Analyzing ISIS’ Photography

A foreign fighter enjoying a kebab at a post-battle celebration in Iraq. September 2014.
A foreign fighter enjoying a kebab at a post-battle celebration in Iraq. September 2014.

In November last year, Aperture published a fascinating article about the use of photography by ISIS (aka Islamic State, ISIL, DAESH, Da’Ish. See this wikipedia section for the various names) by Sam Powers. I’ve been meaning to link to it since then, but am just now getting to it.

The article looks at images in ISIS videos and publications and speaks briefly about the almost journalistic infrastructure across the world that produces and disseminates these images, often for a Western audience. The article examines themes used in recruitment and publicity materials and echo other media outlets’ efforts to analyze the production of ISIS propaganda. Vice looked at video production and branding, PRI examines video production and especially the speed at which videos are released and the quality of their translations, Slate compares the imagery to Homeland and addresses the history of jihadist propaganda, and the Daily Mail (I usually try not to link to them, but this seems like a decent article) reads various ISIS videos in a method reminiscent of the Kremlinology of the Cold War (and more recently). This sort of analysis, looking for clues beyond what is most obvious in ISIS’ communications, is particularly interesting with the videos featuring British hostage John Cantlie as a news presenter.

Ferguson: a fascinating and troubling study of visual politics, race, the police, and the media

But these images aren’t coming from Egypt or the Gaza Strip or Ukraine. These are our own, homegrown documents of social unrest and they can’t, like images from more distant lands, be kept safely at bay.”

-Philip Kennicott, Washington Post

There’s a lot to unpack as the ordeal in Ferguson, Missouri, continues on. It will be a fascinating case study in visual politics, race theory, and media law once the dust settles. I’ve been following the news as best I can and have been fascinated to see just how much of it has played out through visuals, and primarily still photography. Pictures embedded in tweets, instagram posts, vine videos, and facebook posts going viral have quickly made the confrontation between the community and its police a national issue. Buzzfeed has gotten in on the coverage with the clickbaity post: 32 Powerful Images From Ferguson After The Death Of Michael Brown. There even appears to be a tweeted picture of Michael Brown laying dead on the ground, by user @TheePharaoh. As with everything in the media, especially twitter and other social media, it’s hard to verify everything.

I’d like to focus on a few main topics in relation to the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown, a young unarmed black man: the representation of black men in the media, the “Don’t shoot me” extended arms pose, the look of militarized police, and police targeting of reporters. I’m not the only one that thinks some of the pictures coming out of Fergus recall images from the Civil Rights struggle.

Before we get to that, make sure you take a look at the Whitney Curtiswork for the New York Times, Alex Welsh‘s work for Fader (UPDATE 20 August 2014: Fader has published another set of Welsh’s photos, Personal History: Photographer Alex Welsh Walks Through Ferguson ), and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s chronological big-picture page Ferguson in Photos (as well as the rest of their coverage).

Black Men in the Media

Early on as protesters gathered in Ferguson after the shooting, images of Michael Brown emerged which showed him flashing hand signals which might look like stereotypical gang signs and apparently involved in a robbery. The Drudge Report led with an image of Michael Brown flipping off a camera, for instance. The Daily Beast (they have a screenshot of the Drudge Report) and Deadspin (there’s more worth reading in the Deadspin piece, titled America is Not For Black People) have good analysis about the demonization of Michael Brown with pictures, as does BagNewsNotes.

Black men are usually portrayed negatively in the media (← pdf), and these images and stories create negative stereotypes in the public’s mind. Police have released images of Michael Brown during an apparent convenience store robbery, though some argue that a video shows he paid for the items. In any case, Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown did not know about the robbery at the time of the shooting. Nevertheless, a twitter hashtag campaign, #If They Gunned Me Down, takes a critical look at how black men are portrayed in the media after they’ve been killed. Users post two images of themselves, one usually looking angry or holding a gun and one in which they’re dressed for work or in military uniform. It’s a powerful reminder that image is just a snapshot into a person’s story and that even truthful images (a person actually did hold a gun) can be misrepresentative. There’s a collection of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown pictures at this tumblr, but I can’t vouch for whether it’s comprehensive or not. Look at the difference between how Michael Brown was shown after his death and the image used by some news stations after the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting.

