Revolutionary Photojournalism

“Photos, no matter how compelling or evocative, draw us in to learn more,” Lesley University President Joseph Moore said at the beginning of a panel discussion on photojournalism and the Arab Spring. The Wednesday discussion at Lesley’s Washburn Auditorium featured panelists Karim Ben Khelifa, a photojournalist and Nieman Fellow, Ludovic Blecher, editor-in-chief of Libération.fr and also a Nieman Fellow, and Judith E. Matloff ’81, a faculty member at the Columbia Journalism School. During the talk, the panelists described the lives of the people behind the camera and emphasized the need for journalists to get up-close views of their subjects while staying safe.

The discussion was presented in conjunction with “Revolutions: Photographs of the Arab Spring,” an exhibition of Rémi Ochlik’s photographs on display until February 22 at the Art Institute of Boston. Ochlik, whose photographs of protests in the Middle East were shown on a screen behind the panelists, was killed in Syria a year ago at age 28. Ochlik is just one of the over 50 journalists, both foreign and local, who lost their lives in Syria in 2012. Though the discussion ranged from personal anecdotes of work in the field to comments on the technical work of editors, Khelifa, Matloff, and Blecher all spoke of appreciation for Ochlik and the other journalists who have lost their lives while fighting to communicate stories to the world.

“For me, the camera is nothing: [the important thing is] how you connect to the story and people around you,” said Khelifa. For him, safety in a conflict area often depended on his ability to blend into the crowd. Khelifa said that in Arab countries he grows a beard and often refuses to wear the flak jacket that would label him a member of the foreign press.

Khelifa described a situation in which he was forced to use his iPhone instead of his big, professional camera. “For the first time, I was invisible,” he said. He was able to get closer to the action using the iPhone as a cover; he was no longer an intruding reporter, but just another young man with a phone. Indeed, taking photographs is no longer a privilege limited to members of the press with fancy cameras, a fact the panelists returned to in their discussion. Many protesters in Arab countries take their own phone pictures to update their Twitter or Instagram followers on the action; Khelifa said his iPhone photos have even been published in professional news outlets such as The Daily Beast.

Blecher similarly discussed the shift from the professional photographer to the citizen reporter. As an editor, Blecher said, he spends a lot of time sifting through massive amounts of information for pieces that are credible, clear, and accurate. “Many voices [come] from the citizens using the Internet to express their emotions,”  Blecher said. In particular, he mentioned social media sources like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. “The job of the journalist has always been to choose what is important and what is not,” he said. With so many places to turn to for information, Blecher said that he would choose to publish photos from journalists like Khelifa over local Twitter updates because professional journalists can be held accountable for the information they report.

Matloff joked that when she started reporting, information was spread through telegrams, not Instagram. Matloff was a foreign correspondent for 20 years in 62 countries and is now a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, where she has written about another type of revolution—that of women in journalism. According to Matloff, there are more females out in the field than when she started reporting. But while both men and women risk their lives when they go into countries of conflict, Matloff proposed that women especially approach the job with caution. Matloff mentioned the high rates of sexual harassment and rape in violent political areas and the increased prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Arab countries as factors that might discourage women from reporting abroad. Because of the these dangers, getting close to the action in order to take photos and relay stories to the world might be even riskier for women. There are still many advancements to be made in terms of ensuring women are able to prevent harassment and rape in foreign countries, Matloff said.

For both men and women, Khelifa said, it is a brave and personal choice to go to these dangerous places, and returning with meaningful photos requires an immense amount of dedication to the cause. “You need to care, you need commitment, you need resilience, and you need to be a little bit nuts,” said Khelifa.

—Staff writer Virginia R. Marshall can be reached at virginiarosemarshall@college.harvard.edu

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