Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Win Maw Oo posthumously wins the Steve Lehman 6 Gold Star Award™ for standing up against oppression. Win Maw Oo was a 16 year-old democracy protestor shot by Burmese snipers in front of the U. S. Embassy. I made an iconic image of her shortly before her death nearly 25 years ago. I was always very moved by her courage and that of the other Burmese students.
The 25th anniversary of Win Maw Oo's death and the massacre of some 3000 democracy protestors are coming up on September 19th, 2013. Burma has been in the news. The Associate Press published an article on August 9, 2013, “25 Years After Unrest, Burma Begins To Cope.” In this article they discuss my iconic image of Win Maw Oo. The reporting in the Associate Press article is inaccurate. I feel compelled to set the record straight.
The photograph of Win Maw Oo is important because it summed up the tragic events that unfolded in Burma in September 1988. It is rare physical evidence of "war crimes" committed by the Burmese Military. This image of the bloodied Win Maw Oo depicts one of thousands of murders that occurred throughout Burma. Through the efforts of Win Maw Oo’s family and others within the democracy movement she became a symbol of those who gave their lives so Burma could be free. Despite complete censorship, the image took on a life of it’s own. It became famous in Burma through issues of Newsweek smuggled into the country. Underground copies of my photograph were created and secretly circulated throughout Burma. The bravery of the Burmese democracy activists will always be an inspiration; it is wonderful to see that their sacrifice hasn’t been in vain. Without my photographs and the reporting of a handful of journalists it is unlikely that the international community would have pressured the military junta to change. If there was no press coverage I doubt the National League for Democracy would have been able to form. Aung San Suu Kyi would not have won the Nobel Peace Prize; the Burmese Military might have just killed her. I’m proud to have made an important contribution. In the future, my images will play a significant role in bringing the killers to justice and ensuring Burma makes a complete transition to an open society.
I’m glad these important issues are now being examined. However, I’m concerned about the quality of the Associated Press’ journalism. The Associated Press reported the photograph of the wounded Win Maw Oo was on the cover of Newsweek; this is incorrect it appeared inside the magazine. Newsweek used a different picture of mine on the cover. Furthermore, statements the Associated Press made concerning my photograph are untrue.
I was the only photojournalist in Burma during the military crackdown in 1988. As far as I know, I was the only western journalist on the streets when the military was slaughtering innocent civilians. Shortly after the shooting began, a scared student told me a blood-curdling tale of a Burmese videographer who was shot in the eye; the sharpshooter’s bullet went through the lens and out the back of his head. The streets of Rangoon were like a war zone. The Burmese military targeted photographers to prevent news of their barbarity from leaking out.
In the story, the Associated Press implies there is a direct link between the tragic suicide of Dr. Saw Lwin in 1996 and my photograph taken 8 years earlier. This type of reporting invalidates the photograph and me personally; something the Burmese military and rivals in media would want. I feel awful about Saw Lwin’s suicide, but in no way did my photograph cause this man’s death. Unless the AP has a suicide note from Saw Lwin citing the photograph as the reason for him killing himself, it shouldn’t be implied. The AP story is libelous. It wasn’t original reporting. Reuters did a story about Win Maw Oo and my photograph a year ago (http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/09/16/myanmar-schoolgirl-idINDEE88F03Q20120916). These rumors relating to the doctors first arose in the Burmese media, which is notorious for factual errors. On 8/5/13 the story emerged in English through an article published in the Irrawaddy by Kyaw Zwa Moe. The Irrawaddy is a small regional website/blog about Burma and Southeast Asia. The AP stole elements from the Irrawaddy piece. I consider this to be a type plagiarism. The decline of the Associated Press and other news organizations is common knowledge; one former AP bureau chief explains why in the blog post The AP Headed Toward Mediocrity (https://medium.com/i-m-h-o/74341b8c87b5). Customers frequently complain about quality issues in media and many have left.
