How Pictures Shape the Story in Syria Essay

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The Role of a Photojournalist in Shaping the Syrian Narrative


This paper discusses the role of the photojournalist in shaping the Syrian narrative. The images that photojournalists create are used by a variety of media outlets, both mainstream like CNN and alternative like social media uploaders, to develop a narrative that promotes a perspective on events and advocates for a reaction from the public—either support for intervention or condemnation of the use of force by governments that are not directly involved in the conflict. The paper examines the gassing incident at Khan Shaykhun in Syria to see how photojournalism played a part in shaping the responses of the American president. It also examines how spectacle, soft power, embedded reporting, interventionism and the CNN effect all play a part in shaping the narrative built on the work of photojournalists.

The paper also discusses the impact of photojournalism in the Digital Age where the citizen journalists of today are also growing thanks to having the power to record and take images on their phones and share them with the wider world instantaneously via the Internet and the social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook. This also goes into shaping the narrative based on the images provided by photojournalists, as the technological citizenship also acts as their own photojournalists, whether they are witnesses with cameras at the London bombing, or in Syria witnessing the conflict in that war-torn state. The role of the photojournalist is shown to be an important one in how the narrative of conflict, in particularly the Syrian conflict, is developed and spread by the opposing voices in media—from the institutionalized media to the up and coming alternative or social media.


In the social media, video and image sharing world of the Digital Age, a picture tells a thousand words and travels at a thousand miles per click of the mouse. Photos play an enormous role in shaping the way people think, react, what they believe to be true, and how they feel about particular issues. This is particularly true when it comes to shaping a narrative about war, and especially true in the case of the role of the photojournalist in shaping the Syrian narrative. Syria has been an especially active region in the Middle East, with a number of countries, mercenaries, terrorist groups, weapons, and vested interests converging on the scene for a host of reasons ranging from destabilizing the current regime to supporting it. Turkey, Russia, Kurds, Iran, Saudi Arabia, ISIS, Israel, the U.S.—all have been on the scene for a number of years, and the stories told about what is happening there are as wide ranging and conflicting as the players and parties involved themselves. For many, understanding what is going on on the ground depends on seeing images of attacks, atrocities, war torn regions, and heroics, captured on camera by photojournalists. President Trump, for instance, is on record saying that he was moved to strike a Syrian air base after seeing the horrible pictures of death that resulted from an alleged chemical attack. What really happened surrounding the events at Khan Shaykhun in Syria on April 4th, 2017, remains debated (De Noli, 2017)—but the pictures spoke volumes and allowed for easy or quick reactions to be provoked. This paper will analyze and discuss the role that the photojournalist plays in shaping the Syrian narrative and discuss how spectacle, soft power, interventionism, the CNN effect, and embedded reporting all impact and are impacted by the photojournalist’s role.

Framing the Narrative

The photojournalist frames an image and tells only a small minute, fragment of a story. He captures a second in time—a still image that tells of an instance of bravery, of courage, of hope, of disaster, of carnage, of desolation, of terror, of war. There is always a surrounding context to every picture, and many pictures can be taken out of this context and twisted around to purvey propaganda that simply does not align with the reality that exists outside the picture’s frame. One famous photo that sparked outrage during the Vietnam War was the image of a Viet Cong being executed by a South Vietnamese general. The picture only showed what appeared to be an ordinary citizen being killed by an authoritarian with a snub nosed pistol. The surrounding facts were not conveyed and told a much different story and reversed the trajectory of one’s sympathy when fully explained (Ruane, 2018). Nonetheless, the image was useful from a propaganda perspective because it helped to fuel the anti-war movement.

In the Syrian conflict, photojournalism is just as important in shaping a narrative. From pictures of the White Helmets (whose efforts have been documented in film and whose role has been questioned by those who look beyond the frame to see how organizations like this one are used as proxies to stir up conflict) to pictures of murdered Syrians and terrorists, photos tell a graphic story—that is then made into a much larger story depending on how the photos are used.

Spectacle is the primary driver of the photojournalism: the photo is meant to convey a sense of spectacle—of action—of drama. The spectacle can come in all shapes a sizes, whether it is a child crying, the aftermath of a bombing in London, or a row of terrorists formidably lined up with weapons of various power. The photojournalist captures the spectacle within the four frames of the camera—and the rest of the story is then told by journalists, reporters, propagandists, researchers, mainstream media, alternative media, social media, and so on. The number of voices riffing on the photo rises quickly into the tens of hundreds of thousands—a cacophony of voices that crescendos when the next spectacular image arrives; the previous narrative is dropped, the new one erected and propelled through headlines and talk show talking heads, senators, presidents and PMs. This is how the photojournalists’ images are co-opted through the use of soft power. The photojournalist may capture a sliver of truth—but those in the West with an aim towards interventionism, will take that sliver and twist it until it can be said to justify their aims. The photojournalist supplies the ammunition for the soft power to be made into hard power—into coercive power. The media drumbeats its conclusions based on images without ever getting the fact straight. The public is beaten into believing from non-stop repetition of the parrot-voices on the news networks—the CNN effect—that everything is exactly as the talking heads are saying it is, because they are the authorities, and they have shown you the pictures, and pictures do not lie; only sometimes they do—at least, sometimes they do not tell all the story—and those who promote interventionism can use the pictures to tell a story that supports their own aims.

In the case of Sarin and nerve gas attacks in Syria, the photos always show the aftermath—but never the situation beforehand (at least not those published by CNN). Trump’s attack on a Syrian airbase in early 2017 (Starr & Diamond, 2017) was an immediate knee-jerk response to photos of the aftermath of Syrians killed by gas; though the type of chemicals that killed were disputed and the origins of the gas (whether it was directed from Assad or the result of an explosion in an illegal chemical factory controlled by terrorists) was not yet clear. Nonetheless, the CNN effect went into immediate action and compelled President Trump to show that he was not going to let Assad get away with conducting chemical attacks. Trump’s somewhat muted reaction (firing missiles at a mostly empty airbase) was, in a way, representative of the emptiness of the narrative being propagated by CNN and the other Establishment news agencies in the West. But it shows how fabricated stories can be used with the help of images that are taken of the aftermath of an event in which people die and spun into a story that calls for military intervention.

Thus, in this sense interventionism, the CNN effect, soft power, and spectacle are all intertwined and interconnected (Robinson, 2002). The photojournalist covering alleged gas attacks is used and his material is broadcasted by the soft power forces to manipulate foreign policy—just as they did with Trump, who ran on the platform of fighting the terrorists in the Middle East—not Assad. As Al-Ghazzi (2017) notes, “the politically significant reverberations of false Syria reports offer lessons that address the debate in journalism studies about the place of reality in the news” (p. 12). Oftentimes this is the result of embedded journalism—journalists who are attached to military campaigns and report from directly on the ground. Brian Williams is famous for reporting lying about a helicopter crash in Iraq. He claimed “he was riding in a Chinook helicopter that came under R.P.G. fire and required an emergency landing” and he told the story….....

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