From Al-Masara to the Wall Street Journal: A Case Report of Palestinian Fauxtography

By Allon Friedman

Like all supporters of Israel, I am acutely aware of the mainstream media’s all-pervading anti-Israel bias.  I learned long ago that news reports which fairly present Israel’s version of the conflict are as rare as July snowflakes in Houston.  A recent experience of mine only reinforced these beliefs.

While leisurely perusing a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal, I came across an article entitled “Israel Pushes Housing After U.N. Vote.”  I was immediately struck by a curious photograph within the piece and its caption: “A Palestinian girl tries to push an Israeli soldier at a demonstration in the West Bank village of al-Masara, near Bethlehem, on Friday.”

At first glance, the photo did indeed reveal a young girl facing an Israeli soldier who, along with several comrades, was holding up his riot shield.  On closer examination, however, several things about the photo were suspect.  The girl, whose arms were fully outstretched, with fingertips just touching the shield, did not seem to be pushing anything.  Her stance — and the soldier’s — also lacked any sign of tension or exertion.  Perhaps more intriguingly, why was a girl barely out of her toddler years facing off against soldiers in riot gear?

And the girl was not the only incongruous aspect of the photo.  Where was the demonstration the caption referred to?  The photo showed only two, perhaps three other protestors with plenty of space between them.  It was also not clear to me why this particular photo was used, since it had no clear relationship to the associated article and therefore seemed to gratuitously promote the conflict narrative pitting David (Palestinians) against Goliath (Israelis).

All these questions seemed to me fairly obvious and important, so I could not understand how the photo slipped past the editors’ desk of the most widely circulated newspaper in the U.S.

Being familiar with the extensive body of fraudulent photography used by the Palestinian Arabs and other enemies of Israel to push their virulently anti-Israel narrative in the media (so-called fauxtography), I became increasingly suspicious.  Later that evening, I sent an e-mail (since published on the blogs Israel Matzav and Powerline) expressing my concern to the Wall Street Journal.  It included the following observations:

1.  The girl’s arms are fully outstretched with her fingertips touching the plastic shield of the Israeli soldier.  Judging by her stance and the position of her arms, there is no sense of physical strain on her part nor of force being exerted either by her or the soldier.  In fact, the girl does not look like she is trying to push anything.  Rather, it looks very much like what one would expect with a staged photo, where someone has asked the girl to walk up to the soldier and put her hands on the shield for a photo-op.

2.  In addition, the “demonstration” is odd in that, at least in the photo, there is no sense of urgency or tension at all.  Note the soldier in the background who is looking down at something as well as the empty space that surrounds the girl.

In summary, the photo was most likely staged.  Unfortunately, there is copious documentation that the Western media frequently publish staged and/or manipulated photos of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Invariably, the photos fit an anti-Israel narrative, like the one I describe here (oppressed child vs. oppressor soldier).  Often the photos can be traced back to Arab stringers or photographers who are simply biased against Israel or, on certain occasions, actually on the payroll of Israel’s adversaries.

I also decided to send a similar e-mail outlining my concerns to the European Photopress Agency (EPA) located in Germany, the purveyor of the photo.  I soon received the following response:

Dear Mr Friedman,

thank you for your email. We discussed your points within the management circle, our regional chief photographer in Jerusalem and with our photographer who had covered the demonstration in al-Masara for epa on 30 November 2012. The series of pictures of the event was viewed again and we had talks with our competitors who had photographers at the scene too.

We found that the picture was not staged nor manipulated which would have violated all ethical standards of journalism.  epa has a high reputation in photography and is respected as one of the four major news photo agencies in the world. epa doesn’t accept photographers or editors being biased.

According to the photographer at the scene the girl in our picture got close to the soldiers and tried to push her way through. All this happened in a few minutes. Our photographer confirmed to us that he at no point had spoken to the child but simply captured the moment of a spontaneous event.

Another image shows a boy in a similar situation, other pictures show adult protesters standing very close to the soldiers, all this underlines the statement made by our colleague, the accuracy of the caption information we had given and the authenticity of the picture.

When looking at the pictures we noticed an IDF soldier shooting video of the scene which might help you with your further analysis and to verify if the situation, as you suggested, was set-up by the press photographers present.

epa follows closely the reports about photographers who are influenced and biased against Israel or against Palestine which is serious and a matter of concern. All the same our work ethics are based on objective reporting not on opinion. We trust our photographers/editors and appreciate their highly professional work.

with kind regards,

[name]

deputy editor-in-chief

I responded:

Mr. [name],

Thank you for your quick response.  Unfortunately, you have not offered any convincing evidence that the photo I emailed you about was not staged.  I would be very interested in seeing the photo of the boy to verify that that photo was not staged as well.