Southern California Public Radio dug into the hashtag campaign (which has been widely covered) a bit and asked some of the tweeters which image they posted best represents them. Al Jazeera dug even further into the effort. Duckrabbit has a typically thoughtful post, leading with an image that looks like young black men ready for mayhem but who are in fact protecting a store in Ferguson.

On The Media’s coverage of Ferguson (although I haven’t heard this portmanteau elsewhere, they dub it Fergustan, a reference to the similarity of images coming from Ferguson and those coming from, for instance, Afghanistan) is also worth a listen, touching on the portrayal of black men in the media and comparing it to coverage after the killing of Trayvon Martin. Their analysis of Trayvon Martin coverage is also required listening if you’re interested in this stuff.

DCTV, a Washington DC public access channel, just hosted a thoughtful panel called “Changing Coverage of Black Males in the Media” for their 25th Anniversary, and the moderator penned a short editorial in the Washington Times: Redeeming the image of Black Men in the Media. The National Association of Black Journalists is also a great resource for these issues, and they have a helpful style guide addressing usage questions relating to coverage of African-American issues.

Don’t Shoot Me

One of the most frequent visual refrains in both coverage of the protests and activism surrounding the events is black men standing with their arms extended up, often with signs that say “Don’t Shoot Me.” Above, you can see an image that went viral of Howard University (a revered historically black school) students joining together in the pose. It recalls another image in which men in Howard’s Medical School posed in hoodies and in their white doctor coats after the killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent criticism of young black men in hoodies.

The Washington Post has an in-depth look at how the Howard University photo happened, as does the hometown newspaper of one of the organizers, Howard University Student Association president Leighton Watson.

BagNewsNotes looks at other images of men in Ferguson with their arms raised, which can be seen repeatedly in most coverage of the situation (← those links all go to the same InFocus post, but there are similar images in every Ferguson gallery I’ve seen.).

Unarmed black men are killed by police far too often in this country. MSNBC ran this moving segment by Melissa Harris-Perry on the subject, which includes this harrowing statistic: “From 2006 to 2012, a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in [the US].”

The Militarization of American Police

Be aware that following these links might lead to a rabbit hole of libertarian or right-wing nuttery. The links here are worth looking at, but if you google, for instance, the Department of Education SWAT team (which may or may not exist; a DOE law enforcement raid happened, but DOE says it was not a SWAT team and not related to an unpaid student loan), all bets are off.

I’ve been following the militarization of American Police for some time. I first became aware of the issue in college when my university police force purchased machine guns. But it’s been going on for decades. This 1986 New York Times piece by Nicholas Kristof leads with the oft-repeated maxim that police need heavier fire power because the criminals have heavy fire power. In Ferguson, there have been molotov cocktails thrown and pistol fire. Police have responded with military-grade weapons: teargas, sniper rifles, shotguns, and machine guns.

The image above (Ferguson police on left) comes from a fascinating collection of tweets from American military veterans and their responses to images of police in Ferguson. The whole thing is worth a read (and there’s a note at the bottom that says some veterans say the equipment is appropriate for situation).

For at least a decade, local police departments have been given or purchased unused military equipment. The New York Times has a great piece about the phenomenon. Both Salon and The Intercept have well-researched pieces on the history of weaponizing police and how that squares with police violence across the US. It’s all come to a head in Ferguson. Check out the Daily Dot’s illustrated guide to Ferguson’s police equipment.

