< Through the Looking Glass

Transcript

Friday, May 04, 2007

BOB GARFIELD:
The Amsterdam-based nonprofit organization World Press Photo received 78,000 entries this year for its annual photo competition, now the largest of its kind. The winner, a single-color photo from war-torn Lebanon, is a startling study in visual contrast. In the background, complete devastation. In the foreground, a shiny red Mini Cooper convertible filled with five young Lebanese in fashionable Western attire.

Spencer Platt, a staff photographer for Getty Images, snapped the winning photo on August 15th, day one of the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. His image depicts the destruction of Southern Beirut, a Hezbollah neighborhood hitherto off-limits to foreign reporters.
SPENCER PLATT:
This was the first morning that we were able to really survey what had happened here. And I saw out of the corner of my eye, coming at me at a fairly decent speed, a car that really stood out from everything else. I mean, first of all, it was clean. Nothing in this neighborhood was clean. It was like 9/11, the day after. I mean, everything was coated in dust.

I had very little time to focus, to compose. I snapped, I think, about five images, four of which were completely and totally ruined because there was a gentleman standing in front of me and his arm was in the picture.

I went back to my hotel room with about 400 images I had taken that day, and I edited it down to about 30. And I saw that image, and, you know, I sent it, and, to be quite honest [LAUGHS], I forgot about it - it really wasn't until the next day, the subsequent weeks, where people started emailing me and telling me that it's been running all over the world. So it was – I have to be honest – it was a bit of a surprise for me.

Someone pointed out to me the other day, and people have continually pointed out, it is a bit surreal. There's a lot of ambiguity to the image, who the women are, what they're thinking. What kind of background do they come from? To me, I hear a different interpretation of it every day, and I'm somewhat sympathetic with them all.
BOB GARFIELD:
I've got to tell you, when I saw it, the conclusion I jumped to, because there's such a disconnect between the background and the foreground, is that they were very well-to-do people, kind of above the fray, coming just to gawk at the damage. One of the girls has a handkerchief over her mouth. Another is either IMing a friend or taking cell phone photos. And they do seem kind of detached. Do you have any idea what percentage of viewers have interpreted the shot that way?
SPENCER PLATT:
I have no idea. I mean, I was a little apprehensive when it did win the award of what people the Middle East would think. And my first couple of interviews, I clearly stated that, look, please do not judge these people, because as far as I know, they've lost their homes. As far as I know, they've lost a loved one – personally never naive to the fact that these people weren't just, as one prominent publication in Germany callously called them, "war tourists."

I think these women, and the guy, the gentleman driving the car, are doing what all of us were doing in South Beirut that day. In a sense we were all voyeurs.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, you know, you can certainly understand why they would be disgusted with their characterization as war tourists, because, after all, there are other ways to interpret the picture.

What I wanted to ask you is as a photographer, what responsibility do you have for the inferences that may be drawn by the viewer? Do you have any responsibility to make clear, at least in the accompanying caption, who these people are and what they were about on this sad morning?
SPENCER PLATT:
It's imperative that you always try to put the most accurate information that you can in a caption. I mean, I certainly always do my best. And if I'm not sure of information, I always try to leave it out. It's unfortunate that a magazine editor somewhere, in wherever it may be, decides that these are war tourists and he's going to put a headline that says "war tourists." I have no control over that, but it is disconcerting.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, I understand there was another bit of controversy from other entrants who believe that if a photo about the Israel/Hezbollah war were to win an international contest, it should be about the war and not about something in the aftermath of the war. Do you have any sympathy for that complaint?
SPENCER PLATT:
That's a totally fair criticism. But this is a photo about war. You know, life goes on during war. People get dressed. They put on makeup. They have children. They make love. So to me, this is a unique war picture, but it is a picture about war.

I'm not a propagandist. I've been accused by a Financial Times reporter recently of somehow sanitizing war. But, you know, I've always been accused – and I think most of my colleagues have been accused – of whenever we go to these areas, we're ambulance-chasers. We go for the bleeding.

And, for the first time in my life, you know, this image is something different. It really stands out from the rest of my coverage. I think the rest of my coverage is far more – I hate to use the word "conventional" - but it is conventional war photography. I didn't think that this was going to be the World Press Photo of the year, and I'm incredibly proud and grateful to them [LAUGHS] for awarding me this.
BOB GARFIELD:
All right, Spencer. Well, thank you very much, and once again, congratulations.
SPENCER PLATT:
Hey, thanks for having me. It's been great to speak to you.
BOB GARFIELD:
Spencer Platt is a staff photographer for Getty Images. His winning image is currently on exhibit at the United Nations in New York and will be linked to at onthemedia.org.