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Missing out in the bigger picture

Modern pressures on Bahrain's newsrooms have led to a wave of discontent among the country's photojournalists.

MANAMA // Bahrain's small but proud media community is one of the oldest in the Gulf and can trace its roots to the 1930s. But modern pressures on the island's newsrooms have led one particular group of journalists to feel increasingly marginalised and underappreciated by their colleagues in the industry and the public alike. Photojournalists make up a small fraction of the total number of people working in Bahrain's media. Yet despite some 70 years of print history and the present publication of eight daily newspapers - two of which are in English - many claim their specialist profession is at risk.

"Photojournalism is not looked at as an art, editors and the public see photographers just as photographers and not as artists and [don't do justice] to the role they play and that is where the core of the problem lies," said Hasan Jamali, an Associated Press photographer with 20 years experience in the field. His complaints are echoed by many of Bahrain's news photographers who say they are underpaid, undervalued, and loosely protected ? both physically from the dangerous situations they face and legally by the authorities and their employees. They warn that if the problems continue to go unaddressed, the country's print media will find itself unable to retain professional local staff or attract new employees.

Mr Jamali added that many of his fellow photographers in Bahrain's local press have had newspaper editors requiring that pictures are tailored to their changing page layout needs instead of choosing a picture based on merit. "I have not seen a local newspaper with a dedicated photo editor at a time when all the international major newspapers have had one because they realise that the photo is a major part of grabbing the readers' attention and attracting them to read the story," he said.

There are no more than 20 photojournalists working in Bahrain's print media industry which, in total, employs between 250 and 350 people. In contrast to most other Gulf states, the majority of reporters, photographers and production staff are Bahraini. "The public, as well as some of our fellow journalists and editors, are unaware of the role we play in bringing the story to light," said Abdulrasool al Hujery, a photographer on the Arabic daily newspaper Al Bilad.

He has been attacked seven times during his 17-year career by angry mobs, protesters, sports fans and police, in a job that, by its very nature, means he needs to be in the centre of events when they take place. "Unlike our fellow journalists you cannot be late, you cannot call later to get the details. If you are not there when the event takes place or as it develops you will miss it all together," Mr al Hujery said. "We are under more pressure - be it from trying to gain access and keeping with deadlines as events we cannot control unfold and we face more direct danger, especially during tense situations. but for some editors in many of the newspapers that is hard to appreciate."

One photographer, who did not want to be named, said local photojournalists were increasingly forsaking creativity for routine until they find better job opportunities. "We are under paid, constantly criticised by editors who have no basic background in photojournalism, subject to attacks at any given situation with no protection, and our work is pitted against photographers with no real experience for the sake of cutting costs and an unwillingness to adjust layout to meet photo needs," he said.

"Like many in the business today it is not about creativity or ensuring that I get the best picture but it is about clicking the picture I know the editors will use and meeting deadlines until I find a better paying job." Bahrain's first newspaper was a four-page weekly called Bahrain, which ran from 1939 until 1944. The 1950s saw the launch of Sawt Al Bahrain (Voice of Bahrain), Al Qafela (The Caravan) and Al Watan (The Nation), but the colonial British authorities suspended all three newspapers and some others in 1956 for their pan-Arab nationalist stance. Weeklies were reintroduced in the 1960s and in 1976 the country's longest running Arabic daily, Akhbar Al Khaleej (Gulf News) began publishing.

Reforms in 2001, in which state security acts were revoked and more freedoms were introduced, led to a boom in the number of dailies and magazines. But this boost has not been felt by Bahrain's photographers who feel undervalued in the industry. Lamees Daif, a boardmember of the Bahrain Journalist Association (BJA) admitted that some, even within the profession itself, look down at the role of photojournalists.

"At one stage in time there were voices within the BJA itself that demanded that photojournalists not be included in the association and we resisted that notion," she said. "They [photojournalists] are journalists but the hiring of some unprofessional photographers had tainted the role professional photojournalists' play. "You have local photojournalists whom their work is of regional and international standards and then you have some working in the field shooting pictures of the quality you find when taking personal family portraits in ones home," she said.

Ali Al Aliwat, the deputy head of the local news desk at the widely read independent Arabic daily Al Wasat, said he actually thought local newspapers are now giving photojournalists a bigger role. "Most local papers have begun to dedicate more space to pictures in general, and there is more emphasis on images of local events taking place in the country," he said. foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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