It Was All Started by a Mouse

We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin — a little fellow trying to do the best he could. When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human; and that is the secret of his popularity. I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.

— Walt Disney


There he is, lying in the ruins of a bombed-out apartment building. Mickey Mouse, splayed, limbs akimbo, surrounded not by the denizens of the Magic Castle, but a bleak war-zone landscape of rocks, shards of glass, a dark red truck, a couple of people in the distance, but otherwise devoid of humanity. The caption to the photograph reads:

#108: A child’s toy lies amidst broken glass from the shattered windows of an apartment block near those that were demolished by Israeli air strikes in Tyre, southern Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 7, 2006. Israeli bombs slammed into a complex of buildings flattening four multistoried apartment blocks, including the one apartment that had been the target of Saturday’s Israeli commando raid, whilst a civil defense ambulance was hit in the rear and slightly damaged with emergency workers who had gone to the bomb site to search for bodies being forced to flee.

The implications may depend on our politics. Here is a child’s toy and the ruins of an apartment building. We know enough — “Israeli bombs slammed into a complex of buildings” — to infer (correctly or incorrectly) that Israeli forces targeted civilians. The Mickey Mouse photograph is not unique. A blog post, “The Passion of the Toys,” collected a number of wire service photographs taken in southern Lebanon. The sheer number of toys photographed seems to suggest that some of the images could have been staged.

Among the photographs are a Minnie Mouse and an assortment of non-Disney toys, taken by Reuters photographers (Sharif Karim, Issam Kobeisi, Mohamed Azakir, among others), and one photograph with a Mickey Mouse in Tyre, Lebanon by an Associated Press photographer (Ben Curtis). Why are there so many similar photographs? How did all these toys come to be photographed? What is the viewer supposed to infer from such a scene? Is it simply that the idea of children and their toys ratchets up the drama of a war photograph? The juxtaposition of innocence and destruction in one image? Is it just anti-war? Or is something more sinister involved? Is it disguised propaganda with a definite bias towards one side or another?

I wanted to speak with all the “toy photographers,” but found that only Ben Curtis, Chief Photographer/Photo editor, Middle East, of the Associated Press, was willing to be interviewed.

ERROL MORRIS: The first time I noticed your name in a blog was in connection with toys.

BEN CURTIS: It was after there had been a bunch of strikes on a housing estate in Tyre, that the Israelis had said was housing for Hezbollah operations. Very large strikes. We’d been outside the hospital in Tyre when we heard these huge explosions, and we could see smoke not too far away. We hit the ground. About 10, 15 minutes later, myself and a bunch of other journalists headed up to the scene, where a couple of multi-story apartment buildings had been completely flattened. And one of the pictures I took was a toy Mickey Mouse that was in the street. A number of blogs were suggesting that it had either been put there or moved there, or placed in the middle of the street, which of course it hadn’t. The buildings that hadn’t been flattened, but were directly opposite, half the contents of the apartments had been strewn into the street. There were sofas; there were children’s toys; there were books — all sorts of the usual things that you have in an apartment were scattered everywhere. Now, interestingly, when I sent that photo, the editors on the AP desk called me up and said, “Ben, we have to ask, was that toy there when you arrived? Was it moved? Was it placed there? Was it altered in any way, either by yourself or by other media?” These are the questions that, as an editor, you sometimes have to ask your photographers. Even if you have great trust in your people in the field, sometimes you have to go through asking those questions to make sure that what we put out is accurate.

ERROL MORRIS: So the call was routine?

As an editor, if you have any suspicions at all about an image, you call up the photographer and say, “O.K., what happened? Where were you?” You interrogate the people in the field. I’ve worked a lot in Baghdad as an editor, and it’s especially important there. An incident occurs, maybe a roadside bomb or a truck bomb or some attack, and an hour later the reports start coming in, and you’ll have three completely different versions of events. Editing in Baghdad taught me that you have to slice through these multiple versions of events and come up with something that you can stand by. One side might say it was an IED that killed 10 American soldiers. The American military authorities might say, “No American soldiers were killed.” The Iraqi government might say, “Ten civilians were killed.” And if you have conflicting information that you can’t verify, then you don’t say it. You say, “The aftermath of an explosion of unidentified cause took place.” When I write my captions, I’m very meticulous and methodical, and I go through and check them before I send them, and I have to establish to my own satisfaction that everything I’ve said in the caption is true, and that I can stand by it because I’ve witnessed it myself with my own eyes, or I’ve questioned the people in the field and I’m confident that I can stand by that information.

