April 20, 2016

Witness Project


Well I know mourning’s face whom the Sarajevo wind strafes while flipping through newspaper pages stuck together from pools of blood on the street where I awkwardly watch my steps with a small loaf of bread under my arm. It’s in the river too when its waves sway a dead woman’s body on whose arm I notice a watch as I run across the bridge with a bucket full of milk. And, in the chill of December, I saw that face in a hand motion that stuffed a shoe of a never grown child into a wood-burning stove. It’s a face that returns its thanks on the back of family photographs that flutter beneath garbage trucks. And it is the face that rebukes a trembling pencil for being incapable of writing a bulky dictionary of lament. A face which nightly keeps me from sleeping which is why I watch my neighbour who is always awake by the window staring into the blind darkness.- Goran Simic From the “Mourning of Sarajevo” journal, The Face of Mourning. (translated into English by C. Polony.)

Paolo Black MAPJD2012ONLIN

Online Project Brief

Course Title: MA Photojournalism & Documentary Photography
Unit Title: 1.2 History & Theory of Photojournalism & Documentary Photography
Project Brief Approved By: Paul Lowe Date: July 3, 2012
Date issued: April 24, 2012 Hand-in/Deadline date: July 27, 2012
Assignment Title: Witness

(4: With reference to one photographer or event, discuss the claim that “the photograph is a witness”)

Unit 1.2 History & Theory of Photojournalism & Documentary Photography Essay

Disturbing Images

Just after noon, on February 5, 1994, a 120mm mortar shell exploded in the main market square in Sarajevo, killing 68 people, and wounding 200. It was the worst single atrocity in what was then a 22-month old conflict between Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats.

An eye-witness quoted by the BBC said: “Some people were literally torn apart. Heads and limbs were ripped off bodies.” Associated Press reported: “Horribly mangled bodies and severed limbs lay scattered amid blood-stained market stalls … There are trucks of dead, there are legs, arms, heads — as many as you want,” said a wounded man at Kosevo Hospital.”

Link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/bosvote/market.htm

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I was a senior producer at BBC News, and was putting together a ‘package’ reporting the terrible event. Video and stills of the aftermath were so incredibly graphic that my immediate concern was to choose what could and couldn’t be shown. (See *Footnote: BBC Editorial Guidelines)

As I looked through the ‘rushes’ that were arriving from our various sources in Sarajevo, it seemed to me that the camera operators, both video and stills, had decided to “shoot everything.” I was looking at so many images of so many severed body parts that they began to lose meaning – the desensitization effect, described in the BBC guidelines. Much of the flesh was blackened by the blast, and some of it had seared into the asphalt in the explosion’s intense heat. It was immediately obvious to me that very little, if anything, of what I was looking at could be shown to our viewers, a conclusion that was later endorsed by Allan Little’s report for the BBC from Sarajevo. He called the carnage “a human abattoir,” and yet, by comparison to the disturbing images I had seen, his report could only be described as sanitized. Even so, the BBC warned viewers: “This video contains some disturbing images.”

In calling what he’d seen “a human abattoir”, he’d told the viewer that he’d seen severed body parts, but the carnage was too disturbing to show. Even so, there were complaints to the BBC about the graphic quality of the images in his report … it’s more likely that Little’s description of a “human abattoir” had caused viewers to make a mental jump and see abattoir-like imagery, when in fact there was none in his report.

Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17617775

On August 28, 1995, a second mortar exploded in Sarajevo, just as Reuters Photographers Peter Andrews and Danilo Kristanovic were in the city, looking for feature pictures. On May 31st, 2011, Peter Andrews wrote a blog for Reuters which described what happened:

“The view was horrible as people ran and screamed … Bodies and body parts were lying everywhere and the wounded were screaming for help.

“We took pictures for maybe ten or twenty minutes and even today I don’t remember how I managed to work. … I had never seen anything like that before.

“A few hours later some members of the U.S. Embassy arrived at our office and took some copies of the pictures that we had taken. Within two days, NATO began its bombing campaign against Serbian positions around Sarajevo, which was the beginning of the end of the war. In fact, the war was over. The pictures we took that day were some of the most important pictures in my life but I would never like to repeat them again.”

Link: http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2011/05/31/welcome-to-sarajevo-again/

Peter Andrews’ images included this one, which was used around the world, including on the BBC. It shows victims on the ground, and some blood not just on a man’s leg in the foreground but also apparently on the woman’s hands. However, the image mainly focuses on the anxieties of those trying to help. And there is a line that editors have decided not to cross. The focus is on those trying to help. The moving bodies of the helpers mask the dead and wounded. While the image is certain to disturb, it would be unlikely to confront.

