an in-depth analysis of complex issues and situations. 

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For example, it’s not uncommon to encounter novice photojournalists expressing an aspiration to ‘do a story on’ or ‘cover’ the brothels and sex workers of Garstin Bastion (GB) Road in New Delhi. However, in newsrooms, it is rare to find a photo editor capable of steering them towards more pertinent lines of inquiry. Now, readers are eager to understand the mechanisms and reasons behind the conspicuous operation of a brothel in the capital city of India. They want to know the circumstances behind the trafficking of these women, and the underlying conditions that compelled them into prostitution. But what photojournalistic ‘stories’ or ‘essays’ offer are tired depictions of sex workers applying makeup, waiting for clients in dimly lit alleys and stairways, or engaging in sexual activity with their clients. Can photojournalists explain the paradox of numerous illegal brothels operating openly near a police station on GB Road? Can photojournalists reveal how these brothels, most likely, operate with the active connivance of politicians and authorities? Can photojournalists shed light on the actions or inactions of the elected representatives in the area where these brothels exist? If the answer to all these questions is a no, then what purpose does photojournalism really serve in this case? A mere ‘show and tell’?

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These questions bear significance as, amidst the grim statistics of around 20,000 lives lost and approximately 2 million displaced in Gaza, there exists a pervasive silence within the world of photojournalism regarding the horrors of this assault. Press access to Gaza has been denied by Israel since October 7, with little likelihood of permission being granted in the near future. Israel has been targeting journalists deliberately. On October 13, Issam Abdallah, a Lebanese journalist working for Reuters, was killed in a deliberate attack on civilians by the Israel Defense Forces. This was revealed by joint investigations conducted by Reuters, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Agence France-Presse. But photojournalists world over remain silent, refraining from demanding an end to the harrowing violence unleashed by Israel on Gaza’s civilians. 

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Contrast this silence with the vocal stance that photojournalists took, and continue to take, in the context of the Ukraine-Russia war. Consider this example. Based in France, FotoEvidence Association each year supports photojournalists with a book award focussing on urgent issues, including instances of genocide. The FotoEvidence Book Award last year was given for the book ‘Ukraine: A War Crime’ (2023), which is a collection of over 360 photographs and witness accounts by 90 photojournalists from 29 countries. The book contains images and reportages from ninety photojournalists who covered the “humanitarian catastrophe” and “war crimes investigations” to reveal the “indiscriminate violence of the Russian assault and the displacement of millions of people”. 

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The book has been featured at numerous photo festivals and museums globally. It got the Photographer’s Book of the Year accolade from both the International Photography Awards (IPA) and the Lucie Awards. However, neither the FotoEvidence Association nor the 90 photojournalists involved have uttered a single word about the events unfolding in Gaza. In fact, on November 17, the FotoEvidence Association announced that their annual book award will this year bring together photojournalists to once again document the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on children and families. 

Photojournalism has for long existed within a self-aggrandising realm, imagining a distinct world of its own. It has steadfastly resisted self-critique and refused to acknowledge that its obsolete ways of ‘seeing’ have significantly contributed to its growing irrelevance in the contemporary world. Photojournalists bemoan the loss of jobs and the erosion of public trust. And they attribute the decline of photojournalism’s heyday to factors such as accessible digital technologies, diminishing profits in print media business, the influx of freelancers, or the short attention span of the average reader. 

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But for decades, photojournalism was busy constructing a messianic narrative of bravado around itself. Engrossed in orchestrating grand festivals, competitions, and self-congratulatory ceremonies to celebrate its presumed excellence, photojournalism failed to notice the world evolving. It did not realise that discerning readers will soon interrogate the politics, profits, or propaganda influencing the production of journalistic photographs. People no longer relied on photojournalism to reveal the truth; its influence waned in the face of a more connected global audience. 

Representing and reporting the truth about the atrocities in Gaza could have been a redemptive moment for photojournalism. Regrettably, it chose to relinquish its purpose once again, yielding to the unholy alliance of political powers, the military and capital interests.

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(Bharat Choudhary is an Indian-British photographer and filmmaker. Views expressed are personal.)

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