ERROL MORRIS: Do you remember the caption that was put on the Mickey Mouse picture?

BEN CURTIS: I don’t, but it was after the Reuters incident. I read the Reuters website after that, and there was a lot of handwringing and reevaluation of their procedures. After the war, I read that Reuters was working with Adobe on some software component for Photoshop that would keep a record of all the changes that had been made in Photoshop, so that editors could see exactly what had been done to an image. It would aid in preventing manipulation of photographs. I found that quite interesting from a technical perspective, and I could see how such thing could be useful in the work flow of maintaining accuracy of images. This was one of the things that was in my head when I was writing the “in defense of captions” post — while that’s useful or could be useful, a technical solution alone is never going to solve the problem of accuracy in the media. You could take a photographer’s image straight from the camera, not even processed with Photoshop, put it on the wire, and it’s the caption that provides the accuracy for that picture. The caption is the place where it’s easy to mislead the reader. [I have written about this in my essay “Photography as a Weapon.”] The caption is the thing that provides accurate context. And without an accurate context or with a misleading context, you can completely distort the meaning of an image. At the end of the day it comes back to old-fashioned ethics. You have to trust your people on the ground and you have to drill into them the ethical standards that your organization has. I remember the day after the Reuters incident I instructed a Lebanese photographer —

ERROL MORRIS: The Reuters incident was the Photoshopped photograph?

The manipulation of the smoke over the Beirut skyline, and then subsequently they also found a photograph where it was an Israeli F-16 flying overheard, and he’d cloned in another F-16, so there was two whereas there had only been one. But after the smoke incident I instructed our Lebanese photographer to call every single stringer who was working for us in the country to remind them that any technical manipulation or inaccuracy of information or telling us things that they think but are not sure about — that if something inaccurate goes out and it’s found out to be inaccurate, they’re going to be fired, and they won’t work for us again. But technical solutions are never going to be the one and only solution to the problem. At the end of the day, it comes down to the ethics of the people who work for you and the trust that you have in them.

ERROL MORRIS: The good example, of course, is the Mickey Mouse photograph, because it is not a photograph that has been manipulated in Photoshop. And yet people find it problematic, regardless. People look at the photograph and think, “They’re trying to blame this on Israel, saying the country killed innocent children.” And then comes the follow-up thought: “How dare they! They’re anti-Semitic,” and so on and so forth. And my own two cents of opinion on posing is that often we say a picture is posed if the photograph suggests a view that we don’t like, regardless of what the intention of the photographer might have been and regardless of whether it has or has not been manipulated.

BEN CURTIS: Photoshop manipulation is one thing; caption manipulation is another thing. But there’s also a question of editing in terms of picture selection and, obviously, the pictures you select out of all the pictures you’ve shot, one can argue that that is also one area where the news is shaped. It’s what the media decides to report on. And when you’re covering a story, there’s quite often a number of different elements of that story, and you may choose certain elements to send pictures of and certain elements not to.

ERROL MORRIS: There is a selection process. And where there’s war, there’s controversy. I’m sorry to say that it was through your Mickey photograph that I first became familiar with your name.

BEN CURTIS: Here, I just looked up my photo of the Mickey Mouse on the archive and the caption reads:

A child’s toy lies amidst broken glass from the shattered windows of an apartment block near those that were demolished by Israeli air strikes in Tyre, Southern Lebanon, Monday, August 7th, 2006.

Which I stand by. The toy was there when I arrived. My caption doesn’t imply what happened, whose the toy was, whether there were children killed. Keep it neutral. Keep it neutral, and only say what you know and that you can verify. And I can happily stand by that caption. I can say every element of that caption was true, and I know it to be true.

ERROL MORRIS: One question that immediately comes to mind: Was your photograph the first of the published toy photographs? Did other photographers say, “Ah, he sold that photograph. Let me see if I can produce a similar one?”

BEN CURTIS: I don’t know when those other photographs were taken. When you’re covering destruction, you’re always going to focus in on details, rather than general views of destroyed buildings. You see similar pictures during a conflict like Lebanon; you see similar pictures over and over. When you come across an interesting detail in a scene . . . . But I didn’t say in my caption that children were in that apartment when it was bombed, that children were killed. I don’t know that, so I don’t say it. But if you look at my picture without the toy, you don’t know what those buildings are. It could be an office block. It could be anything. So, the inclusion of the Mickey Mouse in the picture adds an element of humanity to it. You get a feel of what was going on, what type of area it is, and that gives you a bit of a context to the fact that there have been recent air strikes in that area.

