A Bridge Too Weird

The story of the day is Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj. As I wrote earlier today, I think the most important issue here is not the faking of photographs, but the staging of photographs. In that connection, reader Cathy Brooks has done a tremendous job of analyzing Hajj’s photos. I want to focus here on one set: the ones relating to the bombing of Qasmiya Bridge, near Tyre. Everything in the post that follows is attributable to Cathy’s efforts; any errors of inference are mine. A quick preliminary note: Reuters has pointed out that the dates and times that appear with photographs when they are published do not represent the time at which the picture was taken, and do not necessarily reflect the order in which the photos were taken. Nevertheless, I have included the date and time listed for each photo for whatever it is worth. One more preliminary note: For speed, I am going to put the photos up without links, and will add the links later when I have time.

The sequence begins here, at 7:30 a.m. ET on July 12. This picture’s caption: “Lebanese citizens run shortly after Israeli warplanes bombed Qasmiya Bridge near Tyre in south Lebanon July 12, 2006.” It isn’t clear how much time has gone by since the bombing, or why they’re running. Note that in this series of pictures, no people are visible other than Hajj’s cast of characters.

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Make special note of the background: the trees; the building on the right; and the car that is parked along the right side of the road. Next photo, 11:10 a.m., ET. One of our “citizens” remembers that he is a civil defense worker and runs back across the bridge in the opposite direction; fortunately, the bridge is still open so he can do that. Caption: “A Lebanese civil defence representative runs shortly after Israeli warplanes bombed Qasmiya Bridge near Tyre in south Lebanon July 12, 2006.”

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But wait! There is now an upside-down car on the left side of the road in this picture. Where did it come from? Note the pattern of damage, with at least three large holes visible, on the overturned car.

Next, we’re back to 8:29 a.m., but now it wouldn’t be possible to run across the bridge, because it’s out. Our intrepid civil defense representative surveys the damage:

Hajj2345.jpg

Same road, same buildings, same trees, but now the bridge is gone, and the bomb appears to have landed right where the upside-down car was in the prior photo. (Note the position of the wall on the left side of the road.) No doubt the car was blown to smithereens, or washed down the river. But wait! The car has magically been transported to another location on the same road! The time stamp on this one is 8:43 a.m., and the caption says: “Lebanese citizens run near a ruined car shortly after Israeli warplanes bombed Qasmiya Bridge near Tyre in south Lebanon July 12, 2006.” It’s unquestionably the same car, and we’re seeing it from the same perspective; check out the damaged areas:

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How did it get there? I can’t imagine. But, hey, all of this may be moot. Maybe we weren’t even looking at photos of the right bridge! Here is another picture by Adnan Hajj, time stamped 12:44 a.m. on July 13. The caption: “A Lebanese citizen gestures near the ruined Qasmiya Bridge near Tyre in south Lebanon shortly after being bombed by Israeli warplanes July 12, 2006.”

Hajj4567.jpg

This is quite obviously a different bridge on a different road with different damage. Which one is the real Qasmiya Bridge? Beats me. All I know is, these pictures, when considered together, make no sense. Reuters employs photo editors, I believe. Didn’t they notice that they had put out pictures of two evidently different bridges, identifying them as the same location? Didn’t they notice that the overturned car turned up in different locations? Apparently not.

Reuters sends these photos out to newspapers all over the world, with captions that are supplied, I take it, by the photographer. And newspapers take both photos and captions as gospel. Here, for example, Australia’s The Age reproduces the photo of the overturned car, in its second location, with the caption: “Israeli warplanes leave rubble and a wrecked car after an air strike on Qasmiya Bridge, near the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, as Israel responds to a deadly Hezbollah raid.” Well, maybe. But how, exactly, do we know that the car didn’t come from a local junkyard? When a photographer and his subjects (or cast of players, as I suspect is the case here) start cheating, who knows where the cheating ends?

SCOTT adds: Thanks to the many readers who have written to explain the effects observed in the first four photos as the result of the use of different lenses. Perhaps the simplest explanation along these lines comes from our old friend D. Gorton, the former New York Times photographer:

It appears to me, from the small images that are available, that the pictures of the cars and the scurrying men were made in the same place, but with radically different lenses. Both Hajj 1243 and Hajj 3456 appear to have been made with extreme wide angle lenses whereas Hajj 1245 is done with a long telephoto. You did not note that in Hajj 3456 that a television cameraman is filming the upturned car. You’ll see him on bended knee between the two men who are running with their backs to us.

A scene can be radically altered with the use of telephotos or extreme wideangles, much as my analysis of the Haifa Street incident in Baghdad made clear.

I would be very cautious in making any sort of definitive statement based solely on this photographic evidence. In my opinion, it is not conclusive. Having said that I also believe that the evidence is skewed every day of the week in the photographic agencies and in the
television networks. This is just not one of the examples.

