Syria: Pictures from a war zone
By Patrick Baz
The photo above and others from the deadly May 10 bombing in Syria were taken by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), which offers images free of charge via the Web. This is how we were able to pick them up within minutes here in Nicosia, which is AFP’s regional HQ for the Middle East, and push them on to our clients.
SANA is a bit like Pravda in that it is the only official agency in the country. It is, in other words, a propaganda organ. But it’s also very reactive, and is generally on the scene as soon as something major happens. Their approach to photojournalism is also akin to the old Soviet model: first, let the photographers do their job and take pictures, lots of them. But what they do with them afterward is another matter. That’s when the censorship process kicks it, though occasionally they’ll let photos through without the usually vetting process.
Pictures of the aftermath of bombings are generally authentic, but SANA photos do need to be verified. In any case, we always tell our clients exactly where every photo comes from. The images of the May 10 bombing, for example, are all marked: “RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT ‘AFP PHOTO / HO / SANA’.” “H.O.” are the initials of the photo editor who sent out the image that is on the AFP wires. The legend also says: “NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.”
(AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)
The Syrian rebels also have a photo agency, two in fact. Sham News – “Sham” means both “Greater Syria” and Damascus – and so-called Local Coordination Committees (LCCs). Both networks transmit by email photos and videos taken on the ground by ordinary citizens, a kind of rebellion by crowd-sourcing.
At the outset of the uprising, more than a year ago, we witnessed genuine “citizen journalism,” with people sending images to bear witness. Now that the conflict has deepened and hardened, even the opposition is sliding toward propaganda. In the choices we make as photo editors, we have to be careful not to pass along disinformation.
Sometimes we’ll receive photos showing a body. SANA will identify the corpse as belonging to a “soldier” killed by militants, and the LCC will say it’s a “martyr” killed by government forces! The explanation is simple, even if finding the truth is not: First, there’s the official funeral, with SANA sending out pictures with a legend describing “the coffin of a soldier.” Then the body is handed over to the family, and in the legend of the LCC photos, the same corpse becomes a “martyr.”
The solution for us is to stick with what we know for sure and not get caught up in the competing claims that we are not in a position to verify. “A body was buried,” is all we can say.
AFP has a bureau in Damascus staffed by a fulltime photographer, Louai Beshara. On Wednesday, May 9, he was with the convoy of the head UN observer, Norwegian general Robert Mood, when an IED – improvised explosive device – went off at the entrance of the hotly contested town of Deraa after four of the convoy’s vehicles had passed by. Ten soldiers were injured. Beshara took some pictures and called in the incident to AFP. The convoy didn’t even stop.
(AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)
The UN is keen to have journalists covering the activities of UN observers, and our Beirut-based photographer Joseph Eid recently shadowed them for several days in the neighborhoods of Homs and along the Lebanese border, giving AFP exclusive photos.
The Syrians are not always happy about such arrangements, but they let them happen. Beshara never travels alone, but he has good contacts at SANA who sometimes give him photos that the agency has not used or distributed. It is important to construct a relationship with the authorities, and to explain to them why we need to be able to do our job. Syria today reminds me of Iraq in the 1990s.
Right now, AFP does not have any photographers in rebel Syria. We are buying images from freelancers that have slipped across the border. Syria is a very dangerous place to be at the moment. Truth be told, we don’t have a lot of volunteers ready to go. The Syrian authorities can see that we are distributing images taken from rebel zones. They understand that we are an international agency, and they choose to simply look the other way. But we have been warned: any reporters or photographers found in the company of rebels will be considered rebels themselves.
This is why we avoid at all costs sending in photographers who come from an Arab country. If captured, a Westerner will always be treated more favorably.