Johann van Tonder

Reality stranger than fiction

2004-06-08 12:42

The response to last week's column was overwhelming. Most readers agreed that it was justified to show Berg's beheading to a journalism class, but some thought it was the most irresponsible thing since the distribution of the video on the internet.

A third category of respondents was of opinion the video was in fact a fake. Albeit an easy way of trying to deny the harshness of reality, these e-mailers put forward very convincing arguments of why the footage might not be real.

One person charged that I was missing the point in showing the video. Yes, it should be shown to students, but only to point out the discrepancies.

I don't want to spend one sentence to explore the merits of their arguments, but the subtext is worrying: In the eyes of consumers of journalism, seeing is no longer believing.

Newspaper readers and TV-viewers don't trust us. Credibility is photojournalism's most important asset. Veteran photo editor Howard Chapnick said it is what makes photography a profession rather than a business. Losing credibility is irreversible, and I fear we are reaching that point.

The media doesn't have a clean record. As recently as last year, the respected LA Times published a front-page image of a soldier guarding a group of prisoners of war in Iraq. Colleagues in the newsroom noticed the repetition of certain objects in the frame. The dramatic photograph turned out to be a computer-generated image containing a combination of the best elements of two different images.

The award-winning photojournalist who created the image was fired immediately, but the damage had been done.

When watching a movie based on reality, a reader complained, it's difficult not to wonder which parts are Hollywood fiction. But you don't want that experience while watching the news at 8 or looking at photojournalism in a newspaper.

Somewhere in America, however, a family is missing Nic Berg. Here is the most brutally shot video, factual evidence of a public execution, which incidentally, is nothing extraordinary in those parts of the world. The victim's last cries are audible.

And there are people watching this repeatedly - I imagine the coffee and rusks - to find evidence of forgery.

This cynicism is nothing new. One of the earliest war pictures showing a soldier's moment of death, by Robert Capa, was "proved" to be a fake when weak evidence was produced that the soldier appeared alive in subsequent frames on the contact sheet.

Capa, whose motto was, "If the picture isn't good enough, you weren't close enough", had such ability that he would never have needed to pose photographs. He produced one masterpiece after the other until he got killed by a landmine in Vietnam.

One of the websites exposing the Berg-video as a hoax ( proclaims that "the video is as full of holes as the official story of 9/11".

On that day, millions of people were watching the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York live on TV.

Sometimes, photojournalism is so brilliant that a natural reaction is to doubt its veracity.

Do you agree? Tell Johann what you think.

  • Johann van Tonder is an award-winning news and conflict photographer, and was previously photo editor at Die Burger. He lectures photojournalism part-time at the University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University.

    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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