The explanaton of the effects produced by the use of different lenses doesn’t speak to the staging of the characters, but suggests that the photos are internally consistent.

JOHN responds: I can’t make any sense of that analysis. It doesn’t attempt to account for the fact that the damage to the vehicle is the same in all photos, even though they are obviously shot in opposite directions. [Ed.: OK, now I see that Gorton is arguing that it is actually the same scene shot from the same direction, even though, in the photos, the landscape looks completely different. To me, anyway.] That has nothing to do with the lenses. I suppose you could argue that the car wasn’t moved, but was just turned around 180 degrees and moved to the opposite side of the road. But it’s impossible to explain why anyone would do that, and it still wouldn’t account for the two different bridges. Another reader, “Quatrain,” offers what I think is a more plausible defense of the photographer, but he admits that he can’t account for the most significant discrepancies that Ms. Brooks pointed out:

I think that your “perspective” (from a visual/photographic stance) is mis-analyzing the photos. Look below, and consider the distance, and angle of the pictures. (The last bridge is clearly different, and I also can’t explain the car by the lookout tower, but I think the others are explainable.)

[Quatrain inserts here photos with colored boxes to draw attention to certain areas.]

Colors are same as above, but note the flat piece of “road” touching his right arm (green) and then compare it with the next picture set. (The picture was taken with a zoom lens, at least 100 yards away, and at around 5′-6′ from the ground. From this distance and height, the break in the bridge is hard to see. It is almost mirage-like because of the flat angle of the picture’s perspective.

[Quatrain’s point is that it may be possible to see a break in the bridge in the earlier photos. I can’t see it, but it’s possible that it’s there somewhere.]

The point of reference for this picture is right in front of the overturned car, higher (on top of the car?) about 12′ in the air (my estimation). Look in the other pictures, and consider the reference points. I think that these explain that all three pictures are congruent. (I won’t try to unweave the pretzel that is the last 2 pictures. I don’t know if I can.) But I think the bridge break, overturned car, and the other points are clearly there, but just hard to see considering the perspective of the photos.

This is not a conclusion that this wasn’t a setup by Hajj, on the contrary, it very well may be considering how he has been shown to have his hands in the cookie jar this week. But your explanation on the blog doesn’t seem to jive to me.

On this theory, the break in the road is there all along, as is the overturned car, you just can’t see them clearly in the early photos. In fact, I can’t see them at all, but it could be true. In any event, as Quatrain acknowledges, this can’t account for the important points, i.e., 1) the appearance of the same side of the same car, now visible in the opposite direction from the early photos, and 2) the second bridge which is stated to be the same as the first. More than that: if we assume that the car in the later photo is in the same place but merely shot from the other side, not only does it have identical damage on both sides–an impossibility–but it has migrated to the wrong side of the road; it should be on the right, not the left. And those red and white striped markers in the earlier photo should be on the left side of the road, which they aren’t. So I think it is undeniable that the car is in a different location, although I admit that the motives behind its movement are mysterious.

Nor, most fundamentally, does Quatrain’s analysis detract from the sense we get of the photo sequence as a whole, which is of a small group of actors enacting a pantomime for the benefit of Hajj’s camera.

UPDATE: Two more thoughts. First, if D. Gorton is suggesting that the two photos showing the car on the left side of the road are in fact shots of the car taken from the same direction, and in the same landscape, but with different lenses, then photography is a more magical art than I knew, since I can’t identify a single landscape element common to the two pictures. Other professional photographers may have more to contribute here; Quatrain, for one, did not consider that a plausible idea. Second, if, as Quatrain argues, the bridge was bombed out in all photos, it confirms that the pictures were staged. In that event, the “citizens” in the top photo must have made their way down the road toward the missing bridge, and then come running back for the benefit of the photographer. Either that, or Hajj was coincidentally present for the actual bombing but forgot to photograph it.

FINAL UPDATE: Several other readers argue that photos 1 through 4 actually show the same scene from the same direction. I’ve studied them carefully, and I’m still not sure I buy it; where, for example, is the overturned car in photo 1? I don’t find any of the smudges that have been suggested persuasive. But this picture, taken by a different photographer, convinces me they may be right. (Although, having said that, I still don’t understand how photo number 4 can fail to show any sign of the bombed-out area visible in the photo in this update, or, for that matter, any sign of the river or bridge.) If that’s true, then the moral is that when it comes to photography, seeing is definitely not believing. Which is probably a good lesson to keep in mind in evaluating these and other war photos.

What is indisputable, I think, is that 1) Hajj sent Reuters photos of two obviously different scenes on different roads, saying that both were the aftermath of Israel’s bombing of Qasmiya bridge, and Reuters apparently didn’t notice; and 2) the bridge photos were staged, with Hajj’s subjects running to and fro for his benefit, well after the bombing took place.

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