The Associated Press story also implies that the second doctor/democracy activist (then a medical student), Win Zaw, was persecuted four years later because he appeared in the dramatic picture carrying Win Maw Oo. The Burmese military has a sophisticated network of spies and informants. They knew about Dr. Win Zaw’s activities independent of my photograph and were oppressing most people involved with the democracy movement. I’m sad about Win Zaw being detained for a few days but by Burmese standards what happened was minor. Why didn’t the Burmese Military imprison, torture, or kill Dr. Win Zaw? The potential backlash from the media, human rights groups and governments was too high because he appeared in the iconic image. The Associated Press' oversimplification of these complex moral issues is irresponsible. If members of the international press weren’t present in Burma, the death toll surely would have been greater. I acted honorably and did the right thing.
I’m idealistic. I work off the theory that by creating more awareness it is possible to affect positive social change. Most Burmese I encountered knew I was very important to their cause and wanted me to document the atrocities. It was horrific; they shot a young boy right between the eyes. What happened in Burma was one of the great injustices of modern history. The democracy movement hoped the images would galvanize people within Burma and bring outside support. The Burmese student activists arranged for me to go with the ambulance carrying Win Zaw and Saw Lwin so I could get close enough to photograph the people who were killed and wounded near the U. S. Embassy. If I wasn’t present there was a greater likelihood of the medical workers being shot. I also rode with other ambulances and photographed; these people had no problem with me travelling with them. We all were risking our lives for the sake of the common good.
The final decision to publish the photograph wasn’t mine; Katherine Graham (deceased) and Richard Smith of the Washington Post Company made this decision. If I didn’t come back with the pictures I would have been fired by most media companies and drummed out of the profession. Also, news organizations often refuse to block out the faces of people who might be endangered. Furthermore, this was huge news story of great import. The public’s need to know outweighed everyone’s right to privacy.
At the time the photograph was made many people believed there would be a split in the military or foreign intervention. There was active resistance. The weak international response was shameful and for me a source of great disillusionment. The United States could have easily stopped the repression in 1988. No one expected it to take 25 years for Burma to change! The world community stood by and did nothing. I fault the major news organizations for de-emphasizing such a major story. Without my photographs it would have been even worse. Sadly, some of the reasons for this are ethnocentrism and racism, a scourge that has plagued editorial decisions for years. In journalism a disgusting adage exists, “for it to be news one white person has to die, 10 Europeans, 100,000 Asians and 500,000 Africans.” I fought against this horrible attitude and often made decisions to work in under-reported regions.
For the record, I wouldn’t allow the Associated Press to use this iconic photograph because of their exploitative business practices. These labor issues are arguably as important as what happened in Burma. AP knew the photograph was not in the public domain, ignored my wishes and went ahead and published the photograph despite my objections. This deliberate act of theft is unethical. These unfair business practices are a violation of my copyright and moral rights. Despite having non-profit status, the Associated Press is intent on hurting independent photographers and has a long history of employee rights issues. To this day, I still believe the death of Associated Press photographer Hansi Krauss in Somalia was criminally negligent homicide. It’s strange how my pictures are stolen and a story that subtly undermines me magically appears shortly after I whistle blew about health and safety issues in journalism. This is retaliatory action for my activities as an organizer for artists’ rights. For years, media companies have used dirty tricks to stop people who have stood up to them. The culture of journalism must change.
This statement is not a compete recitation of the facts of this matter, nor of any of Steve Lehman claims or defenses, legal or equitable, all of which are expressly reserved.
Steve Lehman Biography
Steve Lehman is a man of many interests and talents. He is an American born interdisciplinary artist whose oeuvre consists of photographs, mixed media, collages, videos, drawings, designs, writings, sculpture, ceramics, objects, paintings, installations and conceptual art. He is also an entrepreneur and Person in Charge of WillyNilly™, a convergence company. Steve is considered an important artist because he successfully merged fine art, journalism, anthropology, sociolology, political science, human rights, and advocacy. He has exhibited in major museums, was one of the first multimedia journalists, contributed to most major news organizations, helped spearhead the citizen journalism movement, covered 15 political conflicts (Rwanda, Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia, Burma, Tibet, etc.), traveled to 50 countries, conversational in Chinese, graduated from Duke University and is an Eagle Scout. The work depicted in his award-winning book The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive™, was instrumental in the formation of Free Tibet movement in the West. His exclusive coverage of military repression in Burma played a key role effecting social change in this country.
The Award-Winning Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive™
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