Reporting is Activism – III
Published November 17, 2014
by Shamina de Gonzaga
Can the experience of being targeted like an activist make a journalist into an activist? War photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie, who was kidnapped, beaten and held hostage for three months while covering the war in Syria shared his perspective: “A lot of people in the Middle East don’t trust [the] Western press because they feel we’re attached to our governments. The press has become too important, in a sense we’re responsible for our own demise. One journalist is worth so much more money than a local person. There are no rules.”
A veteran photojournalist who reported from more than 25 countries, Alpeyrie acknowledged the role financial incentives play in story selection: “You choose stories because they’re going to pay. Timing is also crucial. Ukraine was very profitable. I was covering the siege of the city of Donetsk. As soon as it gets very dangerous, fewer people are willing to stay, so there’s a bigger demand and you can make more money.” I posited that such considerations skew coverage and promote hysteria or public ignorance. He agreed, pointing to the current emphasis on Ebola: “In the past two weeks I’ve been covering the Ebola story. It’s complete madness and I’m part of that because we’re making a lot of money on it. The press should step back and consider if we should be talking about something else. We inflate events in such a way that we fake history. The press never criticizes itself, it’s as though we’re everywhere, what we see is what people need to believe, except that three fourths of the time, it’s misleading.” He was equally straightforward about distortions caused by political leanings: “In Syria we mostly covered the rebels. If I had been with Russian media, we would have covered the government’s side. The Russians warned about extremists taking over the opposition. They were right, the so-called moderate rebels were wiped out.”
When I asked about his initial motivation to become a war photographer, Alpeyrie responded that he wanted to document history in the making. I wondered if he would consider himself an activist. He rejected the term, both because he identifies it with more leftist views than his own, and based on his experience with NGOs: “Two years ago I did a story on hard core gangs in Port-au-Prince. There were a lot of NGOs in the area and we clashed. I was paying gang members to give me security because if you show up by yourself, you’ll get killed. And they were like, ‘how can you give money to these bad people?’ They were telling me that I was amoral because I was paying people off for security, while they were Westerners going out at night to the best clubs and making a living on people’s suffering. I told them, ‘without the earthquake you wouldn’t be here today, your business exists to make money when people are dying.’”
Far from believing that development agencies and workers are cloaked in righteousness, speaking with journalists who transitioned to NGO work has convinced me that there are exceptions.