In 1917 in a village in the north of England, two young cousins named Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths borrowed the quarter plate camera of Elsie’s father Arthur Wright – one of England’s earliest qualified electrical engineers.
When he went to develop the pictures, Mr. Wright got more than his daughter playing with her friends, instead, he saw fairies. A rational man, he dismissed them as fake, and banned his daughter from using the camera again, however Elsie’s mother had very different ideas.
In 1919 when she made the images public, the famous writer of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyal wrote in a leading magazine of the picture’s authenticity. And so, with popular distribution, and recognized approval of leaders of the day – the legend was set, and the fairytale became a reality.
It was not until the early 1980’s that the cousins admitted that the pictures were fakes; Frances said ‘I don’t see how people could believe they’re real fairies. I could see the backs of them and the hatpins when the photo was being taken.”
Fast forward 83 years to September 30, 2000, and the start of the second Palestinian ‘Intifada.’ France2 TV broadcast footage of an episode that occurred earlier that day at Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip. The footage was by a Palestinian stringer — a freelancer — named Talal Abu Rahma, who claimed that even though the incident occurred over the course of an hour and numerous other cameramen were around who had not witnessed it, he alone had captured footage of a young Palestinian boy cowering behind his father, being shot to death by the Israeli army.
Charles Enderlin, France2 Jerusalem bureau chief, who during the incident had been more than 100 kilometers away in Ramallah, edited and added commentary to the piece that went out that night on France2, and then on networks and news outlets across the world, as the tale of Mohammed al-Dura went from being legend to history.
Yet even then, doubts over the authenticity of the footage were raised, as American professor Richard Landes labeled it a classic case of Palestinian media manipulation, or ‘Pallywood’.
This is a brief description of the events that took place that have led to where we are 13 years later.
Indeed, the research into and debate around the incident has filled the web and even impacted upon the French legal system. The website aldurah.com chronicles the incredible efforts of Prof. Landes and French media analyst Philippe Karsenty to prove this modern day blood libel was a staged fake.
However, as a photographer and imagery consultant, this image and its use over the past 13 years has been key to my motivation to use every bit of knowledge and experience I have to show how imagery is being used so effectively in the campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel.
It is said that the camera never lies. Whoever coined that term could not have been more misinformed. As a photographer of nearly 30 years, I can tell you that any half decent photographer can make a camera do anything he or she wants.
First of all the viewer is only seeing a tiny portion of the wider field of view, then depending on the type of lens used and the angle of the camera, and how the photographer positions themselves, can alter the perspective and reality of any situation.
That is even before all the options in post production, where, even before digital cameras and Photoshop, pictures could be altered in any number of ways by darkroom technicians.
I have conducted a wider study on this called Shattered Lens.
The same goes for television cameras, and editors who have even more ways of altering how a scene and chain of events can look and be altered for personal agendas.
Without being fully aware of this, and the use, abuse and manipulation of imagery, the Israeli Army and the Government learned a very harsh lesson that day. At the time, they admitted to something Israel had not done, without checking the facts or having the ability to challenge the authenticity of the France2 images in real time. In doing so, it allowed the image to become one of the most powerful pieces of propaganda in the history of photographic imagery, and the biggest fake since the Cottingley Fairies.
The moment the al-Dura image hit the screens it became iconic, and while a picture is worth a thousand words, this one cost a thousand lives.
Al-Dura became the poster child for the Palestinian wave of terrorism that followed over the next few years.
It is only really due to the persistence of Richard Landes and Phillipe Karsenty and a few others that fought tooth and nail that we are at the stage we are today, and that the Israeli Government has investigated and officially denounced the incident as fake.
Unfortunately, the damage is done, no matter what court rulings prove that the images were faked, the al-Dura image is forever etched in people’s minds, and to this day is still used in the Arab world to incite violence, and will continue to be.
The best we can do is hope at least we learned from it, as now with the advent of social media, this is going to become an even greater issue that we have to deal with, as images are being posted instantaneously across the world. In order for us to be able to challenge staged imagery we need to have experts at hand in the form of a dedicated imagery monitoring unit – something I have been advocating for years – to be able to identify and highlight fake or staged imagery, and deal with it in real-time, rather than once the damage is irreparable.
The father of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Our job is to view events with a clinical eye and to record them, but not to distort them by means of tricks, either while shooting or in the darkroom.” It is our job to hold the media to this proper and correct standard.