How to Take a Picture of a Severed Head

What are major news organizations doing sending jihadi-approved photos from inside the Islamic State?

He's a charismatic figure, the sort that would catch the eye of any good photo editor.

Clad in all black except for the beige kaffiyeh wrapping his face, he stands, arms raised, weapon in one hand, ISIS flag in the other. Through dark aviators, he stares down the camera from just a few feet away. 

The picture above, dated June 23, filed by an unnamed photographer, and distributed by Reuters, claims to be of a jihadi militant on the streets of Mosul, two weeks after the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, now called the Islamic State (IS), shocked the world by taking control of Iraq's second-largest city. Time used the image. So did Newsweek, The Daily Beast, The New York Review of Books, and NBC News. And thus, the world got one of its earliest glimpses of Islamic State-controlled Iraq: defiant, in control, triumphant. 

The sudden takeover of a wide swath of Iraq by Syria-based militants calling themselves the Islamic State is both one of the biggest stories of the year and one of the hardest for news organizations to cover. The brutality that made ISIS notorious over the course of the Syrian civil war has become a fundamental part of its Iraqi regime. Few journalists have been allowed in by IS's media arms to provide a sense of what life is like under the Islamic State -- which is, in part, why a VICE News documentary that premiered Aug. 7, in which filmmaker Medyan Dairieh spent three weeks with the group, has been generating a stir. Most media coverage of the Islamic State's reign has come from areas of relative safety, such as refugee camps in Kurdistan where those fleeing the jihadi advance have taken shelter, or from those embedded with the Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting against further IS incursions. Few reports have included direct contact with the militants themselves, only with those caught up in their wake.

Except, that is, for the photos.

Shortly after the takeover, a handful of news agencies, including giants like Reuters and the Associated Press (AP), began sending out pictures from Mosul. Shot by anonymous stringers -- that is, freelancers who contribute regularly -- the photos reveal daily life under a self-declared caliphate, and depict everything from raucous demonstrations full of fluttering jihadi flags and weapons-filled checkpoints to more mundane scenes of bustling markets. Taken together, they show a combination of breathtaking brutality, widespread support, and a well-functioning state.

They're also fraught with ethical pitfalls. The use of unnamed freelancers by major news organizations in an area ruled by one of the world's most dangerous militant groups has raised a host of questions, from how these agencies can ensure their journalists' safety to whether they can vouch for the methods of the anonymous photographers working for them -- or these journalists' relationship with the IS fighters they claim to cover.

And as interviews with a few of the photographers currently working within the caliphate indicate, some agencies are willing to work far outside of traditional journalistic norms in order to provide a window into the world now almost entirely cut off from outsiders, in some cases even sacrificing editorial control to militant jihadists -- all in order to get an up-close glimpse of the enemy.

Abu Mirwan -- not his real name -- has worked as a photographer in Iraq for well over a decade. He is now filing photographs for an international agency, he said in a telephone interview in early August. (He wouldn't say which one.) After the IS takeover of Mosul, Mirwan, a Sunni Iraqi, reached out to an agent of the caliphate, who said he could get him permission to work again. The agent was true to his word, Mirwan said. He even shared a pleasant meal with three IS leaders, who told him they would help him by giving him stories and inviting him to see IS events.

The congeniality didn't last long. Mirwan says that a few days later, he was taken to see another member of IS's leadership. It was a very different meeting. The IS leader threatened Mirwan, telling him that if he did anything that damaged IS's reputation, he'd be killed and that if he took any photographs without IS knowledge, he'd be given 100 lashes. From now on, he was told, before he sent out any photos, he'd have to share his memory cards for approval first.

And that's how he's operated since, Mirwan says. IS invites him to cover events, such as military shows and rallies. He photographs them, with a minder in tow, and when he's through, he clears his images with an IS representative before they go out to either the international agency he works with, or to a local agency he works with which then passes them on to its international contacts.

Mirwan was recruited to document IS's recent attack on the town of Sinjar, he says -- the same takeover whose aftermath has prompted U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. There, he was photographing fighting until a few members of ISIS called him over. Thirty men lay waiting facedown on the ground, hands bound behind their backs. Three or four women were standing by, watching. It was an execution.

Take the pictures, he was told.

Mirwan says he's frightened. But the money he makes filing for international agencies is good, he says, and taking photos is the only way he knows to make a living. "I've been doing this job for 15 years," he said. "This is how I support my family."