After the first few nights of police and protestor violence, the heavily armed St. Louis County police were replaced by Missouri Highway Patrol. The first pictures to come out after the switch were not of sniper rifles and SWAT vehicles but hugs and kisses between community members the Highway Patrol Captain and Ferguson native Ronald Johnson. The hugs and kisses didn’t last long. On Monday, National Guard troops were deployed to Ferguson and there’s been a nightly curfew imposed on the community.

Peaceful protestors were targeted with laser sights. Police fired the same tear gas used in Egypt and Palestine.

A conversation has started about whether or not local police should be given military equipment. As the veterans linked above noted, military gear and combative stances often heighten tensions between protestors and peacekeepers. Arming police with military gear often leads to more deadly police interactions. The Wire chronicles the recent history of police militarization and the rise of 1033 programs after September 11. The CATO Institute (warning, they’re a thinktank with an agenda and have been beating the political drum against police militarization for a long time) maintains a map of hundreds of botched police raids over the past three decades.

Also, read these two excerpts from the book Rise of the Warrior Cop published by Salon while you’re at it: “Why did you shoot me; I was Reading a Book,” and “Oh God I thought they were going to shoot me next.” The book is by a libertarian activist, but has been well received across the spectrum.

For a counterpoint, read this opinion article in today’s Washington Post: I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.

The Onion and Clickhole have two particularly noteworthy posts relating to the militarization of police, by the way – Police or Army: Who Wore it Best? and The Pros And Cons Of Militarizing The Police, which includes the classic line, “Local photojournalists now able to capture fog of war at home.”

Police vs. Media

“Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people, what they see on the ground.” -Barack Obama, Aug. 14, 2014

I first learned about the situation in Ferguson when a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer was attacked by looters (note: “looter” is a loaded term). Since then, I haven’t seen any more reports of protestors/looters/community members interfering with reporters in Ferguson. Be sure to read Poynter’s piece on how the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is covering the story.

We’ve covered the war on cameras many times before. A number of journalists have been arrested or injured in Ferguson (one friend was hit by a rubber bullet or bean bag over the weekend). As far as I can tell, no journalists have been charged with any crimes. Instead, they are interrupted from doing their jobs, taken away from the news event handcuffs, and detained for a few hours. The Poynter Institute has been keeping a running tally of journalists arrested in Ferguson.

The police continue to interfere with reporters and photographers trying to report the news in Ferguson. If you read no other links on this subject, read that last one from Vox. Here it is again.

Last week, it got so bad that President Obama weighed in on the subject, saying police shouldn’t harass reporters. Countless media organizations have written to the authorities in St. Louis and Missouri condemning the police’s actions against reporters and asking for freedom to operate in the area. On Aug. 15, 2014, a court order was signed that reinforces the right of the public and the press to record and photograph public events as they happen (embedded below):

But that court order hasn’t stopped police from arresting reports. Last night and early this morning, six journalists were arrested, including Getty Images photographer Scott Olson (video above) when he stepped outside of a designated media zone (designated free speech zones, etc., need to be discussed another time…). The National Journal put up a review of Olson’s work prior to his arrest. He has since been released. Getty released a statement condemning the arrest. The concurrent arrest of two German journalists for “Die Welt” is making headlines there, too (German links via reddit). The officer arresting the German reporters gave his name as “Donald Duck” when asked. Likewise, in the images of Olson getting arrested, the police officers are not wearing name tags or badges with numbers.

While some reporters say that not all Ferguson police interactions are bad, the fact remains that police have frequently used tear gas and other less-than-lethal force against reporters, prevented reporters from doing their jobs by detaining them or arresting them, and otherwise threatened reporters who have a legal right to be there. The police are likely breaking the law each time they prevent someone from filming their activities.

Make sure you read Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery’s account of his arrest.

It shouldn’t need to be repeated, but in the United States, it is legal in all 50 states to record police activity. Politico, the Atlantic, Huffington Post, and the New York Daily News have all recently published pieces about the public’s and press’s right to record police activity. I’ve written about the issue before on dvafoto many times.

