During President Rodrigo Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address (SONA) he called out a recent photograph published at the Inquirer showing a slain Michael Siargo, a suspected drug pusher, being held by his partner as if it is being portrayed as Mary carrying the dead cadaver of Jesus Christ. The President called out the broadsheet as overly dramatic in its depiction of Siargo’s demise. I, for one, believe that there may have been a shade of deceptive photojournalism from the Inquirer there and I am glad that the President called out the Inquirer on that one. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. The problem is, things are not always what they seem. While photojournalism is a useful tool to capture and record events, it can also be a powerful weapon to advance an agenda or an ideology. As people continue to get better access to information, I am hoping that more people will begin to exercise more critical thinking instead of easily succumbing to intellectual malleability from deceptive media and photojournalism.
One example of where photojournalism has taken a life of its own was when Eddie Adams took a picture of a Vietnamese man being shot in the head at point blank range by a uniformed official during the Vietnam War. The image moved people around the world (particularly in America) to hate American soldiers and their South Vietnamese partners as they were depicted to be abusive, cruel and engaged in unjust summary executions. But it turned out the man shot was a Viet Cong captain and prior to his execution he just cold bloodedly murdered not only a South Vietnamese colonel but also the colonel’s civilian family members. So the lie in the photo was the omission of context. Eddie Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo but he later expressed regret for it. The man who shot the Viet Cong was South Vietnamese Major General Loan. Adams said:
“The General killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the General at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?’ Adams felt that, by taking the photo, he had ruined Loan’s life. He felt Loan was a good man, in a bad situation, and he deeply regretted the negative impact that the photo had on him.”
Major General Loan later on moved to the United States. When he arrived, the Immigration and Nationalization Services (INS) wanted to deport him because of the infamous photo. Adams had to testify on behalf of Loan just so that he would not get deported. Loan opened up a pizza restaurant but was forced to close it when his identity was disclosed. He died of cancer in 1998 and Adams, in his eulogy for Loan said:
“The guy was a hero. America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.”
Another example of deceptive photojournalism can be seen in a published photo by the Los Angeles Times during the Iraq War. In the photo (taken from AngeLingo), you can see a British soldier gesturing strongly at Basra Iraqi civilians crouching below him. As AngeLingo explains:
“The photograph’s power structure, and its misuse, is further accentuated with the apparent disparate physical appearance, as the peacekeeper is secured in a color-focused monotone uniform, and the civilians are divergently draped in multi-colored “native” cloths. In this rainbow of fabrics, one man stands frozen in front of the others, cradling a blanket wrapped baby in his arms. The soldier and man appear to be defiantly staring at each other, a showdown that indicates the conflict between the two individuals and the political and social concepts they represent. The positioning and specific stance of the civilian leader in relation to the soldier implies a power struggle, as well as negative feelings—perhaps to the extent of outright animosity—between the peacekeeper and crowd.”
That is not the worst part. Apparently, the photo was doctored! It was a combination of two photographs (as shown by AngeLingo) to increase impact. As AngeLingo has shown, there was a subjective political statement that contradicted what actually happened. The two separate photos combined together actually showed a positive and helpful event between the soldier and the civilians. What actually happened was that the soldier was telling the civilians to stay down to avoid being shot by Iraqi forces that opened fire. Since at that time the world was so divided on America’s War on Terror, the creation of the composite picture from two spliced photos painted a much different and grim picture.
Another example of deceptive photojournalism was published by the New York Times in 2000. Tuvia Grossman, a 20 year old Jewish student at that time, was depicted and identified as a Palestinian victim of Jewish police brutality. But the truth was actually the opposite as explained by Grossman. His father had to send a letter to the New York Times to enlighten them of the truth behind the photograph. Tuvia Grossman and his two friends were actually pulled from a taxi by a Palestinian mob and were brutally beaten and stabbed. The Israeli policeman in the picture was actually protecting them from the mob. The younger Grossman lamented:
“It’s bad enough to be beaten bloody, get stitches up and down my head, and have my leg so severely stabbed that therapy is required to regain use of it. But to be used as a pawn in the media war, as part of the Palestinian propaganda to gain international sympathy, well, that hurts even more.”
It is unfortunate that truth takes a backseat when an agenda is being pushed.
The Inquirer photo that President Duterte referred to, I believe, is no different from the examples given that illustrate media and photojournalism deception. In the case of the Inquirer photo, it was originally published on July 24, 2016 – a day before the President’s first SONA. The article was made to coincide with the SONA and to deliver the Catholic Church’s message of its criticism on the many killings of suspected drug users and pushers that is going on. A thorough look at the article would show that the message suggests that Duterte seems to be the one to blame on all the killings since these tragedies have gone up exponentially since June 30 (the day Duterte took office). Nowhere in their article does it mention that other angles may have been the cause of Michael Siargo’s demise. Was he a victim of drug syndicates (possibly those who ordered the motorcyclist to gun him down) and not the police? Was the killing even related to drugs? No one (except for the killers perhaps) knows for sure at this point. However, the picture has gone viral and has instigated a lot of debate regarding human rights abuses under Duterte. Allegations of human rights abuse has been the top issue going against Duterte even before he became President. The picture published by the Inquirer, I believe, was really meant to get into people’s minds into loathing the President and painting him as a ruthless monster to perhaps start conditioning the minds of people into thrusting an alternative leader depicted as benevolent and saintly. Who knows? Maybe they have another righteous widow in mind?
Pictures, even without manipulation, can be very deceptive as in the case of the Saigon Execution photo. When photojournalism gets used to advance a hidden agenda the people get susceptible to become pawns of the ones with vested interests. In the Inquirer photo’s case, I can understand if the photo was featured for an Opinion-Editorial piece but being featured as News makes me question the motive behind it. Journalistic dishonesty would make people end up being casualties in the end, I believe. I am glad the President called out the Inquirer on this.
(Top photo taken from the Inquirer)
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