Not all imagery coming out of the Islamic State is vetted like Mirwan's. Mohammed (who is also using a pseudonym because he fears IS reprisals) has been working as a journalist for over 10 years and is currently based in Mosul, running a local photo agency, where he has two photographers working under him. In a phone interview in late July, he said his agency sells between seven to 10 photos a day, for about $50 a photo. They work with a variety of different agencies, he says, but mainly with the AP. The agency doesn't know who the stringers supplying its photos are, Mohammed says. He is the AP's only point of contact for his agency's photos.

Mohammed says his photographers operate without IS permission, snapping furtive images via camera phones and transmitting them out of IS territory by satellite. And not all of AP's Mosul photography has been flattering for IS, in the mode of packed rallies and lively markets: The agency has sent out photos, for instance, of Mosul residents walking over rubble -- the aftermath of IS's destruction of the Tomb of Jonah the Prophet, a revered Muslim shrine. Another photo shows an empty park, where a statue of Iraqi poet and cultural icon Adi Tammam once stood.  

Mohammed and his photographers do tremendously risky work, but AP is very good to him, he says, and is concerned with his safety: The agency will call to check in on him, and remind him not to take unnecessary risks. But few are willing to take these sorts of chances. Mohammed says he knows of other photographers operating under the same conditions as Mirwan: filing only photos that have been cleared with an IS representative, working out of a TV station in Mosul, who keeps all the images on file.

AP refused Foreign Policy's repeated requests for an interview on its decision to use unnamed stringers in Mosul. However, in an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the agency wrote, "The Associated Press is transparent about the source of images we distribute and the safety of our journalists is paramount."

Over email, a Reuters spokesperson did not respond to a list of nine questions including one about whether the agency knows the identity of its stringers in IS-controlled Iraq, and whether it was comfortable with the requirement that any photographer working in Mosul must appear to support IS. Instead, the agency issued a statement saying it "chooses a mix of staff and stringers to provide the best coverage ... which is hallmarked by its independence and freedom from bias." It balances the use of staff photographers and stringers based on operational requirements, said spokesman Chris Artis, "as well as the deep knowledge of the conflict held by local editors."

News agencies' decisions about whether to rely on stringers in IS territory take place against the backdrop of the intensifying propaganda war unfolding between the Islamic State and the Iraqi government -- one that many have argued IS is winning. The group has shown a particular savvy when it comes to brand management: It maintains active social media accounts, regularly publishing images, including the occasional gruesome beheading or mass execution, which are often picked up by news outlets. The militants have a designated propaganda arm, known as the Al Hayat Media Center, which produces high-production videos and a magazine. And reports from other areas under IS control describe similar attempts to control all information bound for the outside world through similar review processes as those described by Mirwan and Mohamed in Mosul: IS set up an "information office" in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, for instance. For its part, in response to IS's effective public relations efforts, the Iraqi government has issued a set of "guidelines" for members of the media covering the fight against IS that forbids "broadcast[ing] the messages of armed groups or their savage acts" while exhorting journalists to praise "the heroic acts performed by security personnel," and to "broadcast programs that spread enthusiasm and a fighting spirit against terror." (The guidelines were condemned by human rights groups as an attempt to prevent critical coverage.) 

Providing anonymity for photographers operating in dangerous territory is a common practice for news organizations, including Reuters and the Associated Press. But the combination of a particularly violent subject, known for its PR savvy, and photographers with whom these agencies have little familiarity and at times almost no contact, is problematic, journalism ethics experts say. By running images from photographers like Mirwan and Mohammed, news organizations open themselves up to charges that they're serving as what Ethical Journalism Network Director Aidan White calls "unwilling foot soldiers" of extremists in this propaganda war. "It's the question of whether or not one is falling into the trap of actually promoting the political interests of" the Islamic State, White said.

But while news agencies must be aware of the hazards of allowing a dangerous group to depict itself on its own terms, they must also balance against the value of providing public information about an important newsmaker, said Patrick Baz, Middle East and North Africa editor for Agence France-Presse (AFP). AFP hasn't used stringers in IS-controlled Mosul, but it has distributed the group's own images of what it claims to be executions. They're photos that may be intended to intimidate, Baz says, but they also have what he calls "historical value."

"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.'"

