I heard of yet another death of a journalist in Syria’s civil war recently, via a tweet featuring a surreal image: a pair of bloodied cameras on a rough wood table, along with pita bread, a plastic water bottle-top and a container of what might be hummus.
This symbolic image of a war photographer’s death was perhaps inspired by memories of photographs from previous eras, such as the fallen soldier’s helmet atop his rifle marking a grave in an otherwise unremarkable field in an unexceptional corner of a remote land.
The iconography of death and its protagonists has ranged from fighters and civilians to those who make the images. Perhaps the most haunting of the last category is Henri Huet’s image of a priest administering the last rites over Dickey Chapelle in Vietnam.
The image of Molhem Barakat’s cameras nearly fifty years later during yet another deadly incident in Syria’s civil war ratcheted up 2013’s journalistic fatality toll to 75, according to Reporters Sans Frontiers, or 67 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Either number is disturbing, as are the supplementary figures by RSF that 37 ‘netizens’, or citizen journalists, and four ‘media assistants’ were also killed. The CPJ does not mention this category, sticking to professional journalists only.
In Syria, citizen journalists, or people affiliated with any of the several armed forces at war there, provide a fair amount of the visuals that are seen by the outside world, especially on television, usually with the disclaimer that the footage has not been verified.
The late Molhem Barakat is someone whom one might find quite difficult to pigeonhole between these two documenters of conflict, falling somewhere between activist/propagandist and photojournalist.
By the account of a foreign journalist who befriended him, Molhem (called Youssef in the story to protect him) was a kid coming of age just as his country disintegrated into civil war. He was no village boy, but a teen living in Aleppo, the commercial hub of Syria, a city that has become the epicentre of the war.
Hannah Lucinda Smith describes him as a warm, lively boy who wore Gucci shirts and jeans. Shortly after he turned 18 (if the age on his Facebook page is correct – more on this later) he put his name down on a list of those trying to join the Al Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front as a suicide bomber.
Yet somehow, instead of blowing himself up, Molhem began to submit pictures to Reuters. This is not that unusual, as news agencies have for decades recruited or taken on eager local citizens who show an aptitude for news gathering.
Many senior people now working for news organisations started out that way. I got my break into photojournalism with the Associated Press by showing up at their offices in Johannesburg with images of a man being killed in Soweto. The bureau chief asked me to shoot for them the next day, and thus began a long relationship with the AP.
But I was not a teenager.
An acclaimed news photographer and photo manager for the Middle East & North Africa, Patrick Baz, now with Agence France-Presse, was just twelve when war broke out in Lebanon in 1975. He lived near the Green Line that divided warring Christians and Moslems, and began photographing the conflict in the Eighties, “I was a teen when I started, but I was paid more than that ;-)” he responded in an email to a query about Molhem and the Reuters freelance pay scale.
Baz himself does not procure images from youngsters, “I don’t work with teenagers in Syria.” He collaborated with the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) to introduce and train fifteen Syrians to photojournalism.
“One was killed, one is kidnapped by Islamists, two fled from Islamists to Turkey and many others stopped working or just vanished. Syria is a black hole. We pay our guys every month in Turkey but we have no control over what they do. We can’t get in touch with them, they send their pix send emails or Skype whenever they have power and Internet.”
Circumstance and the siren call of adventure have seduced many young people to war, some as participants, others as witnesses. As the West considers the use of child soldiers a crime, one would expect that Western international organisations would refrain from using teenagers to cover wars. Most of those youngsters learnt the ways of journalism from colleagues.
Today, in Syria there are few professionally trained journalists operating. One wonders where someone like Molhem would be able to pick up on the basics of journalism? Did Reuters put him on a training course? That is doubtful, even though he claimed he works for Reuters on his Facebook page, Reuters have said their only relationship was that they bought images on ‘an ad hoc basis’ from him.