However, in his personal blog Peter Andrews crosses that line. But warns the viewer:


This is that image. It would never have been shown on the BBC. Even if we’d cropped out the body draped across the fence, the fact that we can clearly see the woman’s face would have ruled it out. Why? Is it something to do with staring death in the face? Perhaps her face categorises her as an identifiable individual, a human being. It would certainly be confronting and distressing, but why is that a reason not to use it? In my 40-year career as a journalist I’ve seen more than 200 dead bodies, all of them victims of violence, ranging from car crashes to war. I always had the sense that I was looking at an empty shell, that whatever was inside them had gone. And in this image from Sarajevo, it’s comforting to know that these former citizens would appear to be beyond suffering, that we are now looking at empty shells, disfigured or not. The old man looking away is poignant. What is he looking at? The man in the background appears to be looking in the same direction – so it appears something is happening, out of our view. Only the living are interested. Only the living are witnesses. It’s quite ironic that this old man has survived so much longer than those considerably younger people on the ground.

In the first mortar attack on Sarajevo in February 1994, because there was no physical evidence of it being a Serbian assault the Americans refused to sanction a NATO attack on Serbian positions. The UN sent peacekeepers, but they allowed the Serbians to keep their armaments. And so, although most people have probably never heard of Peter Andrews and Danilo Kristanovic, it’s possible that their images pressured the Americans to finally make a decision to intervene. If this is true, then at what point should a photographer say ‘as witness to this event, my photographs could change the course of this war, and perhaps, could end it sooner?’

The first image I ever saw that had this effect was this one:


Around noon of February 1, 1968, in the opening days of the communist Tet Offensive, South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed a Vietcong prisoner in Saigon — and photographer Eddie Adams captured one of the war’s most memorable images. Though the image won Adams the Pulitzer Prize, he later expressed discomfort with it. For Adams, the lie was the omission of context — that the plainclothes Lem had allegedly just been caught having murdered not only South Vietnamese police but their civilian families. Adams wrote in Time Magazine July 27, 1998: “The general killed the Vietcong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. … What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?”.

Link: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,988783,00.html

In 1968, I was almost 20-years-old, at a time in Australia, when all almost-20-year-old men were being balloted to see who would go and fight in Vietnam, as the Australian Government had an “All The Way with LBJ” policy. (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) Until this image was published, Australia had been fighting the Communist bogey-man “on our doorstep,” and feared the “yellow peril” that was about to swallow us all up. This image, for the first time, gave a face to the side that we were supporting, the South Vietnamese, and this General had just killed someone in front of us, in our name. We didn’t like it. This image – witnessing a summary execution – caused a sea-change in public opinion. Many of those who’d previously feared the spill-over effect of Communism in Asia, were now roundly condemning the war.

Link: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401804636.html

Link: http://www.pdnonline.com/pdnedu/Out-of-the-Past-Edd-5615.shtml”>

Another cameraman also captured the execution on film. It makes me feel quite ill watching it. Although the still had a powerful effect in 1968, watching the moving image of the execution today is a great deal more powerful for me, especially watching his dying, squirming body on the ground after the shot, in the same way a chicken’s body squirms uncontrollably after its head is removed. In ‘On Photography’, Susan Sontag directly contradicts this view. Sontag argues “television doesn’t have the same impact because moving pictures don’t have the same impact as a single image.

Link: http://www.executedtoday.com/2009/02/01/1968-nguyen-van-lem/

“Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of under-selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.”- On Photography, Susan Sontag. Pages: 17/18.

Sontag’s book, Regarding The Pain Of Others maintains that this photo was staged. She claims the prisoner was led out to the street where a group of journalists were waiting, and that: ”he would not have carried out the summary execution there had they not been available to witness it.” (Page 53). So, if Adams’ assertion is right – that the General killed the Vietcong, and he killed the General with his camera – then the General actually committed political suicide. What was the General thinking? Why did he want his execution witnessed by what the US Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady, called “the eye of history?” Sontag offers no proof of her claim, but Adams’ own account of the incident, quoted by Michael Maclear’s “Vietnam: A Complete Photographic History”, doesn’t appear to support her hypothesis.

Link: http://www.notablebiographies.com/Be-Br/Brady-Mathew.html

“February 2, 1968 – Photographer Eddie Adams, working his third stint for AP in Vietnam, and National Broadcasting Co. cameraman Vo Su, prowled the streets of Saigon looking for war. The two photographers looked around Cholon district …. They were about to depart when they heard shots a block or so away. The two moved toward the action. Eddie saw two Vietnamese soldiers pull a prisoner out of a doorway at the end of a street.”

