Photographing conflict: UN Edinburgh Association Peace Conference

Rebecca Corbett


‘The first casualty when war comes – is truth.’



Sebastian Meyer repeated these well-known words during his speech at the UNAE conference in Edinburgh. Though first spoken nearly a century ago by US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson, amid the settling dust of WWI, these words hold true today.



The media are first in the firing line when accusations of misrepresentations of situations are thrown around. They are accused of covering up the truth, denying it, or refusing to publish it. The photos we assume are largely accurate, how can you fake a photo? – Unless it is a disastrous editorial mistake that prints a Sheikh’s picture rather than an accused terrorist. (I am sure you are aware of the situation I am talking about).




It is true that you cannot fake a photo. However, you can orchestrate and coordinate a photo. This, Sebastian Meyer explained, is what ISIS has been doing. They have ‘orchestrated massacres for the media’, taking photographs of them, selling these to western photo associations who then sell them onto the newspapers that you see on your walk to work or read over a morning coffee.




The image accompanying your coffee is propaganda. It is there to induce fear and encourage citizens to demand that their government does something. Meyer asked the audience a difficult question to fathom: Are these news agencies acting as ‘unwilling foot soldiers of ISIS helping to share propaganda?’




It also leads us to consider the role of media bias. Meyer explains that it ‘is very important for me in conflict not to pick sides’ and warns us that western media outlets have. ‘We’ve picked sides and that’s a dangerous thing to do’.




The role of the media in contemporary conflict is to show war in all its horrors. Meyer explained this succinctly by saying ‘if my photos do not show war to be scary then I’m not doing my job properly.’ While the 2D image is ‘silent, still and not temporal… war is 3D, it is coming at you from all sides.’ War, Meyer, explained is also unbelievably loud. It’s louder than you can ever imagine. When looking at a photograph of conflict depicted in a paper with a gentle burble of the radio in the background, the overwhelming sound is almost impossible to imagine. Meyer made sure we understood that ‘war is nothing like beautifully framed photographs.’ Keeping images accurate is something Meyer explains he really struggled with, telling us that that his photos of Afghanistan sucked. He said, ‘the reason my pictures suck is because there is no sense of fear.’




What I understood Sebastian Meyer to be articulating was that while we cannot understand the horrors of it, his job is to try and make us begin to comprehend. The role of the media is to explain what is going on outside of our comfortable bubbles and to help us understand the real purpose of photography. The point instead is reminding us that the picture – while it shows us a 2D snapshot, a hundredth of a second of war – cannot even begin to convey the full meaning of a situation. Meyer explained that when artillery fire is replaced by lounge jazz in Starbucks, sometimes a photo is not enough. After the disappointment of his photographs from Afghanistan, he opted to take a sound recorder and film camera when he travelled to Libya. In order to try and explain the importance of sound, Meyer showed us a video of an explosion in Libya and later played the audio clip.




I speak for myself when I say that it gave me goosebumps, the sound was overwhelming and thunderous initially. This moment of fear, different to the fear experienced by those experiencing the situation first-hand, is a disconnected feeling. Instead it is close to the fear felt when you are scared in the cinema or waking up after a bad dream. You are frightened, alarmed and uncomfortable but ultimately you know that you are safe.




Meyer shows that despite technological advances that can document and broadcast live, the fear that one feels in a war zone is impossible to properly communicate to western audiences. Only when we are there in the middle of it will we be able to truly understand. Until then we need to thank the photojournalists and news agencies that continue to give us a glimpse of what is going on.



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