With regards to the Israeli videotape, it would appear to me that it is your company’s responsibility, not mine, to follow up with the Israeli army to ensure that your employees have been acting in an honest fashion, especially given the suspicious photo you disseminated.   As you say, epa “doesn’t accept photographers or editors being biased…”   I therefore look forward to hearing from you as to whether the Israeli army’s video corroborates your claims about the photo.

Sincerely,

Allon Friedman, MD

I enquired further into the photo of the boy that EPA offered up as supportive proof.  Here was their answer:

Mr. Friedman,

epa did all the necessary to establish proof of accuracy and authenticity of the picture therefore we won’t pursue this further.

Please feel free to visit our website www.epa.eu and search for ‘al-Masara’ for the pictures taken during the demonstration on November 30th. No password is required.

Whilst it is clear that epa’s statement isn’t convicing to your we consider that your enquiry has been taken serious, all the necessary has been done to investigate your points and satisfactory answers had been given.

best regards,

[name]

I took their advice and looked up the nine other photos taken at the same time as the one I had seen in the Wall Street Journal.  Here they are:

 

If I previously had any doubts about my suspicions, they all vanished after reviewing the additional photos.  The “demonstrators” appear to number about half a dozen, perhaps fewer, and certainly less than the ten or so bored-looking soldiers in attendance.  In the informed opinion of one U.S. National Guard Power Line reader currently stationed in Kosovo, the photos were clearly staged.

What was the motivation for the “demonstration”?  Based on the placards, it was clearly in opposition to…surprise, surprise…the very existence of Israel, which, according to the Palestinian leadership, rests entirely on “illegally occupied land.”  What about the photo of the boy?  He can be seen pounding on a soldier’s shield (or, as the caption breathlessly describes, trying “to push back Israeli soldiers”) while the soldier looks to his side with a blasé expression that seems to suggest that he’s well-acquainted with this type of staged photo-op.  Far from corroborating EPA’s story, the photo offers another excellent example of fauxtography.  I decided to follow up with EPA one last time and was told that the matter would not be pursued further.

After a few days, I did receive a call from a Wall Street Journal employee wishing to follow up on my concerns.  Though he admitted that the photo’s caption and even its contents were “confusing,” he assured me that the demonstration had indeed occurred because it had been witnessed by other journalists.  I was surprised by this weak argument and pointed out the blatant inconsistencies in the photo and the long track record of Palestinian fauxtography.  The employee offered to discuss my points with his colleagues.

In retrospect, the photo-op was a classic case of fauxtography.  According to a study sponsored by media watchdog Honest Reporting and performed by professional photographer David Katz after studying more than 13,000 media photos from Israel and the Palestinian territories, double standards and bias against Israel are standard fare.  Katz categorized the distortions as those involving:

  • Deliberate staging
  • Use of wide-angle lenses and photographer positions to make photos appear more dramatic than the reality
  • Photographers choosing positions that affect the events they shoot
  • Editorializing in photo captions

All the photos, including the one featured in the Wall Street Journal, exhibit at least one, and sometimes all, of these characteristics.

When considering the revelations surrounding the original photo in question, it is hard to conclude anything other than that when photojournalism is applied to the State of Israel, basic tenets of journalistic integrity and professionalism are freely abandoned.  The problem here began with a photojournalist — in this case, Abed Al Hashlamoun — whose body of work as seen in EPA’s archives is a testament to the cause of Palestinian propaganda and Fauxtography.

The next level of journalistic unprofessionalism involved EPA, the photo agency that profited by selling Hashlamoun’s propagandistic photos.  The response of EPA to my concerns was telling indeed and reflected a haughty European indifference, circular logic (i.e., EPA does not tolerate unethical behavior, therefore no unethical behavior could have occurred) that was not amenable to persuasion by reason, and something a little darker in tone.  EPA’s reference to “photographers who are influenced and biased … against Palestine” suggests an anti-Israel inclination cloaked in ostensible even-handedness.  Putting aside the reference to the nonexistent state of Palestine, has there ever been an allegation of a photographer being biased against Palestinians?  If so, I am certain we would all have heard about it by now.

While I am not surprised by EPA’s position, which reflects the thinking of the European media elite, I was taken aback by the actions of the Wall Street Journal, a world-class newspaper that is said to treat Israel without bias.  While its editorial page is a strong defender of Israel, its actual news reporting is in my opinion as partisan as its competitors’.

As it turns it, this was not the first time the Wall Street Journal published fraudulent anti-Israel photos.  How could this happen?  The possibilities include laziness, indifference, acceptance of the anti-Israel narrative, or a combination of the three on the part of the editorial staff.

Regardless, this cautionary tale teaches us that even at media’s highest levels, when it comes to the treatment of Israel, we all have, to paraphrase Robert Frost, many miles to go before we can sleep comfortably.

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