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When the press calls for war

Click photo to download. Caption: In Silwan, an older balaclava-clad child with a slingshot fires off a stone at the cops, as cameras in front of him captured his “heroic” pose. Credit: B. Davidson.
Click photo to download. Caption: In Silwan, an older balaclava-clad child with a slingshot fires off a stone at the cops, as cameras in front of him captured his “heroic” pose. Credit: B. Davidson.

A dramatic Agence France-Presse photo of a gang of Palestinian youths near Hebron smashing big rocks on the windshield of a passing Israeli motorist’s car on Feb. 21, and the driver’s reflexive head-down cringe as she gunned her SUV though the melee, has shocked readers on many news websites and blogs.

The photograph caught a flak-jacketed press videographer standing directly behind one of the stone throwers, filming as the rock exploded on her windshield. The cameraman “was seeking a better picture angle to snap away at what was about to happen.”

“On my left were at least two other photographers, waiting for the action,” driver Zahava Weiss of Carmei Tzur later told local media. Several Israelis have been killed and many hurt in the near-daily stone salvos. In the Feb. 21 incident, the immediate question for many was whether the scene a media setup, and to what degree—if any—did the cameraman actively or passively collude with the stone throwing “shabab” (“gang” in Arabic) in order to get the “money shot?”

This situation is indicative of what has become an open secret: a professionally, ethically, and morally questionable symbiotic relationship between press photographers and Palestinians. Photographers need the dramatic stills and footage for their agencies and clients, and the shabab want their deeds recorded for international posterity. But the public abroad never sees how the images were achieved, and assumes it’s all spontaneous, and that the camera just happened to be there at the right moment.

This phenomenon, since dubbed as “fauxtography,”became apparent to me in December 2010, in a story about Arab and Jewish squatters in Jerusalem’s eastern Silwan/Shiloach neighborhood. In an alleyway, I saw what seemed to encapsulate the paradigm: photographers and stone throwers—apparently­—stage-managing an afternoon-long rock throwing battle with police, one of who knows how many such events that might never have happened were there no cameras present to record the events.

As I often do in such stories, I brought along my own camera in order to accurately describe details for an article afterward.At one point, my back flat against the alleyway wall with several Arab photographers, a youth ran in front of us and cocked his arm to hurl a stone at the police, some 50 yards away.

However, I was shocked to then hear one of them stage-whisper “Yal-la! Yal-la! Harb, harb! (Go! Go! War, war!),” in order to galvanize the kid into more daring action. 
Hold that image: an adult press-carded photographer was egging on children to hurl rocks and bottles at heavily armed riot police, in hopes of getting better action shots, indifferent to consequences to the child, the police, the neighbors, or local and international repercussions.

An older man behind the youths would scream “Allah Akbar!” in order to whip up the shabab. It was hard not to get the impression that the “handler,” as I’ll call him, was the backstage manager for the “spontaneous” event.

The kids would take turns running forward to throw rocks, and then rush back to take cover from the oncoming five or six police by hiding behind the press at their end of the alley. The handler would then talk to them in a huddle, while the photographers got easy action shots of onrushing police.

In one example, an older balaclava-clad kid with a slingshot fired off a stone at the cops, as cameras in front of him captured his “heroic” pose.

But for one point when police checked one Arab photographer’s press card, I witnessed no other police interaction with the photographers—they didn’t even respond to my own face-to-face questions.At one point a Palestinian man trotted out a toddler just as the police ran up to disperse the stone throwers.

Standing between the photographers and the cops, he then lifted the child, who—as though on cue—waved a tiny, defiant fist, as the cameras clattered away. So the angle the viewer got was “An armed, black-uniformed Israel Police SWAT team member faces down a Palestinian toddler.”

I was professionally and personally appalled by what appeared to be active and passive cooperation between the Arabs and the press: an effective PR machine custom made for foreign media consumption.

Both disbelieving and disgusted when I realized what seemed to be taking place, more and more I started photographing the stone throwers “off-stage” as they gathered stones and conferred with the handler. Some would try to cover their unmasked faces, gesturing and shouting at me in Arabic not to photograph them.

At one point, the handler, who had been urgently waving at me not to photograph him, led a group of five or six youths who threateningly surrounded me. When I didn’t respond when one of them shoved me, the handler” then angrily got close up in my face and demanded that I stop photographing.

To calm the tension, I casually shrugged and told them in English that I was “just doing my job,” and they left me alone as I continued photographing the events. 

At one surreal moment in the fray, the photographers all took a coffee break, taking cups from a tray graciously proffered them by a man who exited the home of one of the Arab squatters in the story.

The police stood nearby, in full riot gear and breathless after charging at the stone throwers. They were not offered coffee.

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