Where is Bilal Hussein–and who is he working for?
A year ago, I blogged about a controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo taken by an unidentified Associated Press stringer in Iraq. More background from the blogosphere here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Do take the time to re-read them all. The context is important.
One member of the Pulitzer-winning AP team was AP stringer Bilal Hussein. Hussein’s photos have raised serious, persistent questions about his relationship with terrorists in Iraq and whether his photos were/are staged in collusion with the enemy. I’ve learned of an intriguing news development that strengthens those lingering suspicions.
This afternoon, in response to a tip from an anonymous military source in Iraq, I contacted both the AP reporter embedded with the Marines in Ramadi, Todd Pitman, as well as AP’s media relations office headquartered in New York concerning Hussein’s whereabouts. No word from Pitman. But at 6:20pm EDT, I received the following e-mail response from AP:
We are looking into reports that Mr. Hussein was detained by the U.S. military in Iraq but have no further details at this time.
The Associated Press
According to my tipster, Hussein was captured earlier today by American forces in a building in Ramadi, Iraq, with a cache of weapons.
I am still awaiting a response from the DOD’s Combined Press Information Center and a Public Affairs Officer in Ramadi.
While we wait (and remember that the AP has a history of dragging its feet), a quick refresher on the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo controversy and Hussein’s work:
Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by unidentified “AP stringer”.
The above image of an execution of Iraqi election workers, in broad daylight, on Haifa Street in Baghdad was taken in November 2004. D. Gorton, a former New York Times White House photographer who covered the Carter and Reagan administrations, provided an excellent summary and analysis of the controversy surrounding the photo at The Weekly Standard. Gorton concluded:
So this is where the story stands now: A photo “stringer” who is identified as an Iraqi national, who remains anonymous, makes an exclusive picture that is not corroborated by any other photographic news source. The image fits into a press meta narrative about the situation in Iraq prior to crucial national elections. The published photo sets up an immediate outcry in the blogosphere and is met by an institutional defense by the AP. That is followed by a series of misstatements by the AP on the distance the photographer was from the scene, culminating in a piece by AP’s director of photography, who avoids addressing that very issue of proximity.
Whatever the truth is, it may eventually come out. The terrorists know whether or not they were complicit with the photographer. As the insurgency winds down they may broker their way into an amnesty in which, no doubt, many tales will emerge–tales that could confirm the worst suspicions of complicity in murder.
In the meantime the AP is left with almost no reasonable defense of the photographer’s actions, uncorroborated as they are. They can release all of the photographer’s pictures of that day. They can even produce the photographer. But it’s difficult to see what they could do to assure their integrity in this matter.
AP director of media relations Jack Stokes defended the photographer against questions about staging this way: “Insurgents want their stories told as much as other people and some are willing to let Iraqi photographers take their pictures.”
As it happens, AP stringer Hussein has been a prolific photographic story-teller for the “insurgents:”
A typical example of photography from the “insurgents'” perspective by Bilal Hussein/AP
And another up-close-and-personal snapshot of a day in the life of the “insurgents:”
Many more graphic photos of Hussein’s work here, including this chilling photo in the middle of the Ramadi desert taken by Hussein as triumphant terrorists posed with the body of just-executed hostage Italian national Salvatore Santoro on Dec. 15, 2004:
Insurgent propaganda photo by AP/Bilal Hussein
In November 2004, AP published a glowing profile of Bilal Hussein that was–surprise–critical of the American forces’ assault on Fallujah.
Rusty at The Jawa Report (hat tip – OTB) updated the “continuing saga of insurgent propaganda” earlier this week and pointed to an excellent investigation of phony MSM war photography published by the National Journal’s Neil Munro, who featured Bilal Hussein’s questionable work prominently:
Thanks to digital technology, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the most photographed in history. Photographers with digital cameras have provided, almost instantaneously, an enormous flood of accurate, dramatic, and even shocking images to people around the world. But the daily downloads of news photos include some that are staged, fake, or so lacking in context as to be meaningless, despite the Western media’s best efforts to separate the factual from the fictional….
The photo editors for Time and The New York Times’ Web site declined to comment. Other publications printed images of damage from the missile strike that seem entirely accurate. For example, Newsweek and The Washington Times published wide-angle photos of locals standing beside houses that had obviously been severely damaged. The New York Times print edition published the same wide-angle photo on January 18…..
The problem sharpens when no Western reporter is on the scene, but a photographer, usually an Iraqi stringer, is. Photo editors, or even local Western bureau chiefs, have trouble judging the veracity of the images that come from such an event. Last October, for example, The Washington Post printed a striking image of four caskets, purportedly containing dead women and children, and a line of mourning men on a flat desert plain outside the town of Ramadi, west of Baghdad. The photo, provided by the Associated Press, accompanied an article that began this way:
“A U.S. fighter jet bombed a crowd gathered around a burned Humvee on the edge of a provincial capital in western Iraq, killing 25 people, including 18 children, hospital officials and family members said Monday. The military said the Sunday raid targeted insurgents planting a bomb for new attacks.
“In all, residents and hospital workers said, 39 civilians and at least 13 armed insurgents were killed in a day of U.S. airstrikes in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, a Sunni Arab region with a heavy insurgent presence.
“The U.S. military said it killed a total of 70 insurgents in Sunday’s airstrikes and, in a statement, said it knew of no civilian deaths.” ….
The funeral photograph was taken by Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi stringer working for the Associated Press. AP officials declined to make Hussein available for an interview, and National Journal was unable to contact him directly in Iraq….
A series of Hussein’s photographs illustrate another dilemma for photo editors — whether to publish images that may have been created for the photographer. Last September 17, in Ramadi, Hussein took pictures after a battle at a dusty intersection. At least one U.S. armored vehicle had been damaged and towed away, leaving behind its 40-foot dull-gray metal track tread. Hussein’s photographs showed the locals piling debris and auto tires onto the tread, and then celebrating as they lit a fire. Without the fire, smoke, and added debris, the photo would have presented a pretty uninteresting image of people looking at a leftover tank tread. With the smoke, fire, and debris, the image seemed to convey that a major battle had just taken place.
Weeks later, USA Today published a similar Hussein photograph from a different incident in Ramadi, which featured celebrating Sunnis, burning car tires, and a tank tread pulled over on its side.
Lyon said that AP bars photographers from asking people to change a scene, but that a crowd’s spontaneous decision to change a scene in front of a cameraman presents a different situation. “You have this [dilemma] every day all around the world,” he said. “There’s nothing new there.”
Well, here’s something new: As I noted earlier tonight, Bill Roggio’s investigation of a possible faked insurgent information operation in Ramadi published today warrants a response from AP. Roggio’s report caught my eye especially when I saw one of the photos he posted…
Guess who I discovered took the picture?
You guessed it: AP stringer Bilal Hussein (scroll down on right-hand side).
So where is Bilal Hussein now?
And if he has in fact been detained by our troops, what exactly was he doing when he was taken into custody?
Working for the AP? Or someone else?
Update: The CBS News blog tracks the story.