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Friday, June 20, 2008

The bicycle and the kite

The relative calm in Gaza gives us a chance to look yet again at how news photographers and editors use their biases to either evoke a mood or subtly tilt a story. They use a combination of selecting the photos and choosing the captions to get their point across.

Here are two pictures from Gaza:



In the first picture we see a a young man flying a kite on top of a ruined building. The second shows a man riding a bicycle in what appears to be a fairly idyllic town.

The caption for the first:
A Palestinian boy flies a kite as he stands on a building destroyed in recent years of conflict with Israel in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, June 19, 2008. Guns went quiet as a six-month truce between Israel and Gaza Strip militants took effect early Thursday, but there was widespread skepticism about its ability to hold. The cease-fire, which Egypt labored for months to conclude, aims to bring an end to a year of fighting that has killed seven Israelis and more than 400 Palestinians — many of them civilians — since the Islamic militant group Hamas wrested control of Gaza a year ago
In what is almost certainly a staged photo, the youth chooses to fly a kite in a place where he cannot easily run and the kite could probably get caught in a building or pther ruin. The caption together with the contrived photo subtly make the point that Palestinian Arab youths just want to play like all kids, but Israel has created a situation where that is all but impossible.

How about the second photo? It can certainly be used to evoke the same idea, that of Palestinian Arab lives slowly returning to normalcy during the cease fire. But it was taken a month ago, before the cease-fire, and its caption means to blame Israel for something else:
A Palestinian man rides a bike with his child on board in the Jebaliya Refugee Camp, northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday May 20, 2008. Defiant Gaza residents are persistently finding ways around Israeli-imposed fuel restrictions. Owners of gas-run cars are converting to liquid gas. Drivers of old diesel cars use vegetable oil mixes, and two engineers converted a car to run on electrical batteries - and are now open for business.
Did no Palestinian Arabs ride bikes before fuel shortages? Did none of them fly kites before the cease-fire?

The implication in both cases is no, they did not. They are forced to ride bikes because of Israel and they were all cowering in fear before the cease fire.

For further indications of media bias, do a Google image search on "Jabalya refugee camp." You will see many violent images - bombed out buildings, people firing guns. You will be hard-pressed to find any images like the one above, of a clean, wide residential street with no visible damage, in what looks more like a small town than a refugee camp.

When photographers want to blame Israel for all of Gaza's problems, they will make sure that their photos reflect the idea that all of Gaza is a war zone with constant fear of Israeli bombings. But when one wants to blame Israel in a different frame of reference, his image of Jabalya is suddenly different - we are accidentally seeing a side of Jabalya that almost certainly represents how it really looks and that few news photographers would ever purposefully reveal.