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What\'s in a photo?

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Arab Today, arab today What\'s in a photo?

Plenty, it seems. Al-Ahram 's Photoshop job on a picture involving the president has erupted into a furore of rare proportions. Alaa Abdel-Ghani reports

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the payback can be an equal amount of vocabulary, if not more, especially when the photo is one which much of the country and beyond has been talking about.

In the White House on 1 September at the start of MidEast peace talks, the leaders relevant to the negotiations were snapped while walking to the East Room. US President Barack Obama is in the vanguard position, with, from left to right, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel, Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah II of Jordan. But in what looked to be the same photograph which ran on page six of Al-Ahram 's Tuesday edition on 14 September President Mubarak is suddenly front and centre.

Photoshop sleight of hand had magically repositioned Mubarak, from being behind the group to leader of the pack.
The move, in the eyes of many, went overboard.

From BBC to CNN and several Western publications in between, they seized on the controversy and the now notorious shot. But vitriol virtually gushed from the home front. Unprofessional, it was dubbed locally, unethical, lacking credibility. The biggest jab of all: the photo was deliberately played with to please the president and inflate Egypt's impact in the peace process.

Al-Ahram, the venerable 135-year-old institution which normally reports the news, had now become the news.

Stung by the criticism, Al-Ahram 's chairman of the board is nevertheless sticking to his guns. Abdel-Moneim Said will not say sorry. "Apologise for what?" Said asked as he sat down for an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, one of the flagship's several publications.
Said insists Al-Ahram did nothing wrong. " Al-Ahram, as all newspapers, does make mistakes but not this time."

The chairman insisted Al-Ahram was in the clear, citing The Economist whose cover "often employs graphics, pictures and illustrations to make its point."

So why the brouhaha? "Internal politics and the fact that we are seen as part of the Egyptian state and if you have a problem with the state you direct your anger towards the newspaper."

He partly put down the uproar to "market competition" from a new breed of private publications.
"Some in this profession mix opinion with news, thus becoming the jury and judge. We have a long way to go on the road to advanced journalism."

Ironically, though, Said said he had been "very disappointed with the models many in Egypt seek to emulate. Respected foreign journals did not investigate the matter."

Few cared to read the "special report" written by Said himself beneath the edited photo and headlined "The Road to Sharm El-Sheikh" where Part Two of the MidEast negotiations were held. His report, he said, revealed a scoop over how the talks had arrived at this point after long months of stagnation. "But the point was missed as was the subject. Nobody even called me to ask for clarification. There was a rush to judgement and in their haste they judged the Egyptian system and president.

"It was an unprofessional critique."

To hammer the point abroad, Said has drafted letters of clarification to Western media outlets explaining Al-Ahram 's position.
"The published photo," Said wrote, "was visually integrated with the text of the report via its title: The Road to Sharm El-Sheikh, set in Arabic calligraphy, and signed by the designer [El-Maghrabi] in order to underline that it was, in fact, a design.

"Furthermore, the salient points of the report were set out in bold type across the two pages, with part of the text set around the photo. This was an attempt at underlining that the design was intended as a comment on the report, and not a republishing of the 1 September photo taken at the White House."

Did he expect such a reaction which he called massive? "It was like venom... a herd mentality took over."

Al-Ahram 's Editor-in Chief Osama Saraya seconded Said but was more strident in tone. Saraya lashed out at critics in an Al-Ahram editorial on Friday 17 September, pointing out that the original photo was published the day the talks began and that the doctored version was only meant to illustrate Egypt's leading role in the Middle East peace process, not to change the story.

"Altering the image wasn't meant to distort the truth but to illustrate the leading political role of Egypt's president.

"The illustrative photo is... a brief, live and true expression of the prominent stance of President Mubarak in the Palestinian issue, his unique role in leading it before Washington or any other," Saraya wrote.

Famed Egyptian writer Louise Greise told the Weekly that Mubarak was "in no need of a graphic designer to show his role in the Middle East peace process.

"Everybody in the international community knows about the important role that Mubarak is playing in the current peace talks. Whether he was photographed walking in front of President Obama or behind him, fact is fact -- without Egypt these talks cannot survive."

However, Greise said he would prefer not to change news agency photos. "They record events that we cannot change."

Mahmoud Allameddin, head of the department of journalism at Cairo University, disagreed, opting to support the Al-Ahram design. "The Al-Ahram editor was clear when he said that this was 'an expressionist photo' of the paper's opinion about the peace talks.
"All the evidence suggests that Al-Ahram 's intention was not to mislead its readers but to express its point of view. So where was the deception?

"The paper did not add or remove important details from the photo. It did not change faces or clothes or add or remove people from the photo."

Allameddin is not above believing in ulterior motives. "All this debate about Al-Ahram 's photo was not for the sake of media ethics. Some critics believe the photo was an attempt to change the fact that Egypt's role in the MidEast peace process is in their perception, waning." But Said's argument is that in war and peace Egypt is inexorably entwined with the process and most of the Sharm gatherings have been led by Mubarak.

"So," Said postulated, "as an Egyptian, why deny Egypt's role?"

His memo to the foreign media, which includes the British dailies The Independent and The Guardian, sought some semblance of constructive criticism which Said believes he has yet to receive. "We live at a time when the media whether print, audio-visual or online is increasingly resorting to new digital technologies to graphically and visually represent images, stories, notions and ideas. In doing so, the media everywhere is faced with the challenge of defining the often fine lines demarcating between accepted practice and unacceptable departures. This is a legitimate subject for debate, criticism and correction, but should not be a pretext for mutual disparagement among the media of different countries, especially when such denigration comes from the media of the more industrially and technologically advanced societies, towards those which are as yet attempting to keep up with the breakneck speed of the information/ communications revolution.

"It was a sad reflection of the media's thirst for sensation that amidst the hullabaloo surrounding the new-designed photo to fit a new subject, there was almost no mention of the editorial content which that the photo/design (rightly or wrongly) sought to illustrate. A pity, since that content included a great deal of information that had hitherto been hidden."

To the Weekly Said conceded nobody is perfect. "But I never thought of apologising, even though I was asked by many to do so.
"It was a misunderstanding. Things got mixed up. People mixed up the picture with the institution."

Would a newspaper of lesser light have received this much attention? Said's answer was delivered with a touch of pride: "If anything, it showed how important Al-Ahram is."

Additional reporting Mohamed Abdel-Baki

From: Al Ahram

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