The controversy surrounding the forced withdrawal of Stuart Franklin’s essay in the Noorderlicht Photofestival exhibition of Palestinian photojournalism has received some coverage in both Photo District News and the British Journal of Photography.
Those reports don’t delve very deep into this issue. As such, there remain a number of outstanding questions that, given the importance of the principles at stake, demand further investigation.
Because we haven’t been able to read Franklin’s proposed essay, it is difficult for anyone to offer unequivocal conclusions. This, however, is how PDN summarized the text:
Franklin wrote a 700-word essay about the recent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Festival director Broekhuis provided a copy of the final draft of Franklin’s unpublished essay, but asked PDN not to publish or quote directly from it. The AP confirmed it was the same text they reviewed.)
The text describes Palestinians as victims of disproportionate force by Israel.
The essay depicts Palestinians as resilient victims of Israeli violence and disempowerment. Franklin acknowledges cruelty on both sides of the conflict, and cites specific instances of violence against both Israelis and Palestinians.
The essay does not mention the Associated Press or any other media organizations, nor does it name any photographers. Franklin refers to the photographers generally, noting that they are mostly married men who worried about their safety as they covered the conflict.
In his final paragraph, Franklin likens the Palestinians to other groups of people who have historically been oppressed—including Jews—and says the exhibit is not politically biased, but biased on the side of justice, human rights, and international law.
This summary would suggest the Franklin essay is in many ways unremarkable, offering opinions that many have voiced. Of course, there are many who will also object forcefully to such views, but one would hardly call Franklin’s essay radical.
1. AP claims it had a:
firm understanding that the photos would speak for themselves and would not be used to support a political point of view…In early August, in an e-mail exchange with Photofestival representatives, the AP agreed to a brief text describing the origins of the photos and Stuart Franklin’s role in bringing them to the exhibition…When Mr. Franklin later sought to include his own additional text, the AP explained that his political commentary was unacceptable under the clear agreement that had led to AP’s involvement in the exhibition.
In contrast, Ton Broekhuis, director of the Noorderlicht Photography Foundation, has stated:
First of all, it is vital to understand that there have never been official and unofficial preliminary agreements between AP and Noorderlicht or Stuart Franklin, but the verbal indication that Stuart Franklin’s approach – I quote – ‘would highlight the photojournalism and be balanced’. [According to Franklin]: ‘I have honoured this…No discussion was held with AP about text or their apparent right to censor my curatorial essay until a few weeks ago.’
Which account is correct?
2. According to PDN, Franklin selected images from 11 photographers who shoot for four wire services: the AP, Agence France Presse, european pressphoto agency and Getty Images. Did AFP, EPA and Getty ask for assurances on the accompanying text? Were they given any assurances? Did those agencies make any other stipulations about the use of their images? What is their view now?
3. What do the photographers themselves think?
4. According to the Noorderlicht press release, AP rejected two compromise options: either a statement accompanying Franklin’s essay making clear it was a “personal opinion” and did not reflect the views of the photographers’ agencies, or some text from AP itself to counter Franklin’s essay. If this is the case, why did AP reject both these options and instead allegedly threaten legal action against the organisers?
AP spokesperson Paul Colford told PDN his organization did not want their photos “to bolster a highly charged political point of view.” Given this, why did AP agree – regardless of the nature of any accompanying text – to have its photographs included in the exhibition in the first place?
The Israel-Palestinian conflict is nothing if not highly charged in all respects, and as an organization AP knows this better than anyone. Their photographers are regularly abused – just read some of the scandalous comments posted on the PDN web site in the wake of this issue that speak of these professionals as “Muslim cowards” and “Arab propagandists.” Or consider the conservative bloggers who revel in calling any images from the Middle East they don’t like “fauxtography.” Or recall the vitriol heaped on AP during the campaign to free their photographer Bilal Hussein from two years detention without trial in Iraq, which saw the AP logo disfigured to read “Associated (with terrorists) Press”.
Was AP simply afraid of further attacks from the right if Franklin was permitted to exercise his freedom of speech? If so, how is that a non-partisan stance?