ERROL MORRIS: The blog article, “The Passion of the Toys,” provides little context. We aren’t told when the pictures were taken.

BEN CURTIS: There was a lot of media covering Lebanon, you know? And they’ve collected four pictures together, four pictures together on this blog, and what do they say? They say, “While it may be possible that these photographers all happened to stumble on toys and stuffed animals perfectly positioned for maximum emotive response” — you’ve got thousands of pictures coming out every day, and air strikes every day. And when you blow apart a building, something happens to the contents of it. They get scattered across the street.


BEN CURTIS: If the Lebanon war had been covered by the much smaller number of photographers that the media has there on a normal basis, you probably wouldn’t have seen half of these things, simply because there would never have been a photographer there to record them. Now, when you have a massive media influx, you’re going to get more comprehensive coverage of every single aspect of that war, and there’s going to be photographers around all very close to the scene for a lot of those incidents.

ERROL MORRIS: There’s a famous photograph taken by an FSA [Farm Service Administration] photographer, Arthur Rothstein, of a cow’s skull. He was accused of moving the cow skull in order to make more effective propaganda for the Roosevelt administration. These issues have been with us, probably, since the beginning of photography. They weren’t invented in the Lebanon war. I thought that you hit on it: Are we saying that there’s no damage done to these apartment buildings? That no children were killed? Even in the clearly Photoshopped image of the smoke over Beirut? Are we saying that Beirut was never hit by a bomb? That there were no apartment buildings leveled by Israeli drones? Is the crime posing? Or is the crime creating an image — even if it was produced ethically — that leads the viewer to a controversial conclusion. A photographer makes the decision to take a picture with a Mickey Mouse toy in the foreground. Is that a crime? Is it a crime if he found the toy and didn’t place it? Is it unacceptable because it suggests that children were killed?

BEN CURTIS: Yes. I’m looking at the Mickey Mouse picture again. A reader might infer from that, that a child had been killed in the attack and that this toy belonged to some child who is dead somewhere. Okay, you’re a reader, you can infer that if you want. But we’re not saying that. I’m not saying that. I’m saying it’s a child’s toy lying in the middle of a street after an air strike. That’s all I’m saying. If you want to infer from that what you want, that’s your prerogative, but you can’t then criticize us for that, you know? If I knew who that toy belonged to, if I knew his name and where he was now and what happened to him, that would be great. I’d include it in the caption. But I’m running around and I’ve got 10 minutes to get in, shoot pictures and get out of there, before maybe they’ll launch another air strike.

You have a limited amount of time.

BEN CURTIS: In an ideal world, you have lots of time to go and do that. We’re an up-to-the-minute news agency; you’ve got to go and file those pictures. Sometimes it’d be nice to, O.K., you’ve got the pictures, I’ll go back tomorrow and track this person down and interview them and get their story and provide the context for it. And maybe if I were working for a weekly magazine, I’d have more of an ability to do that. So you make these compromises.

ERROL MORRIS: But in principle, you would like to get more information.

It makes the picture more powerful. You put a picture of a child or an old woman amidst destruction, whatever, O.K., visually, it’s a powerful image, but you don’t know who this person is, you don’t know what their story is. If you go up to them and you get their story and you find out what she did and this is her husband, and maybe he’s been killed, and she doesn’t live here at all, but she came from Beirut and was visiting relatives when this happened or whatever — when you can provide that information on the subjects in your picture, then it makes the visual photograph more powerful. If you see photojournalism as a window on the world, then providing that context and information about the people in the pictures provides a more direct connection with the people in those pictures.

ERROL MORRIS: But the picture of Mickey is powerful because it is vague. Its vagueness allows us to imagine all kinds of diverse scenarios, depending on our political sensibilities. It’s one of the things that’s fascinating about photography: photographs are both specific and vague.

BEN CURTIS: I was thinking about this after my “in defense of captions” thread.


Ben Curtis had posted a blog, “In Defense of the Caption,” on the photojournalist Web site Lightstalkers1:

Curtis wrote on March 29, 2008:

Where’s the captions?

These days I’m seeing so many Web photo galleries by photographers that have no captions with them — at all. I don’t get it…

I see a bunch of perfectly fine pictures, but without captions I have no context. Who are they? When and where was this? What are their names? Why are they doing what they do? How did the circumstances arise? Et cetera.

