A reader emailed me last night to inform me that he had written the Times' public editor to complain about their lack of coverage for the demonstrations. (It was a great letter too -- suggesting if the Times' reporters started to read some of the Iraqi bloggers instead of just the wire services they might actually get some creative reporting done. Ouch.) But the Times responded by essentially saying, hey, you can't attack us for just having a single paragraph stuck in the middle of a round-up piece with a bad news headline -- because we had a picture! And the picture's caption said thousands participated!
Well needless to say this sent me diving for my paper. Had I taken my readers down a garden path? Been unfair to the Times? How could I have missed a picture of the demonstrations?
I had to page through the paper twice to find it. There's a picture alright (I don't have the capacity to scan from hardcopy, so you will have to settle for my description.) There's a reason I missed it. It's a beautiful picture, very "arty," but it hardly works to convey the information needed. We're trained to believe that news images are "just pictures," the things we would see if we ourselves could be there -- that the camera is almost a magic eye, opening onto the world, showing us what we're missing because we can't be there, that it is the most objective possible form of news.
That is simply wrong. There is a reason it's called "photojournalism." Choice is involved at every level of the construction of the image, starting with the decision about what to point the camera at, moving through how to angle the camera, how to light the photo and so forth, and ending with which of the many images a professional photographer would take the photo editor chooses to publish.
This picture shows four columns (to me they look like typical columns you would put in a scene if you were making a movie set and wanted to convey "architectural ruins.") There is a mosque in the background. The camera is pointed up, so what you see is the four men, one perched on each column. Three are waving flags (it looks like a part of the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics.) If you look carefully you can just make out that the second is holding a sign, but there's no way to see what the sign says. Because the camera is angled up towards the sky, the men are highlighted gracefully -- but absolutely no one else is visible.
Until you stop and look carefully, because the men are aligned so perfectly with the columns, the eye glides right over the image -- they look like extensions of the columns, or statuary. So the Times is correct, the caption does indeed read, "Taking a stand against guerrillas [note, not terrorism] Iraqis stand on columns in Baghdad yesterday during a rally that attracted thousands."
This image could not be better crafted to not attract the eye, and it could not be better crafted to not tell the narrative story of a demonstration involving thousands of people.
So, yes, the Times is accurate: they did include a photograph of something that happened at the demonstrations. Did that attract attention to the event, help tell the story of the event, or counter the fact that the text provided (besides a two sentence caption you were unlikely to notice) was inadequate?