Reuters have been careful, in the media, to keep their relationship from Molhem as distant as possible. Yet they began accepting images from him back in May of 2013, and even supplied him with top of the range equipment, as seen in the images of his cameras after his death, and confirmed by a photographer who knew him. That speaks of more than just an ‘ad hoc’ relationship; rather it speaks of someone who is freelancing regularly with an organisation – what we might call a stringer, even if he had no retainer.
Once a news organisation stops warning us that images are the unverified work of unknown activists or even combatants from locations they are unable to confirm, and begin to put a name to photographs, then the agency is putting its stamp of authenticity on the image and its caption. We, the readers, are being told the caption is correct, the image is not a fabricated in post-production and nor has the original scene been somehow manipulated.
Molhem Barakat’s photographs were vouchsafed by Reuters as being accurate; that they did not breach any journalistic ethics. Once his images began to move on the Reuters wire with his name, one of the world’s news giants was saying that the work was journalistically trustworthy.
None of Reuters’ clients who used Molhem’s images knew anything of his political and family history. I guess they did not know he was just a teenager either.
Syria has seen more than 52 journalists killed, and 30 kidnapped during the civil war. Syria is the second most dangerous conflict ever for journalists, just after Iraq, and equal to Algeria. Non-professional images will continue to be in demand, as most international organisations have ceased sending in their own people, with good reason.
Reuters gave Molhem the opportunity to tell the story of his country at war, to be a voice for his townsfolk and family. Perhaps they averted him from becoming inevitably sucked into the fray as a combatant. Yet even as his age must raise issues about corporate responsibility, there are even larger questions to answer. Why it is okay to risk the life of a ‘local’ in a desperately dangerous war-zone, when you are unwilling to send in someone that you are legally responsible for?
Is there any insurance plan for freelancers around the world? If Molhem were seriously wounded, how would he be evacuated to proper health facilities? Of course, the risks is increased for local journalists, as they cannot come and go at will; they cannot leave for a break when they are mentally or emotionally exhausted, when their gut tells them it is time to leave.
There are clearly different standards for them, and us, it would seem. This also raises another ugly issue, that of equitable remuneration. Molhem was being paid between $50 and $100 for up to ten images accepted by the agency on any one day, according to Corey Pein. There was a bonus if any of his photographs received special acclaim.
On the other side of the globe there is another freelancer, in an African country that was recently at war, who was paid just $50 for all the images that Reuters accepted for the day.
Other agencies have a different payment scale: such as if the first image accepted was $50, if a second was accepted, it went up to $100, and if more, it became a ‘day rate’ at $150.
If the photographs are good enough to go on the Reuters wire, or be moved by Getty, Corbis, AP, AFP, etc., then why are there differentials in pay? I have yet to see a disclaimer in the caption warning the readers that this is a cheaper (inferior?) image.
Looking at the edited highlights of Molhem’s photographs that were put on the wire by Reuters, there is something naggingly disturbing about some of them. I have run offices and field desks in various conflict zones from Croatia, Bosnia and Jerusalem to Zaïre. I have bought in many images from freelancers, some of them professional, some not so much. On of my main concerns was trying to discern if the scenes had been stage-managed – critical in ensuring that dishonest images do not get out to the world.
Molhem was definitely a very good young photographer, some of his images are hauntingly beautiful; but others raise red flags. They looked either suicidally brave or were ‘managed’. I would be very curious to see what images did not make the wire.
It would be unexpected if journalistic integrity were his guiding light. Where would Molhem have received training, or exposure, to a world that values objectivity over subjectivity? He and his family were a part of the conflict – his older brother was a fighter in the Free Syrian Army and was killed alongside him during the battle for the Kindi hospital. Molhem had previously told Smith that his grandfather and uncle had been killed by the Al-Assad regime because of their support for the opposition.
Molhem Barakat’s death is a tragedy, among many, in an appalling war. Yet it gives us pause to reflect on journalism, especially journalism of the image.
The media houses should to be more ethical, fairer, in how they treat local hires and freelancers, especially in war zones.
We talk of blood diamonds and have refused to wear running shoes stitched by exploited, underage labour; yet we are content to consume images made by teenagers who are paid peanuts.