It’s good to see the NPPA and other organizations pressing authorities on this issue as it happens.

(many links in the Police vs. Media section via the NPPA on Facebook)

There are a few odds and ends that didn’t fit anywhere else.

BagNewsNotes writes about the right’s obsession with an image of Obama dancing while events in Ferguson transpired. They also posted about images of looting early on in coverage: If it Loots, it Leads: Stereotyping the Police Shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The NPPA has a short interview with St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer and videographer David Carson about working in Ferguson. PhotoShelter’s Allen Murabayashi wrote some thoughtful observations on race in photography and the news.

I’ll leave you with John Oliver’s typically trenchant analysis of many of these topics on his Last Week Tonight.

Interview: Marija Janković’s “GAK”

A few months ago, at a Belgrade photo night called Periskop, I saw Marija Janković present one of her new projects about her time as a patient at a Serbian maternity hospital, which she calls GAK. The first time I saw this work, with Serbian text, I could only really react to the photographs and the audience around me, who were often left gasping. After the event she told me the project would soon be available on her new website with English captions. I found the quotes she paired with the scenes she had photographed to be extremely compelling. They added a fascinating depth to the reportage and made me think of a slew of questions about the project and the hospitals themselves. Janković has generously agreed to publish the complete series GAK here on dvafoto and to answer some questions about her wide-ranging projects.

I’ve long admired Janković’s approach to her work and the novel ways of framing some very serious topics in Serbian history. I’ve known Janković for a few years but we had not had the chance to have an in-depth conversation about her work and what she was accomplishing. It is my pleasure to present this interview with Marija where she elaborates on GAK and some of the other projects she has completed in her career. Visit her website for these and many more projects.

dvafoto: Where are you from and what is your background? How did you come to be a photographer?
Marija Janković: I grew up in Sombor, a small baroque, multiethnic town in [the Serbian province of] Vojvodina. Before the WWII, four large ethnic groups lived together in this quiet little town. Now there are two, plus the minorities. My father was from Kosovo and this mix was important for my future work.

Visual art is pretty much all I ever wanted to do in my life. I went to a design school, than I studied painting. I quietly painted still-life until the day in 1999 when the bombings of Serbia started [ed: the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia]. It was the first time I experienced fear for my life. The involvement of the media was shocking to me. I thought that the news was supposed to follow the events, not to create them. On one side there was the Milosevic’s manipulated news, on another, the Western manipulated news. From that moment, there was two ways: close your eyes or get involved. I chose the second. I wanted to understand how the media machine looked like from inside. And I also got my first decent camera, so when I had to make my living, working in the newspapers was the solution. And I loved it, at least at the beginning…
Some of the work on your work on your new website is classic reportage, and other projects are very conceptual, featuring dioramas and models. Do you work on both of these sorts of projects simultaneously? Or do they represent different periods of your career?
If there were only two… hahaha. It’s a parallel work, sometimes more conceptual, sometimes more photojournalistic. Sometimes conceptual becomes documentary, and reportage artistic. I had, for years, worked in the press in a more traditional way (and I still do). I noticed that there are some patterns on how to make a good picture for publishing. Once I learned how to do it, I got bored. To me it was more interesting to do things differently. Unfortunately, at least here in Serbia, there is little space for that. But if I am touched by something I’ll do it, published or not. And then I decide about the approach. Not being under pressure of publishing gives you a beautiful freedom. But it also means that you will work on some other creepy, non-creative photo job to support yourself.
What do you see as the difference between these two ways of working, and why do you choose one approach over the other? How did you first come to make set-up scenes for your pictures? 
When stock photography became hysterically popular I thought to join the crowd. In my shopping basket for the set I just dropped the bag of cheap plastic soldiers; it was a strong symbol to me. Back in the studio I made a salad spiced with figurines and I was suddenly in the war zone. [ed: see Janković’s War Story]. Pictures from the front line followed me from childhood and in 1999 I made collages with pictures I found in newspapers from the war zones around the world. I got a wish to make my war material but I was aware that, despite my wish, I will have little opportunity to go and cover one. So I created my own. That way I could be critical about whatever I wanted. As I said: freedom.

