The extremist group ISIS, now calling itself the Islamic State, continues to grab headlines with its brutal campaign across Iraq and Syria. But much of what we’ve seen of the Islamic State comes filtered through its own well-oiled media machine. Brooke talks with Sebastian Meyer, a photojournalist based in Iraq, about the images the Islamic State wants the public to see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, Vice News released a documentary called, “The Islamic State,” promising exclusive access into the extremist group formerly known as ISIS.
VICE NARRATOR: A few weeks later, IS launched a large-scale offensive against the 17th Division.
[SOUND OF GUNFIRE/VOICES]
They overran the base, killing at least 50 regime soldiers. Their corpses were displayed in downtown Raqqa, their heads mounted on fence posts. It sent a clear message that the city is firmly under IS control.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s the closest the Western news outlet has gotten to ISIS but it comes at a cost, made obvious in the film by the dominating presence of an Islamic State press officer and the prevailing view of the militants as guardians of order and defenders of the faith. Since it seized control of parts of Iraq and Syria, much of what we've seen of Islamic State comes filtered through a well-oiled media machine which churns out its own images while keeping a death grip on the reporters who enter its territory and the journalism that emerges from it. News agencies like Reuters and the Associated Press have been relying on local photographers who work anonymously as stringers in the land claimed by the Islamic State.
Sebastian Meyer, an American photojournalist based in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, says these photographers tend to fall into two groups.
SEBASTIAN MEYER: There are the photographers who are allowed to work by the Islamic State and those who take enormous risks to take photographs on smartphones. There's also a third side, although mainly distributed by AFP, and those are images that the Islamic State posts to their own websites, social media. AFP has a team who look at those sites and then after verifying that the images are true, as best they can, they redistribute those photographs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You spoke to a photographer in Mosul. The name you give him, not his real name, is Abu Mirwan. Can you describe his experience was?
SEBASTIAN MEYER: He was a photographer for about 15 years, and when Islamic State came in they made photography illegal. A group of Islamic State officials met with him, and it sounded like a very convivial meeting. They seemed to say, it’s fine, we don’t have a problem with it. But before he started working he was then put in touch with another person who said to him, “You will do exactly what we tell you and if we find that you do anything that we don't like we’ll kill you,” He went to the Mosul television station and he met with a third person, and that guy told him, you will give me all of your memory cards from your digital cameras and the images that I like you can distribute. I will take a copy that will go in our archive and the images I don’t like we’ll delete. And if I find that you don't give me all of your memory cards, if I find that you are sneaking memory cards, I’ll give you a hundred lashes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, how does this play out in terms of the photographs he takes?
SEBASTIAN MEYER: He has a minder. The minder sometimes works a bit, you know, like a Hollywood director and will get crowds to swarm around him and chant pro-Islamic State slogans. And the other aspect is he, he has to do what he’s told. The night that the Islamic State attacked the city of Sinjar, a city of about 300+ thousand people, he got a call to say, you have to come and cover our assault. So he went with them and he covered the assault, and then as the Yazidi fled up the mountain, he saw three children die in front of him. And too embarrassed to cry in front of the family members, especially the men, he turned away.
At that point he was summoned by militants of the Islamic State who said, come here, and they took him to a group of 30 men lined up on the ground face down with their hands tied behind their back. They said, “Photograph this” They then executed all 30 men in front of three or four of their female family members. He has no other choice but to do what they say, so he photographed it. They want to show that they are a tough and terrifying fighting force, and then they also want to show that life under their rule is lovely and pleasant and every good human would want to convert to Islam to then join the Caliphate. That’s what they want to show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These ISIS-approved photos obviously raise a host of ethical issues, as you do in your article: Who is taking the photos, what's their relationship with their subject, how the images are framed to the public, when printed in Western media outlets, and they are everywhere. What are your thoughts on their use? Should we be glad to have any record at all from within the Islamic State?
SEBASTIAN MEYER: This is a very, very serious question. The Islamic State uses its propaganda wing as a military tool. Just through fear alone, they can move huge populations of people. I have been covering the Yazidi, who’ve made headlines recently, about - I guess you’d call it a pogrom that’s happening right now against them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A group that was trapped on Mount Sinjar on the Syrian border by the Islamic State.
SEBASTIAN MEYER: Yes, exactly. And the majority of the Yazidi didn’t actually physically witness anything, but the fear of the Islamic State is what made them flee into the situation they’re currently in. And the printing of ISIS propaganda, every newspaper that carries a terrifying photograph of the Islamic State is helping their military success.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The implication of your argument is that Reuters and the Associated Press and AFP and countless other news sites should just walk away from this, in order to sap part of Islamic State’s strength on the ground, which is a good argument strategically but I wonder if it is good with regard to journalism.
SEBASTIAN MEYER: I think it's unjournalistic and unethical for journalists to turn a blind eye and to not print things. But to jump straight into printing any little piece of propaganda from the Islamic State because we’re just so thirsty for visual images is equally unethical.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you distinguish between a photo of brutality that you should distribute and one that you shouldn’t?
SEBASTIAN MEYER: I’ll give you an example. Human Rights Watch did a lot of work on the images of the Tikrit massacre. They were the first really shocking images to come out from the Islamic State. They showed huge numbers of men lined up on the grounds and militants of the Islamic State shooting them in the back. And Human Rights Watch did an excellent job using those photographs and satellite imagery to track down where they thought the massacres happened, to find out if they were true or not. And a lot of newspapers reported on their report. Using those images of quite grotesque brutality in the context of a human rights investigation, I think that's absolutely appropriate. But if you look at the cover of the New York Daily News from the day that those images came out, they splashed the image of a guy being shot in the back of the head, blood pouring out of his face. That is pure shock and horror. I think that is a great example of how not to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, what is it principally, do you think, we’re all missing about what's going on there?
SEBASTIAN MEYER: The truth. There are a huge number of rumors about what's going on there, and it's impossible or almost impossible to verify any of it. There's a rumor that – it’s actually been reported by a number of different newspapers and magazines of 500 Yazidi women who have been sold into sexual slavery. And it works to the Islamic State’s advantage that we don't know and that we are afraid and that we do think it's true, or we do think it’s possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sebastian, thank you very much.
SEBASTIAN MEYER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sebastian Meyer is a photojournalist in Iraq. He joined us from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.