A postscript from D. Gorton

At our request former New York Times photographer D. Gorton reviewed the statement issued by AP director of photography Santiago Lyon: “The story behind the photo.” Below we provided Mr. Gorton’s analysis of the photo in issue. That post is so long that we’re separately setting out this update rather than appending it to that post. Mr. Gorton has kindly responded to our request for his comment on the AP statement as follows:

I have been forwarded a “story behind the photo” by Santiago Lyon, Director of Photography of the Associated Press that was posted on April 5. I regret that I hadn’t seen this account of the Iraq lynching before writing my views, nor had I seen the original “uncropped” version of the photo until last night. Only the cropped version was available on the Pulitzer website. Looking at the uncropped version of the picture, assuming the camera was a 35mm, then a reasonable inference would still remain that the photographer was less than 50 meters from the subject.
I now know what the Director of Photography believes the photos demonstrate and why they were important: “The images spoke volumes about the situation in Iraq just six weeks before the 2005 national elections — the murder of people key to the election process, on a main street in Baghdad, with the gunmen not even bothering to conceal their identity with masks.”
Let me unpack the commentary by Santiago Lyon by following his description of the event:
(1) “The first thing The Associated Press photographer saw on Haifa Street…was a group of gunmen in the road.” This occurs after he was “tipped off” by another journalist.
(2) “He found a burning car and photographed it about 300 meters from what would later turn out to be the execution scene.” This apparently is the basis of the “300” meters that the Editor & Publisher quoted AP as to the camera position of the photographer during the killing. However, that is clearly not the vantage point for the photos of the lynching, but rather the point where the “burning car” was photographed. The AP erred, then, in its comments to E&P, or E&P misquoted them.
(3) “The photographer then walked toward the intersection where the executions would later take place to photograph the wreck of another recently burned car that he spotted nearby. Soon, he noticed about 20 people arriving and directing traffic away from the intersection, looking unofficial and “very unusual.” Anticipating a problem, the car that had brought him there was put near a bridge for a quick getaway, if necessary. He left his photo equipment in the car and walked up to one of the people directing traffic to inquire about what they were doing. He was told “none of your business.” He walked back to the car. That’s when he heard an explosion. The concussion was powerful enough to break glass in the car.
The AP photographer, who is identified in the article as a “photo stringer” and not as a staff photographer, is portrayed as walking around and asking questions of the men who were directing traffic, presumably the same men who later killed the election workers. Apparently the election workers were not yet on the scene, or surely he would have noted them. He was intrigued enough to have his driver move his car for a quick getaway, and stashed his gear while walking around.
(4) “He walked back to the car. That’s when he heard an explosion. The concussion was powerful enough to break glass in the car” His car was damaged by an explosion. We do not know if the explosion was proximate to the scene of the execution. Moreover, explosions can break glass from great distances. We also are not given information as to the relationship between the explosion and the election workers. Were they captured after a blast of some kind? Were they brought to the scene in some other way?
(5) “The photographer turned and saw the group holding two people at gunpoint on the street. One of the attackers was armed with an AK-47 rifle and another with a handgun. The photographer grabbed a camera with a 400mm telephoto lens and photographed the next events from beside the car. The gunmen shot two men in succession. The second shooting was obscured by passing traffic, with many passing cars now fleeing the area.” Here is the crux of the puzzle. How close was the photographer to the action (after he had moved his car), and whether that proximity indicated collusion with the terrorists? The article does not state which camera the 400mm lens was used on. Some digital cameras that can retrofit 35mm film lens actually crop in to the image since the digital sensor is smaller than the original film. Some, such as Canon EOS-1d and Contax N Digital, as well as others have a “full frame” sensor, so the field of view is the same whether it is 35mm film or digital. So the camera, whether digital or film and whether full frame or not is critical to understanding the field of view.
A 400mm lens gives a field of view of 6 degrees, in comparison to a (normal) 55mm lens which gives a field of view of 45 degrees. We have to make an estimate on the width of the field that was photographed. A 400 mm lens on a normal 35 mm back would yield a field of view of approximately 8.9 meters in width at 100 meters focus. A 180mm lens would give a similar field at around 40 meters. A typical Nikon zoom lens of 80-400mm weighs about 4 pounds in addition to the camera body, and is very difficult to handle at the 400 mm setting without the use of a tripod. It also retails in the United States for around $2,000. Quite a piece of gear to grab the moment your car is blown up, focus and shoot.
I believe that the more likely explanation is that the photographer was close to the scene, standing on part of his car, and using an intermediate setting in the zoom…perhaps as little as 150mm. Camera shake, not to mention nerves after an explosion, would likely preclude a handheld 400mm shot. A distance of around 30 to 50 meters (after examining the thumbnail of the original image) still seems reasonable.
I believe that the various stories that have been told, thus far, by the AP are confusing and at times contradictory. The details in the AP editor’s note are at variance with other quotes ascribed to the AP of “300 meters” from the action, “100” Meters and most recently “50” meters. Further, the original AP caption appears to say that the election workers were the specific target of the terrorists, lending credibility to the view that this was a highly planned operation in which large numbers of people, including photo stringers, might have advance knowledge.
Moreover, there is nothing in the information put forward that would definitively answer critics who believe that the photographer may have been complicit in the event on Haifa St. Even assuming that the Editor at the AP is repeating the story exactly as he heard it (and I have no reason whatever to doubt that), the stated objective of the image — “The images spoke volumes about the situation in Iraq just six weeks before the 2005 national elections — the murder of people key to the election process, on a main street in Baghdad, with the gunmen not even bothering to conceal their identity with masks” — raises more questions than it answers as to the MOTIVATION of the AP editors in moving the photo as well as placing it forward for Pulitzer consideration.
What is clear is that the photograph, in the editor’s own words, fitted into an editorial view that portrayed Iraq as ungovernable and chaotic. Thus, it tended to confirm that notion, to the AP’s readers, just months before the highly successful election.
Lastly. I have worked with wire photographers from the AP as well as other news agencies. I found them, on the whole, the most talented, straightforward and best photographers around. None of this critique is meant to refer to them and their often dangerous and heroic work. This is about the edit staff of an wire agency and their handling of an Iraqi national “stringer.”

UPDATE: See also Wretchard’s “The story behind the Haifa Street photo” at The Belmont Club.

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