Perhaps it’s my wire-agency background, but I see so many “photojournalists” these days who completely forget the “journalism” part of the job. Maybe it’s simply limitations of their gallery-creation software (in which case please use software that does support captions) but I suspect not. The tools to create Web photo galleries are much more automated than they used to be, but that ease has made some people get a bit lazy…

People talk of photographic intimacy but in my mind putting on a wide-angle lens doesn’t make a photo-story intimate. Intimate is when a photo story really lets me in to someone else’s life, and for that to happen (generally speaking that is) I need to know something about the circumstances. At least tell me who they are…

I know that there is a old argument that good news photographs should be able to stand alone and still give meaning to the reader. That is certainly true for some photographs, but on the whole I don’t buy it.

You need full and accurate captions. Anything less demonstrates a lack of professionalism.

Thoughts anyone?

Best wishes,



BEN CURTIS: Someone was arguing the merits of being vague — providing more avenues of inference and this sort of thing. And I read that and I agreed, or at least I understood what he was saying, and that there were merits in his argument. From my perspective, professionally, that’s an interesting argument and one that probably has validity in terms of how photos are used and more from an artistic viewpoint. That question is a valid one — on how you’re going to put pictures in a gallery or maybe how you’re going to use photos in a book. That doesn’t affect how I work or how I want to work. I want to get the pictures and I want to get full, accurate information. And if I had the time, I’d write 200 words about a picture. There’s a reasonable limit to how long captions can be. But I try and put as much information in the caption as I possibly can. Now, what a newspaper does with that or what a gallery might do with that or what a website might do with that, that’s their decision. Sometimes I might see one of my photographs with no information and think, “That’s a shame they didn’t put it in.” Sometimes they might rewrite the caption. Quite often this happens. Someone will use a wire agency picture and write their own caption under the picture, and then you’ll get criticized by some reader somewhere for the caption that was put under the image on a particular website. They think that you wrote that. All I can say is, I take the pictures, I write the captions, I put as much information as possible, I send it to my desk in London, they put it out to the world, and everything that happens after is completely outside my control. A lot of newspapers won’t put bylines, they won’t put credit to either the agency or myself. Other newspapers will put a full byline. Others will put a full credit. Others will print a very full caption. Others won’t put a caption in at all. Everything that happens after my pictures hit the wire; it’s not within my control.

ERROL MORRIS: The Joe Rosenthal picture of the flag raising at Iwo Jima is an example of how a picture is often captioned by someone other than the photographer. Rosenthal did not even see his iconic photograph before it was developed and sent off to various newspapers and magazines. Nor did he write the caption.

[Later, when asked whether his photograph was posed, Rosenthal said that it was. But he was referring to a different photograph — his photograph of the soldiers posing for his camera just after the flag was raised. Indeed, there is even a photograph of Rosenthal taking the posed photograph of the soldiers. Private Robert R. Campbell, a Marine photographer, was standing behind Rosenthal and captured the scene. Joe Rosenthal himself was seemingly unaware his picture was being taken by Campbell. And the soldiers were posing for Rosenthal’s camera — not for Campbell. So, is Campbell’s photograph candid or posed?]

BEN CURTIS: Going back to that skull photo that you were talking about. I have a basic knowledge of the FSA history, but not in depth in any way. A photo like that, if you were taking it for artistic purposes, then it’s perfectly acceptable to move the skull, to put it in nice light, to move this here, move this there, if your photographs are purely for artistic consumption. The reason why you’re taking the photos affects everything. If you’re doing fine art photography, you can do what you want. But if your photos are intended to represent the truth, then it’s a completely different situation.

ERROL MORRIS: Truth in photography is an elusive notion. There may not be any such thing.

BEN CURTIS: You can have one event, say, an explosion takes place somewhere in Iraq. Now, there is one single reality to that situation. Now, in our imperfect world, there are five different points of view to that situation. Insurgents are going to see it one way. American military will see it another way. The public will see it another way. And more and more, it seems impossible to bridge those realities. These realities seem so disparate, it seems very hard to bridge those realities.

ERROL MORRIS: The world is becoming increasingly polarized. Maybe it always was.

BEN CURTIS: Maybe it always was. I myself get all my news from the Internet — primarily the AP wire. I don’t watch much TV, I don’t have access to a wide range of English language papers, so I get most of my news from the Internet. Now, when you get news from the Internet, and especially if you’re getting it from blogs, you can really fine-tune the range of opinions that you receive on a daily basis, and you can fine-tune it to just those opinions that conform to your opinion.

