Saturday, August 05, 2006

Qana - the director's cut

This post has been superseded by our latest report . We have left this one in place for archival purposes only.


I have called this post, "the director's cut", as that is what it is. The narrative here is of how the combination of Hezbollah's media management and modern photo-journalism has turned the recording of a tragic event into theatre, in the best tradition of Michael Moore.

As best we can, we have pieced together the jumble of evidence which surrounded the production of the iconic photographs which were published around the world, and put them in perspective. Many of the photographs have been used before, some are new to this site and others are video "grabs". But it is not the pictures, per se, that tell the story, so much as their ordering and analysis. Make of this what you will, but I can assure you that you are not supposed to see them in this light.

The "story" - for that is what it is - starts here, in the wreckage of the buiding at Qana which is performing the temporary and unwholesome function of a morgue. It is from here, that the bodies are extracted, the essential props of this theatre. And standing on the left of the frame is one of the two star characters of our story, Mr "White Tee-Shirt". With equal accuracy, though, we could call him Mr Hezbollah, for reasons which will become apparent.

Mr "White Tee-shirt" is billed variously as a "rescuer" and "local resident". We see him in many pictures, very much at the centre of events. He has free, unchallenged access to the collapsed building, even though he is not in uniform and has no apparent formal role. But, although we see a lot of him, there is not a single picture of him digging or moving rubble. More often, he is standing around watching, like he is doing here. But for what?

Well, here he is again, this time inside the wreckage and again he is not actually doing anything but watching. But it seems he is doing more than that. We get the distinct impression he is looking for particular bodies. The one in the arms of the Red Cross worker, the body of the "girl in orange" is not one of them. Mr "White Tee-shirt takes no interest in it and shows no emotion.

And it is in this frame that we see the teeshirt (inset) which seems to have writing on the chest. An expert has contacted us and agrees, telling us that it seems to have been electronically blurred to obscure the message it conveys.

Anyhow, it is now clear that the body of the "girl in orange" is not what is wanted. It is unceremoniously dumped outside, and is later stretchered off to the waiting fleet of ambulances. This is what happens to most of the bodies, which are carried up "stretcher alley" by diverse parties of stretcher bearers through the day. As with other casualties, the wrapping is conveniently left open to allow photographers to take pictures as the stretcher passes.

However, there then seems to be something of a commotion. Not one but two bodies of girls have been found. From this Newsnight video grab we see them being manhandled out to the opening of the wrecked building. At this stage, the bodies are not treated with any care or dignity as they are handed to "White Tee-shirt". But it seems evident that he has found what he wanted. And, although, on film he speaks loudly and gesticulates, there is no display of anything that could be interpreted as emotion.

Now, entering stage-right is the second of our star characters, "Green Helmet". Without any ado, he makes a grab for the first of the girl's bodies, which is surrendered by a deferant "White Tee-shirt". In the next frame (not shown) Mr "Green Helmet" cradles the body in his arms, as if to carry it. And here we also see that "White Tee-shirt" seems to have changed his top, his new garment sporting a small logo on the chest (although we now know, courtesy of The Daily Telegraph that this is not the case).

Anyhow, in the next frame, we begin to see the game plan. "Green Helmet" is making a "camera run", carrying the highly photogenic corpse of a little girl, holding it is arms to maximise the shock value and the emotional impact. At this stage, though, he is walking up to "Stretcher Alley" and is reserving his expression. This is sombre but not demonstrably dramatic. Several "snappers" go through the motions and take his picture but the results are little used.

In this frame, though, "Green Helmet" is going up "Stretcher Alley" in full view of the waiting media. Framed against the rubble, with the girl's body in his arms, he displays an intensity of emotion that we have not seen in him before. The combination makes for the iconic shot which is published throughout the world and, ironically, is now available printed on a white tee-shirt.

Out of shot, the route is marked out by Red Cross workers and others, redolent of mashalls on a race route. It has the feel of a highly organised film set, which is precisely what it is. And, in this frame, "Green Helmet" co-ops one worker into the theatre to provide the media with another photo opportunity. Whatever the message though, it is not real. The uniformed worker is merely a prop. "Green Helmet" does not need guidance - he has been up and down this route ceaselessly.

The corpse having served it purpose, "Green Helmet" has no further use for it. He dumps it on a guerney, leaving it in the care of the worker we have called "the man in black". There are other photo-opportunities in the making and, to "Green Helmet", these are his priority. He is off, without even waiting to see the corpse properly secured.

While "Green Helmet" and "White Tee-shirt" could have left together (the corpses were available together at the wreckage), and even carried the two corpses on a single stretcher, properly covered in respect for the dead. But that was never the game plan. With "Green Helmet" having done his camera run, it is now the turn of his partner to show off the trophies. We see him striding out carrying his photogenic corpse, surrounded by snappers and TV cameramen, who are obviously ready and waiting for him.

This and the previous shot, taken as "screen grabs" from a France 2 news broadcast, are hardly iconic material. But, as he approaches the media scrum, "White Tee-shirt" is assuming an anguished expression which intensifies with every stride. His mouth opens and he starts to shout passionately, as he steps onwards, his swiftening stride conveying a sense of urgency. Yet, the urgency is false. He has waited for "Green Helmet" to complete his run before even starting out.

Well into his stride now and emoting freely, "White Tee-shirt is producing iconic material, eagerly captured by the snappers. This picture here makes the Daily Telegraph and many other dailies. Again, the combination of the photgenic corpse and the "raw emotion" make the picture irresistable. It is a stunning performance, even if the result lacks the essential touch of the background wreckage.