Eddie recalls:

“It looked like a ‘perp walk’ (perpetrator – from his coverage of New York crime.) And I covered it that way. I just followed the three of them as they walked toward us, making an occasional picture. When they were up close – maybe five feet away – the soldiers stopped and backed away. I saw a man walk into my camera viewfinder from the left. He took a pistol out of his holster and raised it. I had no idea he would shoot. It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning … But he raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple. I made a picture at the same time.”

Link: http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?131040-Famous-VC-Execution-%28Warning-Graphic-Pic%29

Sontag is categorical that it was staged, but Adams’ recollection suggests they stumbled across it.

Historically, this scene must have been acted out for centuries, but to see it on the front page of our newspapers, especially in the United States and Australia, where young people were being sent to this basin of war, prompted a ground-swell of public opinion against the conflict. Sontag writes in Regarding The Pain of Others that “ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death.” Sontag says that when cameras were freed from the bondage of their tripods, “picture-taking acquired an immediacy and authority greater than any verbal account in conveying the horror of mass produced death.” (Page 21).

War photography began when the British Government asked photographer Roger Fenton, to take pictures of the Crimea in 1855, the battleground of the conflict between Russia and the forces of Turkey, Britain and France. Disease and exposure were killing more troops than enemy fire, causing the British public to question the policies and leadership of the Government. The Government wanted to show the British troops in a good light, and so Fenton – struggle as he did with massive amounts of equipment and chemicals – made portraits of the troops that required them to keep still for around 15 seconds, and the images showed not a sign of blood.

“The George Eastman House Collection, A History of Photography from 1839 to the Present,” Page 250.

Eleven years later, the American Civil War photographer Matthew B. Brady photographed the gore of war and justified his photography of war-dead (1861-65) by saying “The Camera is the eye of history.”

Even so “The Eye of History” was being tampered with – Sontag claims Fenton rearranged cannonballs, while Brady rearranged bodies – for their pictures.

(Regarding the Pain of Others, Page 48) “We want the photographer to be the spy in the house of love and death,” she preaches, and she’s probably right. People are always disappointed to discover a picture has been faked in some way.

I was working at BBC News when our film crew in Rome, moved some detritus from one street to another “for a more effective background” for their story. An Italian film crew recorded their deception, and even the Pope complained. The BBC Crew were all suspended for six months.


This image from ArtOfficial Intelligence has recently been doing the rounds of Facebook, and shared so many hundreds of times that it would appear to be emblematic of a general distrust of the media.

The Guardian’s Martin Argles, 2010 UK Photographer of the Year told me: “…there is no particular objective truth in this game, but this sort of thing happened … photography in the UK in the 70s and 80s was far more critically analysed than it is now, and this sort of instance came up a lot. There were several riots and I remember a particular picture in which a black guy was arrested by the police, they had their arms around his neck and they were pulling him back and as they pulled him back it exposed a massive great knife that he had tucked into his belt … and some people cropped it so that the knife was not there, and some people cropped it so that the knife was there, and it was a very similar situation to this. I think you have to forgive the photographer to some extent. The photographer is in a situation of high tension when an awful lot of other things are going on, and the idea that a photographer is coolly analysing the photograph in advance and then chopping out – yeah, the man with the gun or the man with the water bottle, I think is highly unlikely.

“Generally speaking, the photographer’s seen that makes a good pattern, that’s an amazing expression as he pulls his head back, just quick, take the picture, don’t hesitate just take it, and then afterwards sees the gun and whatever. I don’t think you can particularly forgive either CNN or Al Jazeera for editing it in that way, if that’s how they did edit it, if it’s true. It think it’s mostly a question of editing rather than photography, but I’m not saying photographers don’t have prejudices, it’s certainly true, but it’s possible that…funnily enough, most photographers I know think about the picture before they think about the prejudice, if you like. But it’s interesting you’ve brought this up now because I’ve noticed something of a revival of interest in ethical criticism of photography.”

One-hour Interview recorded: 26th of June, 2012.


The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines say:


Our audiences, particularly children, can be frightened or distressed by the portrayal of both real and fictional violence. We should make very careful judgements when we plan to include violence in our output; there is increasing public concern about violence in society in general and as portrayed in the media, both in factual and fictional content. Consideration should be given to the editorial justification for any depiction of violence, and violent content should normally be clearly signposted. When real life violence, or its aftermath, is shown on television or reported on radio and online we need to strike a balance between the demands of accuracy and the dangers of desensitisation or unjustified distress. There are very few circumstances in which it is justified to broadcast the moment of death.