From the series “Bor” by Marija Janković

Did you feel there were limitations in the traditional reportage you practiced before? Are there freedoms that you are able to explore with these studio photographs? Do you consider them documentary? Either if so or if not, is that label important to you?
Two of my stories (Staro Sajmište and GAK) would be impossible to make as a classical reportage but they are based on true stories. Sajmište happened 60 years ago and many people photographed the actual place, or wrote historical essays or books. For me it was important to show the feelings of the victims and not only the political background. This is how I chose testimonies of survivors, to give them a second life. During the process of making every picture, besides double-checking facts, I had to ask to myself “Who am I in this story? Am I a victim, a reporter, a German soldier or a simple citizen?” As a matter of fact, there are only few original pictures from the time of the camp and none from the period when it was the “Judenlager”. But we are aware that the Germans made pictures and movies. In the way I tried to make the missing pictures. Later I found only one single picture of the “Semlin Judenlager” in the archives of the Novi Sad museum.

Also GAK wouldn’t have been possible as a classical reportage. No woman would tell these things with a camera or a microphone pointed at them. Because I was a patient, without camera, in the intimate atmosphere, women shared to each other their life stories. Gynecological hospital is like a micro extract of our society.

Now we see all the fantastic work from photographers reporting from Kiev. I must admit that I would like to be there, I love the adrenalin of the protests and teargas. I did cover protests in Serbia, but we all know how classic photojournalism can also be manipulative.

Labeling… I couldn’t care less. If somebody needs labels they have all the freedom to attach some to my work but I don’t start my project by giving them this kind of definition. I begin with the problem.
Your work takes on some very complicated and occasionally sensitive topics, such as concentration camps, the destruction of a mining town and loss of the German community in Vojvodina. What motivates you to photograph these stories? 
In Serbian society many historical topics are either forbidden or rewritten and people tend to go with the mainstream flow. Nobody ever told me what happened with the Germans after WWII. First, it was dangerous to speak. Then people forgot that thousands of German women and children were kept prisoners by the Partisans in camps in ghost villages in Vojvodina. Thousands died from hunger, cold and diseases. That story was challenging. Many of these German men, husbands and fathers, committed crimes, but we tend to generalize. Women and children were not guilty. It can sound naïve, but I’m often driven by the simple feeling of “justice for everyone”. Some of this motivation comes from the feeling of guilt for the crimes that the Serbs committed, against the will of many Serbian citizens.
Across the body of your work I feel there is a very thoughtful and determined confrontation with certain areas of Serbia’s history that I don’t see many other artists or photographers tackling. Do you in any way see all of the series you’ve published as part of a single, larger narrative? And why do you focus on Serbian stories rather than regional or global issues?
I don’t see Serbia as a very happy or healthy place. It’s country with a constant problem of finding its place and direction. For example, you can’t be a patriot and in the same time say that your people committed crimes. I think opposite: first as a citizen, and then as a photographer. But no matter how much I’m stressed about many things in Serbia, it’s my country and my people and I wish them well. I would like that the Serbs know their history better and that Serbian women (and all other women in the world, for that matter) have better conditions, more human rights, more jobs and better work conditions. I traveled around the region and in Europe and made some good pictures, but there are still a lot of topics to be covered in Serbia. I’m sure that the female stories are similar in the whole world but I think we should start with what we know the best. And experiment.
Are there other artists, from Belgrade or the region, that you look to for inspiration or camaraderie?
Ten years ago I was more inspired by my colleagues work than nowadays. Many of them are good friends and I love to see their work, but at this point I have the feeling that I walk alone. Working with dolls is not my invention. Dolls are a universal symbol and inspiration to many artists. There is always something traumatic about these replicas of humans. However my recent work is more appreciated by my colleagues abroad. I don’t inspire myself just with photographs. Books, fine art, music, daily life and news, global news… All this make us who we are.
I see your latest series GAK and your photograph “Original and 52 notarized photocopies, 2012″ as a direct and logical continuation of the investigations that you completed in your earlier work. But it is much more personal. How has your work lead up to these projects? Do you feel better prepared now to document your own life and the people around you?  
In the past few years I went through some difficult personal times. It’s not accepted today to complain, or to be weak. We should be up to every mission all the time, but we witness many complications due to unresolved personal problems. Domestic crime is very common in Serbia. I love the stories that nobody else talks about. I did it in my name and the name of other troubled women. Putting yourself out there is much more difficult than photographing hooligans (this is my artistic side). “Original and 52 notarized photocopies” was very popular in the Serbian media; it became a symbol of bureaucracy. It’s my baby on the picture and my documents, but the problem is universal, and concerns the whole region. During pregnancy, instead of working, I had to spend time collecting useless documents. If I had found that story and those documents somewhere else I would have used it. But one day I just realized that I am the story and the reporter in the same time. Hahaha.

