Can presence of photographers distort events and alter history?

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The Independent Online

The camera, they say, never lies. Unarguably, however, the very presence of a camera sometimes distorts the event its lense so exactly records. Yesterday's incident in Tetovo, when two men, apparently ethnic Albanians, were shot dead by Macedonian police, may not fall into that category. Quite possibly though it might become, for better or worse, a defining image of this latest Balkan crisis.

The camera, they say, never lies. Unarguably, however, the very presence of a camera sometimes distorts the event its lense so exactly records. Yesterday's incident in Tetovo, when two men, apparently ethnic Albanians, were shot dead by Macedonian police, may not fall into that category. Quite possibly though it might become, for better or worse, a defining image of this latest Balkan crisis.

A century ago, most victims of wars were usually the soldiers who fought them. Now most wars are civil wars and 90 per cent of their casualties are civilian. And in modern wars, almost invariably, it is a picture of suffering civilians which galvanises the world into action.

The naked little Vietnamese girl running down the road, her body seared by napalm, crystallised the wanton destruction and horror of the United States' war in south-east Asia, and the nonsense of "destroying a village in order to save it".

Thus it was too with the images of gaunt half-starved men, behind the barbed wire of concentration camps in 1992, that helped focus international outrage against the Bosnian Serbs, and the wire service pictures of bodies of ethnic Albanians massacred at Racak in January 1999 - which hardened Western determination to halt Slobodan Milosevic's aggression against Kosovo.

More recently, pictures have shaped perceptions of the Palestinian uprising: first the Palestinian father, Jamal Al-Durrah, nursing the dead body of his 12-year-old son, Mohammed, shot dead in Israeli crossfire; then the two Israeli plain-clothes security men who were dragged to a Palestinian police station in Ramallah and lynched.

President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat might be talking peace. But those pictures exposed the futility of the exercise and the depth of hatred on either side.

One picture, then, can be worth ten thousand words. The camera purveys a truth that shocks, outrages and galvanises people into action. But, on occasion, the presence of the camera creates, if not an actual lie, then an incident which otherwise would perhaps not have occurred.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, is not alone in his complaint that the media provokes violence in the Middle East - which is one reason he opposes the presence of UN observers with cameras on the West Bank and in Gaza.

"The minute some terrorists see a camera, they begin acting," he told journalists in New York this month. "They tell young boys, 'Don't start throwing stones, CNN is in a traffic jam'." One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but it can hardly be denied that Mr Peres has a point.

There have been similar, documented instances in Northern Ireland as well as the Middle East, where the presence of television cameras has led to a riot or, worse still, where the TV crew has asked protesters to throw stones or petrol bombs in the interests of getting dramatic pictures to send home.

And so, inevitably, journalists become part of the story - and then victims themselves. Since the intifada began last September, two journalists have been killed and more than 50 fired upon or otherwise attacked.

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