Transparency is as important as objectivity in photos coming out of jihadist territory

A recent story on foreignpolicy.com asks, “What are major news organizations doing sending jihadi-approved photos from inside the Islamic State?”

Titled with the much more linkbait-worthy headline “How to Take a Picture of a Severed Head” (I don’t think there’s an eHow article on that one yet), the story details how many  news agencies are publishing photographs from inside the Islamic State in Iraq. The photos are taken by anonymous stringers, some of whom have had to agree to let ISIS leaders censor what photos they turn over for publication.

The practice raises ethical concerns. Because the photographers are anonymous, there is no way to know what agendas they may have. Because ISIS is threatening photographers with lashes if they distribute unapproved photos, the photos lack the freedom from  bias that news outlets traditionally prefer.

But sometimes you have to take what you can get. In a situation like this, transparency and honesty about the source of the photos is as important as the more preferable objectivity. If we have the photo as well as the knowledge that ISIS demanded the opportunity to review it prior to publication, then we can analyze the photo and consider ISIS’ motivation in approving the photo. We can infer what the potential for bias tells us about what the photo does not show.

If we don’t have the photo at all, we cannot do any of that.

As one source (who has published photos from ISIS’s website) says in the story,

“We all know it’s propaganda, but we all know at the same time that the world needs to see what’s going on,” he said. “Our duty is to ring the alarm bell and say, ‘Hey guys, this is what’s going on. This is what we’ve found on these guys’ website.'”

Also, it’s not like ISIS is restricting the photos to images that paint it as a rosy educational organization. One photographer was ordered to document an execution. Such photos may be approved for the intimidation they can provide, but they also let the international community know the bad, as well as any good, about what is happening.

I would rather have news organizations be open and honest about these photos and the potential for bias in them rather than forgo the opportunity to tell this important story in photos.