Now the strategy becomes clear. Round the corner and on top of the rise formed by "Stretcher Alley" is the "fiercely competitive" media, coralled like sheep in a pen, waiting for the next photo-opportunity to be presented to them. And Hezbollah is about to lay on the performance of a lifetime, a human interest story starring "Green Helmet and "White Tee-shirt" in a bravura display of raw emotion.

First of all, here comes "White Tee-shirt" for a solo performance. But, while the snappers do their business, he hasn't quite got it. The stride is too purposeful. He looks soulful but his head hangs and there is no passion or drama in the pose. The rubble is bit too messy and amorphous and there is nothing to draw the eye to add contrast to the sole figure marching up the litter-strewn slope. As a picture, this simply doesn't hack it.

By now, "Green Helmet" has got in position for a dual shot, although from this angle you can only just see the crown of his helmet over "Tee-shirt's" left shoulder. Even then, the pose is magnificant - head thrown back in anguish, the corpse cluched to the bosom and a soulful expression all combine to give just the note that is needed. Many editors find this is just right and rush to print it.

Perhaps in the this one, "White Tee-shirt is overdoing it slightly, but it isn't a lot different from the previous frame. What really spoils it is "Green Helmet" peering round "Tee-shirt's" shoulder, as he strides along to catch up with is co-star in order to take an equal role in the drama. But his presence at such an awkward angle breaks up the symmetary of the pose and creates a distraction. Nevertheless, Nicolas Asfouri for AFP-Getty Images labels the pic, "A man screams for help as he carries the body of a girl killed in the Israeli strike on Qana on July 30", and it gets used by Newsweek, amongst others.

As a dual shot, this next one is unusable. Look closely at "Green Helmet" and - although he most certainly isn't - he appears to be smirking. The combination of the exertion and trying to present the appropriate gravitas is proving too much for the man. But, if the effect is grotesque, "Tee-shirt" is strutting his stuff. So out come the scissors (or the crop button) and "Green Helmet" is history. The result is perfect for the front page of The Independent.

But everything is coming right. Without moving from their positions, all the snappers have to do is let the stars come to them. Now the angles are right, the pair complement each other and the expressions are spot on. With an imaginative caption "man screaming for help...", it goes straight on the front page of The Guardian. This is award-winning stuff, except the prize should really go to Hezbollah.

With the pics in the bag, the corpse is so much dead weight. "Tee-shirt" dumps it on the gurney, leaving it to the good offices of "the man in black" to strap it in and organise the load. Nevertheless, it provides a poignant photo-opportunity and the snappers do not miss out. The trouble is that the shadows are wrong and the face of "Green Helmet's" corpse, the one he was in such a hurry to deliver, is partially obsured. This does not really score as a top-rate picture.

Neither is the next, but as a picture, it is worth a thousand words. The starring duo, having got what they wanted from the corpses, putting on their display of raw emotion and all the rest - to the delight of the assembled media - have completely lost interest in their props. The man in black is left to struggle unaided with the burden, heading over rough, wreckage-strewn ground to the ambulance. This can be seen in the distance over his left shoulder, past the nearer, more modern-looking vehicle. "White Tee-shirt" as gone on ahead, without offering any aid and, although in the picture, is not looking at the gurney. He has other, more pressing things on his mind, as we will see shortly.

For all his trouble, the "man in black" is at least rewarded - he gets to pose with one of the bodies discarded by the stars. A noble figure standing at the back of the ambulance, the tiny figure in his arms, there is a certain majesty and gravity to the man. Nevertheless, he clearly lacks the star quality, the ability to project raw emotion, a deficiency that will forever condemn him to looking after the props after they have been discarded and playing the bit parts after the stars have left the scene.

Even then, one of the stars could not resist a repeat performance. It was obviously hot work running up and down the hill, and back up again, so off comes the trade-mark helmet, the radio, the flack jacket and the fluorescent waistcoat. "Green Helmet" au naturelle now poses once more with his prop. But he is only going through the motions when it comes to projecting emotions once more and he lacks conviction. But hey! The front pages are already in the bag, so this is just one for the scrap book.

And at last the body of the poor mite that was once a pretty child is laid rest temporarily in the back of the ambulance. Even then, her mortal remains are publicity fodder, providing a poignant reminder of the tragedy, without the artifice of poses. This is the only natural pose in the whole sequence, but it lacks the drama the editors need. The picture ends up as a filler for internet archives.

While the dead rest at last, we now see why "White Tee-shirt" was so anxious to get away. He has to return home to be interviewed by a France 2 reporter. He starts by showing the reporter round the house, well furnished and far from modest. This is no poverty-stricken man, embittered by deprivation. Even by European or American standards, the house is well-furnished and comfortable.

But what is so evident are the pictures of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah - even a calendar. This is not a dwelling - it is a shrine to Hezbollah, the party of God. But "White Tee-shirt" is not Hezbollah, oh, no! That is what he tells the young reporter, saying that it is the Israeli aggression that is radicalising Muslims and driving them into the arms of Hezbollah.

Make up your own mind. Is this a Hezbollah member, or a mere supporter? This is a Hezbollah stronghold, a town from which the IDF claim over 150 missiles have been fired. And our "White Tee-shirt" has a house full of Hezbollah material and is not a member - was not all day driving that agenda forward? Was he simply an ordinary joe, overcome with emotion at the death and destruction around him, of which he was entirely innocent?

These issues are, of course, not addressed by the media, either on the ground or back in the comfortable, air conditioned editorial offices, thousands of miles from the action. There, pictures of death are a commodity. It doesn't matter under what circumstances they were gained, and to what purpose the actors paraded their emotions. Another forest-load of dead trees conveyed the story and a few dead children were exploited to provide pictures and add drama.

Against all that, does it matter that we were sold a lie? Ironically - and unintentionally - The Independent headline articulates the question: "How can we stand by and allow this to go on"? But I suspect they were not thinking what we are thinking.

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