And conceding some editorial independence for the sake of access isn't a situation unique to the Islamic State, he says. News agencies readily use images distributed by the U.S. army, the Israeli army, or NATO forces, Baz said -- decisions that are rarely, if ever, questioned. And military embeds, for instance, often come only after extensive screenings, and with their own restrictions on coverage (though these are typically couched in terms of security, and aren't accompanied by promises of lashings).

In the buildup to the premier of part one of VICE News' documentary, the company touted its journalist's "unprecedented access." Indeed, VICE's cameras appear to go deep into the caliphate, and the footage they capture is chilling: In the first two installments, based in Raqqa, Syria, children as young as 11 pledge loyalty to the caliphate, and IS members give brazen interviews that include pledging to "raise the flag of Allah in the White House." There are also happy scenes, of a sort: Men living under IS rule play with children in a river. And front and center, of course, are the demonstrations of Islamic State power: a tank spinning in circles; IS's signature black flag waving from a turret; a parade of stolen Iraqi weapons; a rally in which a crowd is prodded into a call-and-response: "The Caliphate!" "Established!"

In an email statement to Foreign Policy, VICE offered no details about the terms of the embed, nor did it share them in an interview with the Huffington Post. It said it offered "a previously unseen look at life under the control of this terrifying extremist group" and said filmmaker Dairieh "has worked in the region's most challenging environments ... and has extensive contacts."

In forthcoming episodes, VICE promises to take viewers further into IS's world. They'll watch prisoners detail how they'll be punished for their crimes, see an IS-run wheat mill, and hear a representative talk about the group's plans to establish schools and factories. Viewers will have no sense of how much of the footage may have been screened ahead of time by the group before airing, or the degree to which IS decided where VICE's cameras would go. The documentary is fascinating. Watching men and young children declare their passion for jihad, seeing masked men on horses patrolling city streets -- it's hard to look away. How much it tells us about the reality of life under a caliphate is an entirely different matter.

Part two of the documentary closes with a scene of an IS recruitment rally, which many attendees are shown filming on their cellphones. "The Islamic State has been established," a kaffiyeh-wearing man sings to the gathered crowd. "Beautiful virgins are calling; enroll me as a martyr." The crowd stares back. Some sing along. The weapons are held high, and rows of black flags flutter in the background.

Sebastian Meyer contributed reporting from northern Iraq.



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Watching the Eclipse, David Remnick, the New Yorker.

Ambassador Michael McFaul was there when the promise of democracy came to Russia—and when it began to fade.

"In 1991, McFaul was in St. Petersburg, trying to organize a seminar on local government. He found himself doing business with a man from the mayor’s office named Igor Sechin. He and Sechin took an immediate liking to each other. It turned out that, like McFaul, Sechin was interested in Mozambique. They both spoke Portuguese. Sechin never actually said that his familiarity with matters Mozambican came from having been a young Soviet intelligence operative in Maputo, or that he still was a K.G.B. officer, but McFaul knew the score. What he discovered, as they talked, was that Sechin assumed that McFaul, too, was an intelligence agent.

It was an encounter with a certain historical freight: a generation later, when McFaul became Obama’s Ambassador to Russia, Sechin became the president of Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned, hugely profitable energy conglomerate. He would also be the most important counsellor to the same man he was working for way back in 1991: a career intelligence officer and deputy mayor named Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin."


Slaves of Happiness Island, Molly Crabapple, Vice.

Abu Dhabi and the Dark Side of High Art

"I first set foot on Saadiyat on a day so hot it nearly made me faint. Journalists are not allowed to visit without government minders, so I sneaked in. Saadiyat’s terrain looked like the moon. Bulldozers churned up pearl-colored dust. The dust dried my eyes. It came out in my snot. In company-branded jumpsuits, men toiled through their 12-hour shifts, welding and lugging rebar beneath the merciless sun.

brahim served as my translator. He is in his early 20s. With his carefully styled black hair, he resembles a South Asian James Dean. Ibrahim asked me to withhold details about his life for fear of deportation, or worse. “If I speak to the media, they will take me from my room and put me somewhere no one will find me,” he said. Ibrahim has the sort of intelligence that crackles around him in sly, sarcastic sparks. He is smart in a way so obvious that he tries to hide it from his bosses by speaking in broken English. He knows five languages, loves poetry, and dreams of getting a master’s degree."


Vladimir Putin’s Chess-Master Nemesis, Steven Lee Myers, the New York Times.

