A little over 20 years ago, I flew from Bangkok to Rangoon to report a story

Brian Palmer

Meditation and prayer at Shwedagon Paya, Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar). 2002

A little over 20 years ago, I flew from Bangkok to Rangoon to report a story I had crammed to understand in the weeks before my visit. I had no track record of covering Burma/Myanmar, but I’d done some homework. In the US and then in Thailand, I connected with scholars and people from groups like Altsean-Burma that monitored the country under the ruling junta, which called itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and before that the State Law and Order Reconciliation Council. The SLORC, a menacing and appropriate acronym.

The junta had relaxed opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s house arrest, allowing her to shuttle between her home and offices of her National League for Democracy. That small, positive step was eclipsed, however, by an abortive meeting between the junta and a UN envoy. In town to broker talks between Suu Kyi and the SPDC, the generals showed him the door after 15 minutes, shattering any hope for a breakthrough. Newsweek published a piece I wrote about this.
Meditation and prayer at Shwedagon Paya, Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar). 2002

I didn’t travel the country during the week or so I was there, something I regret now. Instead, I stayed in Rangoon — renamed Yangon by the junta. I visited NLD headquarters nearly every day. Early in the week I had requested a face-to-face with the Lady, as Suu Kyi was called by her supporters. I was welcomed by NLD workers and would sit there watching goings-on and chatting. One day, I struck up a conversation with a young man who spoke English quite well. I was surprised that I had not been tailed by security services or police, I told him. He gestured with the slightest tilt of his head toward the door that opened onto the outside. Across the street, two men sat beneath a tree, just hanging out. “Military intelligence,” my new friend said to me. His point: I was on the government’s radar. A six-foot-tall Black American wandering the streets between NLD headquarters, tea shops, and temples, was not invisible.

Perhaps out of pity, party spokesman U Lwin gave me an informative interview, but I was still hoping for an audience with the Lady. I wanted her international human-rights star power for my piece, at once a pragmatic and deeply self-interested motivation.

On my last full day in Burma, just as the NLD office was about to close, there was a small kerfuffle upstairs. In seconds, the Lady was in front of me, resplendent in yellow longyi and emitting a kind preternatural glow. I introduced myself and asked if I could take her picture. She’d prefer if I didn’t, she told me. Her situation with the ruling junta was precarious. Her release from house arrest was only provisional and any international press at that moment might jeopardize her semifreedom, Suu Kyi explained. Then, at the center of a scrum of protectors and colleagues, she glided away. I did not take a photo. Not one.

I second guessed myself on the long walk to my hotel. I should have snapped one frame, just gone for it. That one photo would have enriched my career — and my wallet. Instead, I respected her wishes.

The editors at Newsweek didn’t believe the story about my 60 seconds (or so) of face time with the 1991 Nobel Prize winner. I gave my editor my word, but my word wasn’t good enough. So they cut that part out of the story and substituted something anodyne about Suu Kyi not agreeing to a request for an interview.

That the editors didn’t believe me mattered to me then. I was livid and insulted. Disrespected, I felt. In the absence of a photo or easily contacted sources who could vouch for me, all I had — and all any journalist has, fundamentally — was my word. That is the foundation of what we do, and the foundation on which our credibility rests: the commitment to report accurately what we see and hear. Journalists don’t make things up. Period.

Twenty one years later, I could feed a series of text prompts, guiding words, into an artificial intelligence app to fabricate the photo that I chose not to take in 2002. It might look ghastly, as so many AI images now look. But the image might look amazingly realistic, as some “synthetic images,” pictures made with massive computing power and without a camera, do. For me, to do so, even as an experiment, would be to violate the one thing on which my journalism practice rests: my integrity. My potential subject, Suu Kyi, did not want me to photograph, for reasons I believed and accepted. There is no visual proof of the meeting. There is only my word.

Folks will — and do— say that all photos are subjective. The photographer chooses the camera, lens, the angle from which to photograph, the timing and so on. Photographers can fudge things in Photoshop — remove this, add that. All true. Technology does make manipulation— and now fabricating — easier, but technology is not required. It never has been, as we have seen for generations. A photographer removes a person from the frame using her darkroom skills. A reporter invents a witness to whom he attributes compelling “quotations” to fluff up an article.

But the good ones, the ones we trust, don’t. Why? Because, as I tell my students, all we journalists have is our integrity. All we have is our word, and on that, trust between journalist and viewer is built. Our reporting is a product of our direct engagement with the world and those who populate it. Our photos are, as John Berger suggested — and as digital imaging scholar Fred Ritchin frequently quotes — quotations from appearances. They are not unassailable Truth. But they are Proof of something, of what an honest photographer encountered, saw, and recorded.

Such a form of witnessing and documenting is still valuable. In fact, it’s indispensable in this world of deep fakes and manufactured news photos. Yes, photographs may have lost some of their value and credibility as documents in the digital age, but a true photo can still matter when a photographer, an agency, a news outlet, and the people depicted in the image stand behind it.

I don’t remember if I saw the news footage or still photos first: a uniformed white police officers siccing German shepherds on a calm Black Civil Rights protester; Black demonstrators compressed into a huddle by the blast of a fire hose. Those real images, made with cameras by humans, may very well have ended my childhood. They certainly changed the trajectory of my life and propelled me into journalism.

In and of themselves, these photos do not prove that these events happened. Rather, they are part of strong network of evidence and testimony that form a fact-based narrative, one that has been essential in the fight for racial justice and human rights in this nation. These images are of particular value to those of us who are connected to and who descend from the people depicted in those photos, those on the receiving end of that white state violence.

For me, to use AI to fabricate news images — as distinct from creating art — would be an ethical violation. I will not do it.

And how will you know if I’m lying? Technology may be able to detect photofakery in the future, but the fakers will probably stay one or 14 steps ahead. A better way is to ask us. How did you make this photo? How did you edit or process it after you made it? Read the captions and another information the maker or the publication has appended to the image. Ask people from that place we claim we were: Was he there? And then look back at a photographer’s work, methodology, record, reputation. Why have we trusted her before? Transparency, disclosure, integrity are our best tools going forward to keep this profession, this practice alive. Perhaps our only ones.

This article was first published on Medium and reprinted here with permission from the author.

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