“Original and 52 notarized photocopies” by Marija Janković

As a man – therefore not a patient –  and as a foreigner who does not speak Serbian well, I cannot conceive of having any access to the stories of these women in a gynecological hospital if it was not for your reporting. The anecdotes and quotes struck me because of their very distinct and uncomfortable voice, I suppose because they are phrased in such a frank and unguarded way, overheard and not polished for quotation. This, coupled with your photographs of a dirty model of a hospital filled with ghoulish nurses, makes an interesting approach to reportage.

How did you come to conceive of this way of telling this story? Did you consider other more traditional approaches? What advantage (as I was asking above) did you see in telling the story with models and quotations? Do you see any disadvantages with presenting this story in this way?
As I mentioned above, I didn’t set out to make “GAK”. It wasn’t a situation where I made a decision and strategy, like we do for the stories. I was kept [in the hospital] in a t-shirt, with a dying mobile phone, and one notebook. During the next 5 days I was surrounded by sensitive women talking about their deepest secrets and fears. Two weeks after I found the notebook, it clicked together. I was just open to see it. Now, finding a text for this kind of work is difficult. Also, if I imagine the same text with the portraits of those women, it would be less strong. It’s like a painting of a shoe by Van Gogh; it’s much more exciting than a pair of real shoes.

I have my “test audience”, my closest friends and colleagues and I send them the projects to get some feedback before I publish more sensitive things. Most women replied “I can donate you a story!”, and men: “I didn’t know, I feel sick, great work but I can’t look at this twice”…

From time to time we read reports about hospitals and what is noticeable is that people react more to some dodgy pictures that patients made themselves with their mobile phone. You need to be extremely upset to take things in your own hands. 99% of these women accept with resignation these conditions, saying “What can I do?”
How would you like this project to be received? Is there any advocacy present in this project, for example to challenge for better conditions at your hospital?
Once I got the same question (referring to Original and 52 notarized photocopies). My answer then was “Yes, it would be nice to see somebody change something”. Today I am more realistic. I don’t think somebody will see those pictures and say “She is right, we don’t need form 227/b. II” or “We should order nurses to be nicer to patients”. But it can always serve as a support on the level of “woman to woman”, or help in reaching a critical mass of complaints where things need to be changed. It’s a job for all of us to make some pressure.
Are you continuing to photograph your family? Does this project mark any turning point in your work? 
Becoming a mother is a turning point, now all I do is photographing family. I’m less prepared to deal with heavy and dark stories, or to run towards burning buildings to get more dramatic shots. At least at this moment. On another hand, I want a better environment for my child, so I will continue to challenge this absurd but well established social structure.

Thank you Marija.