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The following is an essay I wrote for Photo District News, which has just been posted on their site.
The text, along with the photograph it discusses, can be viewed at:
Tyler Hicks: Lebanon Caption Controversy Wasn’t My Fault
October 04, 2006
Editor’s note: In July, New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks entered a dangerous war zone in Tyre, Lebanon, to cover the Israel-Lebanon conflict. Some bloggers accused Hicks of photographing a staged scene after an online slide show of his work showed a man trying to rescue people from a collapsed building and also showed the same man trapped in the rubble. Here, Hicks details what really happened. For more about how blogs criticize photographers, see this story from the October issue of PDN.
I would like to take the opportunity to clarify the legitimacy of a photograph which recently came under attack by numerous blogs and web sites. The photograph was taken by me while on assignment in Lebanon during recent fighting between Hezbollah fighters and the Israeli military.
I was on assignment in Tyre, Lebanon where numerous photographers, writers and other media were based. At times there were hundreds of journalists working from this southern port city.
Bombardments by the Israeli military were common in southern Lebanon, but often too far for us to reach with any level of safely. From the beginning of the conflict the Israeli military had been rocketing vehicles regularly, the roads were littered with the remains of civilian cars.
On the afternoon of July 26, while outside our hotel in Tyre, we heard several large explosions from bombs fired by Israeli jets inside the city. Smoke could soon be seen rising from behind nearby buildings. We quickly drove to the scene.
Several buildings had been leveled, and smoke poured from beneath the rubble as Lebanese civilians searched the aftermath for casualties. The danger in this situation was that it was common for jets to circle around and strike the same scene a second time. We had witnessed this method deployed elsewhere in Lebanon, sometimes ten, fifteen or even thirty minutes after the initial attack. In this case we had arrived within five minutes of the first bombing.
I did not see any casualties on my arrival. I photographed the search effort, but otherwise there were no injured or dead visible. Soon there was a panic among the people that Israeli jets were coming overhead and would strike again. This sent the gathering crowd running away from the scene, which is a difficult task over the jagged cement and exposed rebar of a collapsed building.
In the commotion, one man fell from a considerable height onto his back and was seriously injured. He was then helped by others who rushed him to an ambulance. A well-known Associated Press photographer also photographed the injured man as he was carried through the street to an ambulance. Given the complexity of the situation, the AP photographer and I discussed our captions that evening
My caption, as filed to The New York Times, was verbatim as follows:
â€œTYRE, LEBANON. WEDNESDAY, JULY 26, 2006: Israeli aircraft struck and destroyed two buildings in downtown Tyre, Lebanon Wednesday evening. As people searched through the burning remains, aircraft again could be heard overhead, panicking the people that a second strike was coming. This man fell and was injured in the panic to flee the scene. He is helped by another man, and carried to an ambulance. (Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)â€
The New York Times published this photograph in the next dayâ€™s newspaper. The caption published in the newspaper read as follows:
â€œAfter an Israeli airstrike destroyed a building in Tyre, Lebanon, yesterday, one man helped another who had fallen and was hurt. Cars packed with refugees snaked away from the town. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)â€
The problem came later when this photograph appeared among a slide show of my photographs on The New York Times website. The web published the following caption:
â€œThe mayor of Tyre said that in the worst-hit areas, bodies were still buried under the rubble, and he appealed to the Israelis to allow government authorities time to pull them out.â€
As you can see, the caption was totally misleading. I received an apology from the person responsible at the website, stating that the photo had been captioned from â€œâ€¦a generic sentence taken from the article [written by the reporter] that made it appear the man was injured in the attack instead of the aftermath. We should have used the caption information you filed with the photoâ€¦â€
As soon as it was noted, they updated the website, with a correction, and changed the caption, to coincide with the caption as filed by myself and correctly published in the newspaper earlier.
Photographers are also reporters, and writing a correct caption is as important as taking an honest picture. I was content with the apology; what happened was done and I decided to allow this issue to rest on its own. Unfortunately it’s continued to surface and Iâ€™m now taking the opportunity to let people know that I was not at fault in this case. I work hard to take honest photographs and I hope for those efforts to be truly and positively received by those who view them.
We will see more of this kind of blogging activity in the future, and it should be welcomed, but it should be understood that things arenâ€™t always as they appear on the surface. I recently heard that editors at a major news photo agency sent my photograph to their photographers as a warning to be sure to write correct and complete captions. Hereâ€™s an example of taking whatâ€™s read on a random blog with no credibility as fact instead of cross referencing that information with the photographer or organization directly involved. In this case, it was a mistake made by an editor. Had this photo agency searched beyond a Google-discovered blog, the editors there might have learned that their memo should have gone out to themselves, not the photographers.
Integrity and honesty are invaluable assets in this business. I have always made it my priority to maintain these to the highest standard, and will continue to do so.