A photograph may be worth a thousand words, but even at its most revealing it never tells an entire story. It is the capture of a single moment, a split-second version of the truth. But if it is an effective photograph, it moves the viewer toward a larger truth.
That’s certainly the case for a front-page photographpublished Nov. 15, an image of a man’s anguish as he held the shrouded body of his 11-month-old son, who was killed in a bomb strike on the man’s house in Gaza.
That the man is Palestinian — not a terrorist but a journalist — and that the bomb was dropped by Israelis, to my mind, is almost beside the point. This photo depicted loss and pain, the horrific cost to innocents on both sides of the violence in the Middle East.
But many Post readers saw it differently. Jewish groups and American Jews in large numbers wrote to the ombudsman and to Post editors, protesting the photo as biased.
MaryAnne Golon, The Post’s director of photography, explained to me that the purpose of any front-page photo, regardless of subject, is to move the reader, whether through its beauty, sentiment or drama.
“When we looked at the selection that night of Middle East photos from the wire services, this photo got everyone in the gut,” Golon said. “It went straight to the heart, this sobbing man who just lost his baby son.”
Post staff then authenticated and verified the facts behind the Associated Press photo. The dead baby was real. The bombing was real.
Many readers asked why The Post didn’t balance the photo of the grieving father with one of Israelis who had lost a loved one from the Gaza rocket fire. That’s a valid question.
The answer is that The Post cannot publish photographs that don’t exist. No Israeli civilian had been killed by Gaza rocket fire since Oct. 29, 2011, more than a year earlier. The first Israeli civilian deaths from Gaza rocket fire in 2012 did not take place until Nov. 15, when Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, began firing more accurate and deadly missiles in response to the Israeli offensive that had begun the day before. There were no recent photos of Israeli casualties to be had on the night of Nov. 14.
Still, on an inside page Nov. 15, The Post ran a photo of an Israeli mother taking refuge in a bomb shelter with her young children. That reflects the truth of life in southern Israel.
I think we can all agree that the Gaza rocket fire is reprehensible and is aimed at terrorizing Israeli civilians. It’s disruptive and traumatic. But let’s be clear: The overwhelming majority of rockets fired from Gaza are like bee stings on the Israeli bear’s behind.
These rockets are unguided and erratic, and they carry very small explosive payloads; they generally fall in open areas, causing little damage and fewer injuries.
In addition to the rockets being weak, Israel’s defenses are strong. It has an extensive network of bomb shelters in the south, and its new Iron Dome, built in part with U.S. funds, has proven to be the best missile-defense system ever deployed. And the Israel Defense Forces are by far the most powerful military in the region, equipped with just about every weapon the U.S. military has.
Gaza, meanwhile, is almost entirely urban and densely populated; bombs there will kill civilians no matter how precisely targeted.
In Operation Cast Lead, the offensive against Gaza rocket fire waged by Israel in late 2008 and early 2009, between 1,200 and 1,400 Palestinians were killed, about half of them fighters for Hamas or other militant groups in Gaza; the other half were civilians, depending on the information source. In contrast, just three Israeli civilians and 10 Israeli soldiers died.
In the just-suspended conflict, which Israel called Operation Pillar of Defense, Palestinian health ministry sources estimate that 100 to 133 Gazans were killed, including militants. Amnesty International puts the civilian Gazan death toll at 66. In Israel, four civilians and two soldiers died.
The front-page photo on Nov. 15 told not the whole story of the Gaza conflict, no, but certainly a telling and important part of the truth.
Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.