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Pushed Into the Web/ Lost Tribe of Palestine

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By Michael Miner

Pushed Into the Web

"Is Photojournalism Dead?" asked the cover of American Photo magazine in September 1996. The answer, more apparent now than then, is no. Photojournalism survives in cyberlimbo. If you're willing to put up with second-rate reproductions tediously displayed, you'll find distinguished photo essays mounted noncorporeally on the Internet.

"I'm a total amateur," says Patrick Witty, referring to his mastery of the Web. Yet during the year he spent in Chicago as a Tribune photographer he launched an on-line photo magazine. Its credo is as depressing as it is inspirational: "Untitled Magazine was created in response to the rapidly shrinking space in newspapers and magazines across the world. The internet is the future of communication and expression. It offers unlimited space and an unlimited audience that can respond and interact with the artist."

Interaction is one of the great contemporary buzzwords, but what photographers want most is display. The lead article in that American Photo observed that "it still seems to come as a rude surprise [to photographers] that virtually no one will again have a 25-photo spread as W. Eugene Smith did for 'A Man of Mercy,' his famous 1954 story for Life on Albert Schweitzer. But even in magazine photojournalism's golden age not everything went the way imagemakers wanted. Far from being happy with the number of images Life selected for the Schweitzer story, Smith was irate. In his version the published essay would have contained nearly 250 photographs. The story was the end of Smith's association with Life."

Had Smith been master of his own domain he could have put all 250 photos up on the Web. There they'd have sat, to be savored by anyone with the patience to click endlessly through the pixelated ether.

American Photo wondered if photojournalism had become a fine art, "as dedicated imagemakers working on their own produce ever more personal work for small but appreciative audiences." The boutique readership of DoubleTake, the brilliant quarterly published by Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies, is a case in point. Witty thinks of Untitled as an electronic gallery where young artists can find some sort of public and where browsers who spot images they like can order prints by E-mailing the photographers. Aside from the lazy logic that "if we just use one small picture it'll leave us room for another million-dollar Buick ad," he's not sure why print journalism has virtually abandoned the photo essay. "It's really distressing. For me it's the ultimate form of communication--documentary photojournalism. It's real life. It gives people insights sometimes words can't describe."

When you put your work on the Web there's no permanent record of it, I observed.

"No permanent record, and it's a little distressing it's so easy to copy. Some hack out there can take what's on my site and put it on theirs, and that sucks. But the picture quality is so small you can print it out and it's going to look crappy. There's no way they can print it out and try to sell it.

"It's sad newspapers are shrinking. But you've got to do something about it. The Web offers space, intangible as it may be, and the audience, you know, is white and middle class--upper middle class--and that kind of sucks too. But it's somebody. It's the message that's important. Any audience is better than no audience."

Witty is 25. He studied photojournalism in college in Kentucky and interned at National Geographic before signing a year's contract with the Tribune. Reporters I've talked to who worked for the Tribune a year--usually out in the suburbs--and were sent packing felt a little taken advantage of. "I thought it was great," says Witty. "I didn't really want to work there more than a year. It was the experience I wanted." His only regret is that the Tribune wasn't a market for the stories he came across on his own. Witty is married to his camera--"It's not something you can turn off at the end of the day. Everywhere you go and everything you see you see through pictures. It's like you walk around on the street and think, 'God, that could be a great story!'" So he created his own market.

"I bought a computer in October. I was just fooling around with it, thinking of the Web. There's so much crap out there, so much wasted space and wasted time. Even some of the so-called good sites are overdone, overdesigned, boring. I looked into getting Web space, my own domain name, and started designing it. I'd read a book on special HTML [hypertext markup language] a few months before. It's not hard. People say, 'God, where did you learn how to write a Web site?' It's completely easy. The hard part is design. Any idiot can write a Web site."

He knew plenty of young photographers like himself who were shooting stories no one ever saw. He also knew of other on-line photojournalism magazines--Journal E and Grain are two he mentioned--but he saw plenty of room for more. In January he launched Untitled--www.untitledmagazine.com--and every month, more or less, since then he's been putting photography on-line at that address. His site's had a little more than 30,000 hits.

When Witty left the Tribune in March he and another photographer took off for Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Cambodia. "When Pol Pot died I tried to get to northwest Cambodia where his body was. That didn't work out. I ran into a lot of visa problems. I guess I went there for the adventure." Now he's back in rural Kentucky visiting his mother.

"We have pro wrestling in the small towns in Kentucky. It's really interesting. They have wrestling in the armory here, and I've got contacts with this one guy--he's like a bad guy--and I'll try to do a story while I'm here. So the magazine is a side project I do. It takes a lot of time, but I'm not a Web master by profession or anything. I'm just a photojournalist."

Lost Tribe of Palestine

"When I was growing up," remembered Ray Hanania, "people didn't want to say they were from the Middle East. My dad said, 'Don't say you're Palestinian. Say you're Syrian.' Of course I didn't know what Syrian was. I said I was cereal."

The most moving two seconds of Titanic? For Hanania, it was the moment when a passenger called Yalla habibi to her daughter. "It screamed at me," said Hanania, who understood the plea: "Hurry up, my love." Until that moment Hanania, whose Palestinian parents had taught him Arabic, had no idea Arabs were on the ship.

