Controversial Image of Lebanon War Wins Photo Prize

Mohammed Ali Atassi.

On February 9, the prestigious World Press Photo Award winner was announced. Founded in 1955, this year the World Press Photo Awards received 78,000 photos taken by 4,400 photographers from 124 countries. American photographer and journalist Spencer Platt’s picture of several young, affluent Lebanese in a shiny red convertible driving through the smoky ruins of an Israeli-bombed section of Beirut took the top prize.

In addition to a monetary prize of 10,000 Euros, Platt’s photo will join an acclaimed list of images capturing some of history’s most indelible moments: the 1963 photo of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself ablaze in protest of his country’s dictatorial regime and their alliance with the United States; the shocking image of the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing after having been hit by a napalm bomb, her mouth agape in silent scream; the university student who faced down an approaching Chinese tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing; or the heart-wrenching image of a devastated mother weeping over her family killed in a massacre during the Algerian civil war.

Not for the first time, this year’s winning photo has generated a great deal of controversy – inspiring numerous commentaries and editorials in international newspapers. However, Platt’s picture differs from previous photos in terms of content and technique. Platt’s subject focused on the contradictions that can simultaneously exist during wartime, even within one place and in one country. As World Press Photo jury chairwoman Michele McNally said, “This photo is endlessly exciting, it represents life’s realities and complications amid wars’ anarchy. It is beyond improvisation.”

At first glance, the observer notices four young Lebanese women and one young man, all clad in summer clothing and sunglasses, riding in a red convertible sports car. On second glance, the viewer notices the car is driving through the rubble of one of the southern neighborhoods of Beirut destroyed by the recent war with Israel. 

One of the girls is covering her nose with a handkerchief, as if trying to avoid some pungent smell. Another girl is taking photos of the destruction via a cell-phone camera. The other two girls appear to be contemplating the ruin left behind by Israeli bombs, while the young man concentrates on driving.

The background shows a completely demolished building and a few pedestrians in the street – one surveying the damage, another talking on a cell phone, another passing by on a motor bike. A veiled woman treads down the sidewalk with her back to the camera. This was the scene in one neighborhood in southern Beirut on July 15, 2006 – one day after the cease-fire.

The great appeal of this photograph lies in the extreme contrast between the first visual and the second: the girls riding in a red sports car in their pretty summer clothing, versus ordinary people still reeling from the violent scenes. However, experts have not reached a consensus on the message of the photograph. Some reject the idea that all the misery of the Israeli war on Lebanon can be simplified into one image. Others, Lebanese writers, have declared that this photo represents a form of Orientalism and the superiority with which some Westerners regard the region and its people. Still others have expressed alarm that the Western world may be trying to highlight the social gap between the rich, with their “war tourism,” and the horror that the poorer residents in that area actually lived though.

Some claims speculated that the young people in the picture were voyeurs – possibly Christians from the antagonistic neighboring area of Ashrafieh.

In an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, a Lebanese reporter accused the Dutch World Press Photo committee of mockery and offense. Within Lebanon, however, the aspect of the photo that is the most controversial is the small sticker that can be seen on the dashboard of the convertible that reads “Samedoun,” an organization that helped the refugees and the displaced during the war. Many of Samedoun’s members were upset to be linked to a photo that appeared so insensitive to the recent tragedy. Upon investigation, it was discovered that the car belonged to one of their active members – whose father is a Shia and former government member. On the day that followed the cease-fire agreement, the Samedoun member loaned her car to some friends (shown in the picture) to allow them to return home to see what had happened to their neighborhood.

In an investigative report published in the February 24, 2007, issue of French magazine “Marianne,” a reporter revealed that the driver of the car, a young man, is the brother of two of the young women in the car, and that all are residents of the neighborhood, although they are Christian. Their family had fled during the war and returned only to check on their home. The driver told the reporter that he had hesitated taking down the convertible top, but the heat and the curiosity of his passengers had led him to do so. One of the other passengers, a Muslim girl, responded to a question about their attire: “This is our casual daily wear in the summer.” Perhaps because of the notoriety surrounding the photo, the owner of the red sports car queried why the World Press Photo committee selected Platt’s photo, instead of one that depicted a child killed after an air strike on Qana. 

On the other side of the world, Spencer Platt faced his own waves of accusations concerning the existence of such a glamorous “Hollywood” youth in Lebanon, and was questioned as to what his photo really represented. In an interview with the magazine Photography Platt said, “Anyone who went to Lebanon had to live that great contradiction; one minute there was shooting, and the next minute we were living in a luxurious, comfortable hotel. Even a little media coverage will show the reality of that contrast. There is a very rich part of this country that no one talks about.” He added, “War is complicated here, and some of us would like to show only the bloodshed. We cannot compare Lebanon to Iraq or Afghanistan, for these countries are totally different.” He continued, “My winning photo is composed of all of Lebanon, including its irony, from the rich and educated to the poor. A lot of Westerners live in a state of preconceived judgment about this part of the world. They (Lebanese) are people like us. That is what I always say when asked ‘Does that picture represent Lebanon?’: ‘My picture challenges stereotyped ideologies, not only concerning the victims of war, but also the war itself.’”

The common ground between these varying arguments is the quest for the degree of conformity between actual reality and photographed reality – acknowledging that any picture in itself is an incomplete reproduction, a surrealist description, and never a sincere reflection of reality. The winning element in Spencer Platt’s picture is the reality within the picture itself; what it reveals and what it hides, what is said and what is silent, what it freezes within the frame and what escapes, summoning reality without controlling it. Spencer Platt’s photo is undeniably a profile of Lebanon, but is only one “still” culled from the full image of war.

Translated from the Arabic by Joseph E. Mouallem


The Arabic version of this article appeared in the Beirut-based An Nahar Literary Supplement. The author has granted Al Jadid the exclusive right to translate and publish this essay.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 56/57 (Summer/Fall 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid

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