This blog post was written by Sabrina Steele in fulfillment of a course assignment in Dr. Adrienne Pine's Craft of Anthropology I course (ANTH-601).
Nicaragua, 1984. The mountains of Nicaragua during the Sandinista Contra war. A teenage boy sits at the feet of two armed soldiers with another armed soldier in the background. His hands had been tied to the thick wooden post behind him, but the only evidence of his previous position is the rope around his right wrist. It’s hard to tell who is who in the photo without further explanation, but this moment in time is forever captured in the photographer’s memory of several potentially controversial decisions made that day, titled, “The Photo That Never Was.” The standing soldiers are members of the Sandinista Army and the young man a suspected spy from the U.S.-backed Contras.
This is one of the thousands of photos Bill Gentile, American University Senior Professional Lecturer and Journalist in Residence, donated to the American University Library Archives. Gentile took this photo while in the mountains of Nicaragua during the Contra War (1981-1988). I met with Professor Gentile to discuss his individual experience as a journalist in Nicaragua and El Salvador during both countries’ civil wars after I came across his collection of work at the Archives.
In both wars, one side received funding from the United States government. I wanted to know if Gentile felt compelled to report a certain side of the news given that he is a U.S. citizen and the news company he worked for published in the United States. Is it possible to deliver unbiased news—“the truth”—in a controversial and government-influenced situation?
Gentile is retired from his days of scavenging for meat in the jungle for dinner. He has traded mountain views and deadly shootouts for an office with floor to ceiling glass windows and a house outfitted with solar panels. When I met with him in his bright, well-appointed office, it felt poetic that he went from living in one extreme to another.
I asked about what it was like to be in the field, the relationships he made from living there for so long and the friends he had lost to the wars. And then we got to the photos themselves.
I asked if he posed people to get just the right light or right frame. Absolutely not—he told me—that would be out of line. I was beginning to head toward the idea of objectivity and bias in reporting. As anthropologist Mark Pedelty wrote in an essay on the culture of war correspondents in Central America, “While the rules of objective journalism prohibit reporters from making subjective interpretations, their task demands it. A ‘fact,’ itself is a cultural construct, can only be communicated through placement in a system of meaning shared by reporter and reader.” Pedelty added “[i]n claiming to be objective, media organizations shield their close affinity for and incorporation within dominant institutions and ruling class structures.” (Pedelty 1995, 404)
Did Gentile feel like his work was objective or less so? In one of his most recent papers that he wrote for the American University Center for Latin America & Latino Studies he wrote, “It was a different time then—the international media were largely regarded as independent observers and unbiased professionals seeking the truth in some of the darkest and most complicated corners of the world. We were respected. We were sought after. People wanted us to tell their stories.” (Gentile 2019, 10)
Gentile and I discussed his photo in person and over email. He explained:
"Members of the Sandinista Army unit with which I was embedded had captured this young man under suspicion he was a "correo," or a "runner" of information and logistics for the U.S.-backed "contras" fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government. In other words, a spy.
When the commander of the army unit saw me making pictures of the suspect (you can see a rope around his wrist) the commander told his subordinates to untie and move the suspect away and out of range of my cameras. I don't know what happened to the suspect.
I decided not to transmit this picture. I knew the "Contra" organization, which was advised, trained and supplied by the Reagan administration, would make it part of its propaganda machine targeting the Sandinista project. Like every legitimate human rights organization covering this conflict, I had seen and documented the numerous, profound and consistent human rights violations by the Contras, and did not want my work to be used by their propagandists to undermine the Truth."
Gentile’s explanation points to the complexity of war photography and the agency that individual journalists can exert, even within a rigged system. He knew that the United States, which was actively trying to overthrow the popular Sandinista government, could use this photo as pro-Contra, anti-Sandinista war propaganda. The Sandinista soldiers, recognizing this risk as well, did not their war prisoner documented and attempted to change the scene when they saw Gentile’s camera. Gentile chose not to transmit the photo to United Press International for publication because he did not want to generate media that would support the Contras who were guilty of human rights violations.
Through his moral choice to not publish “The Photo That Never Was,” Gentile demonstrated that he was not obligated to report news that could be manipulated by the United States to cause further harm to and human rights violations against Nicaraguans. This begs the question – is the news (and for that matter the “truth”) as much a product of selective omissions as it is decisions about what to include? As Pedelty stated, “A ‘fact’, itself is a cultural construct.” (Pedelty 1995, 404)
Gentile, Bill. 2019. “Central America and the Bitter Fruit of U.S. Policy.” Center for Latin American and Latino Studies Working Paper Series, no. 23 (October): 28.
Pedelty, Mark. 1995. “From War Stories: The Culture of Foreign Correspondents.” In War Stories, 403–9. Routledge.