[War reporting: Caffeine no.2, July 1997]
'The Picture that fooled the world'?
"In a sense it is almost the power of the image going two steps ahead of the proof that went with them" Ian Williams, ITN journalist
On 5 August 1992, a British news team led by Penny Marshall (ITN for News at Ten, with her cameraman Jeremy Irvin, and fellow reporters Ian Williams (ITN for Channel 4), and Ed Vulliamy (the Guardian newspaper) visited Trnopolje camp in the Bosnian Serb territory of northern Bosnia. They left with striking pictures of the emaciated Fikret Alic and other Bosnian Muslims apparently caged behind a barbed wire fence.
These pictures were broadcast around the world, and immediately became the defining image of the horrors of the war in Bosnia. The Daily Mirror (7 August 1992) headline captioned the picture 'Belsen '92'. Commenting after the event the Sunday Times (9 August 1992) wrote a piece stating that '20 minutes after this report was broadcast on American television President Bush changed his policy towards Serbia'. In March 1993 ITN won a Bafta award for its reports from Bosnian camps and on 23 March 1993 ITN took out a full page advert in the Guardian newspaper to celebrate the awards given to its journalists.
The impact of the image of the emaciated man behind that barbed wire has lost none of its power even now five years after it was originally shot. On 11 July 1997 the Independent newspaper used the famous still photograph on its front cover to accompany the announcement of the first verdict in the recent Hague war crimes tribunal. It has become clear that this is no ordinary image of war. Like Nick Ut's photograph of the Vietnamese napalm victim running down the road with her skin hanging from her arms, and Robert Capa's image of a soldier collapsing at the moment of death in the Spanish Civil War, the footage of the Trnopolje camp has become one of those icons that remind us of the horrors of war.
In fact it is the visual similarities with the first photographic evidence to emerge from the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, after World War Two, that adds gravity to the ITN film. Those images of starved Jews behind that barbed wire fence were the most telling photographs in a war not short on gruesome imagery. The Trnopolje film begs the question 'have we really changed so little in 50 years?' 'Were all those posters saying 'Never Again' for nothing? Parallels with World War Two were central for the initial demands to establish the first International War Crimes Tribunal since the trials of Herman Goering, Rudolph Hess and Klaus Barbie.
It is both the seriousness of the subject matter these images portray and the impact they have had on world events and those who have seen them that means we must be absolutely sure that we gain the correct impression from them. For this reason it is now disturbing to discover that there is a question mark hanging over them.
Undoubtedly, Marshall, Irvin, Williams and Vulliamy were in the Trnopolje camp in August 1992 when the famous footage was shot. What has now been questioned is whether the impression created by the film, and in particular the parallels with the images from Auschwitz is accurate. Under the title 'The picture that fooled the world' the German investigative journalist Thomas Deichmann has published a number of articles alleging that the Bosnian Muslims filmed by itn were in fact not behind the barbed wire at all. Deichmann has acquired film rushes, to either ITN's or Channel 4's film, which show that in order to obtain the shots of Fikret Alic and the others, the camera crew had to walk into a small compound beside the camp. Clearly shown in the rushes is fact that the people behind the barbed wire fence were, in actuality, the ITN crew and not those we were led to believe.
Whatever the British news team's intentions may have been, their pictures were falsely interpreted around the world as the first hard evidence of concentration camps and a 'holocaust' in Bosnia.
Deichmann's claims that the images were misleading have been widely reported and debated throughout Europe. But the debate in Britain has been severely curtailed by ITN's decision to issue a libel writ against the publishers and editor of LM, the first British magazine to reprint the article. Subsequent threats of legal action against the magazine's British printers have forced LM to publish abroad since February 1997. (The ethics of the libel laws are discussed on page 19 of our printed edition, in relation to the recent McLibel case).
It is the very evocative and emotional power of such images as those from Trnopolje that means we must be absolutely sure that they are not misleading. This means it is essential that the widest possible debates and discussions can take place to ascertain the truth behind such images. By publishing this article Caffeine hopes that it can be part of that debate.
Caffeine, Box 7, 82 Colston Street, Bristol BS1 5BB. Tel: (0117) 904 3427, Fax: (0117) 904 3427, e-Mail Caffeine@cableinet.co.uk