Garry Kasparov, the Man Who Would Be King of Russia

"It was a Wednesday, and he sensed a spectral presence on the balcony of his apartment in Moscow (almost all regional leaders in Russia keep a home in the capital). When he went to investigate, aliens in yellow bodysuits transported him to an enormous spaceship and then to another planet. They did not talk much, but he emphasized that he needed to get back soon, because he had a flight to Kalmykia the next day. They assured him not to worry; there was plenty of time. In Ilyumzhinov’s various retellings, his tale remains remarkably consistent, and he has stood by it, despite skeptical and amused questioning from journalists. Over the years, he has expounded on his views of extraterrestrial life, comparing them to the belief in Jesus Christ or Buddha. He also has opined that chess itself comes from a higher plane, either God or outer space: It certainly is not of this world.

Like Kasparov, Ilyumzhinov was a chess prodigy, becoming Kalmykia’s champion when he was 14, but he never reached similar heights in international competition. After high school, he worked in a factory until he was conscripted by the Red Army. Following his time in the military, he returned to a factory job before gaining acceptance to the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, the university that prepped the Soviet Union’s diplomats and provided him with business-world contacts. When the country fell apart, Ilyumzhinov ended up the owner of a network of businesses and a very rich man, though as is the case with many of Russia’s oligarchs, the exact source and size of his wealth is opaque. Ilyumzhinov was elected Kalmykia’s president in the heady years of Russia’s new democracy, running on the argument that, as a rich man, he would not succumb to corruption. In fact, as many regional leaders in Russia in the 1990s did, he treated his homeland as his personal fief, neutering the local legislature and controlling the media. In 1998, one of his aides was convicted in the murder of an opposition journalist and political activist, Larisa Yudina. Earlier this year Sergei Mitrokhin, the chairman of the Yabloko Party, the biggest liberal party in the 1990s, cited the murder as a reason to oppose Ilyumzhinov’s re-election to FIDE, describing his Kalmykia presidency as “a disgusting merger of authoritarian rule, corruption and crime.”"


How Libya Blew Billions and Its Best Chance at Democracy , David Samuels, Bloomberg Businessweek.

It's been a long road of mismangement and war for Libya since Qaddafi's death.

"In the weeks that followed Qaddafi’s death, Farkash was seized by a vision of how rebuilding the country might also be a pathway to personal riches. The more he studied Libya, the more convinced he became that it was a gold mine—a strip of coastal desert in North Africa, next to Egypt, with a relatively well-educated population of 6 million in need of seemingly every kind of consumer product and service, for which the country would easily be able to pay by continuing to pump its usual 1.3 million to 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. The Central Bank of Libya, according to Reuters, had more than $100 billion in foreign reserves, mostly money collected from oil sales under Qaddafi. The Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), the overseas investment arm of the Qaddafi government, had about $70 billion invested with blue-chip Western companies such as Société Générale (GLE:FP) and Goldman Sachs (GS), and an additional $50 billion or more invested throughout Africa. And in Libya, every asset you could imagine was dirt-cheap. “It was a clean page,” he remembers. “You could start from scratch.”

Farkash returned to Libya that very month, along with two friends from London. Together, they started a Libyan investment bank with offices in Tripoli and Benghazi, with the aim of encouraging direct foreign investment in Libya. “You could smell that there were deals everywhere. Attractive deals,” he recalls. “Deals about to be done, and deals waiting to be done.” Land was inexpensive and increasing by the day in value, he says. You could fill your gas tank for $5."


On Israel's Defeat in Gaza, David Rothkopf, Foreign Policy.

Hamas will dig out from under the rubble and the world will remember the image of four boys killed on a beach.

"Yet, whenever this most recent conflict is seen to be over, it will not be remembered for the security logic behind it or the speeches justifying it. Nor will it be remembered for the tactical gains that Israel may have achieved. No, the lasting image this war will leave the world is of four boys on a beach, playing soccer and then running for their lives, hurtled from a carefree moment of childhood to oblivion in the blink of an eye.

There is no Iron Dome that can protect Israel from images like that. There is no Iron Dome that can undo the images of suffering and destruction burned into our memories or justify away the damage to Israel's legitimacy that comes from such wanton slaughter. Most importantly, the Iron Dome protects Israel only from the damage others try to inflict upon it; it cannot save the country from the damage it does to itself."

-/AFP/Getty Images, -/AFP/Getty Images, Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images, Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images, MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images