Later he looked at a passenger list. He counted 74 Arabic names, almost all of them belonging to passengers who'd traveled third-class. Most had died. He did some research. Titanic had celebrated the immigrants traveling steerage with a scene of wild Irish dancing below decks. "The truth is, on the Titanic there were four Arab weddings," Hanania told me. "It would have given me a big, warm feeling to see that party portrayed in the context of an Arab wedding. We want to be included in society."

Even the society of a sinking ship? I asked.

"Titanic is a moving movie that makes you think about the people who were on it," he said. "I can't think of a good movie that portrayed us in a good light except Aladdin."

At the moment Hanania is working for Amoco. But he used to cover City Hall for the Sun-Times, and he has a pretty good idea how papers think.

"How can you understand Israel's 50th anniversary without understanding the Palestinian perspective on it?" he wondered. "I've never said I want somebody to take my side. I've just said, 'Gee, it would be nice if somebody included us.' I'd like to see a 50th anniversary of Palestine. I'd like to see the Tribune or Sun-Times do a special section on us. I've heard the argument: a special section is an advertising section--it's not really journalism--and Arabs wouldn't buy advertising. It's BS. If that's the reason why there's no special section on Palestine I'd go out for them and sell ads without charging commission. I'd easily sell the ads. But I don't think that's the reason. The reason is that you publish a special section like that, and the papers are going to come in for a lot of abuse.

"Each religion has its own calendar," he went on, "but we recognize May 14 as the day of dispossession. In Arabic it's al-Nakba--50 years ago, when the Palestinians lost what they believed was their homeland. I don't see that as being necessarily anti-Israel or anti-Jewish. I see that as a statement of fact."

Hanania's wife is Jewish. "We get into some lively debates, but if you want to look at what Israel could be 50 years from now, come over to our house for dinner." And he pointed out that among the characters of his new novel are Jews who came to Palestine after losing everything in the Holocaust.

The book is Deir Yassin, and for the moment you will find it one place only, on-line at www.hanania.com. Hanania's first book, I'm Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing Up Arab in America, was self-published; his second is a step beyond. The Web's "an easy way to reach people in a specific audience--Arabs, Jews, people interested in the Middle East," he said. "It's a very efficient and inexpensive way to make yourself available to them."

Deir Yassin, Hanania tells us in his introduction, was an Arab village of about 700 people that stood on highlands southwest of Jerusalem. Early on the morning of April 9, 1948, Irgun and Stern Gang forces swept through Deir Yassin, "killing 254 mostly old men, women and children and wounding 300 others." Hanania's book--87,000 words and 28 chapters long--is a tale the author's knitted around this slaughter.

Eventually Hanania intends to put Deir Yassin between covers, but for now he's letting the public copyedit. "Putting this on the Web, I've been able to get a lot of free assistance and advice from people who took the time to read it. Whether they like it or not is beside the point. They'll give you their comment. 'You spelled this word wrong.' 'What did you mean by this issue?' 'You should have explored this person's personality more.' And I update it."

When did you first hear of Deir Yassin? I asked him.

"It had to have been in grammar school," he said. "No matter what paper you pick up in April or May, you're going to hear about Israel's anniversary, almost like you would Columbus Day in the fall. That would spark my parents into a discussion, and it would evoke a lot of angry emotion. We couldn't go through dinner without my dad yelling and screaming about how the Israelis did this and the Israelis did that. And it wasn't so much he was mad at Israel. Imagine yourself hearing the other person's story all the time, and you're really mad because you never hear your story. There are no books. There are no movies. There are no role models. We can't stop talking about it because no one ever wants to listen to it. As a consequence we don't like the media. My parents didn't want me to be a reporter. They wanted me to be a doctor."

So what else is new?

News Bites

Last week, when Chicago Tonight took up the latest CTA service cuts, chairman Valerie Jarrett and president Frank Kruesi came on to defend the authority and City Hall. Congressman Bobby Rush, who wants to be mayor and had found a political as well as a public-policy issue, had to be encouraged by moderator John Callaway from time to time to put a sock in it. The fourth guest was Jacky Grimshaw, coordinator for transportation and air quality at the Center for Neighborhood Technology. If you were listening carefully you might have heard Jarrett remark, "We're working with Jacky--and she'll tell you more about it in a moment--coming up with a pass so that we can get students riding during nonpeak hours." And you might have wondered--since the subject was never mentioned again--what was that about?

It was about a contract (publicly announced when it was inked--but were you listening?) worth more than $50,000 that the Center for Neighborhood Technology had signed with the CTA. The deal burnishes Grimshaw's credentials as an expert in regional transportation, but informed viewers could have asked themselves if it made her less confrontational.

Tribune headline last Thursday: "Shootings by city [Chicago] cops edging up."

Subhead to graph accompanying this story: "Shootings by Chicago police decrease."

Last week I discussed the Sun-Times's transfer of 15 printers to jobs peddling subscriptions--a reassignment that prompted the printers to complain of age discrimination to a sympathetic Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I speculated that the Sun-Times was inflating circulation by loading up the printers with sample papers to give away, and Mark Hornung, the Sun-Times's vice president of circulation, responded hotly that this allegation was reckless and untrue: "promotion sample" is a separate line item in the paper's count of daily distribution and is disregarded by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. In attacking the newspaper's conduct, I went a bridge too far.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Patrick Witty photo by Anne Gentry; "A Life in Chains" by Patrick Witty.

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