Indeed. But it’s a generic problem. We only get to see part of everything and usually only what we want to see.

BEN CURTIS: People want to hear about things that interest them and people like to hear about things in a way that tells the story in a way that they agree with. But the end result is, if you’re a right-wing neocon and you get your entire daily news from 20 different neocon blogs, then you’re going to get one reality of the world. And in some ways, there are advantages to the mainstream media. You’re forced to get a range of opinions.

ERROL MORRIS: The photograph with the smoke that was altered, was that your photograph?

BEN CURTIS: No, no, no, no. There was an allegation that Adnan Hajj [the Reuters photographer accused of faking photographs] had taken my photograph and cloned stuff onto it to use for his photograph. But when we looked into it, that wasn’t what happened [2].

Oh, good to know.

BEN CURTIS: It was a different photograph, but was from the same viewpoint. Basically, there was a hill outside Beirut that provided a really beautiful view of the whole city, and there was one bend in the road where you could get a view of the city that wasn’t blocked by apartment buildings. And so, you could go up there on any given day and you’d find a lot of media up there. And you’ve got the same point of perspective. When people looked at the photos and complain, “These are the same buildings, this is the same viewpoint,” they make the assumption it must be the same photo. “Isn’t it coincidental that two photographers happen to be taking a picture at the same time in the same place?” But when you understand the reality of it — no, it wasn’t. It’s not unusual. There’s nothing untoward about it. It’s the fact that that particular point gives a good view of the city.

And we’d go up there and sit for eight hours. You’d have other people covering other stuff around the city, of course, but you might send a photographer to go up and sit on that hill, on that bend, for eight, nine hours, waiting. And if something happens, everyone is going to photograph it, and they’re going to be at the same point and they’re probably going to have a fairly similar viewpoint. That’s what made people think it was my photograph that he’d taken and cloned. But it wasn’t.

ERROL MORRIS: As you accurately and correctly point out, the internet is a source for information, disinformation and misinformation. It’s because of the sheer quantity of it.

BEN CURTIS: People don’t really understand how the media works. People see two photographs taken in the same place a split second apart and they find it incredible that two photographers could have been there by coincidence. No, the photographers probably sat there all day long, waiting for a picture, and then it happened. I often find the truth is a lot more mundane than bloggers often want to believe. People see conspiracies where the truth is rather boring.

ERROL MORRIS: Conspiracies are what people turn to when they don’t want to bother with more complex explanations. They are usually the product of not wanting to think about why things happened. For example, the photographs with toys? Do you know when they were taken?

BEN CURTIS: See, that’s the thing. The original photographs may have captions, but you don’t know that from the blog posts, do you, because there are no captions? And that’s my point. “Well, what do you know about these pictures?” Maybe they’re taken in the same incident. Maybe they’re not even in the same town. Maybe some of them are Beirut; some are in Tyre. I have no idea. I have no way of knowing

ERROL MORRIS: No, the captions are absent.

BEN CURTIS: I’d forgotten about that Mickey Mouse photo. I took so many, I can’t remember how many pictures I filed from Lebanon — 400, 500 or something — but, when you think of the amount I took, it would have been tens of thousands.

ERROL MORRIS: Do you save your pictures?

BEN CURTIS: I do. I save every frame. I archive every frame.

ERROL MORRIS: Would you be interested in looking through the photographs that you took that day?

BEN CURTIS: The Mickey Mouse day?

ERROL MORRIS: Yes, if you were willing to do this, we would go through the photographs and we would talk about the whole day.

BEN CURTIS: It was a crazy day, because we’d seen the first explosions, and then you see an explosion and you’re, “Oh, I better go there, I better go and photograph it,” but you never know if there’s going to be another one. And this ambulance had headed up there, and then suddenly there was this other one, and the ambulance came back and parts of the vehicle had been hit by some pieces of stone that had been from the explosion or something. It came screaming back to the hospital. And then you’re, “Well, should I go there? Is another one going to go off?” You have no idea. It was a very unusual conflict, at least from my experience. I covered the Liberian civil war in West Africa, and you couldn’t get more different. In the whole of Lebanon, I don’t think I even heard a shot fired. There was very little shooting. There was no small-arms fire. There was nobody firing guns — I’m talking about the places media could get to. It was all from the air. You think of a war and you think of soldiers firing at each other. Nobody was using small arms around us. You’d walk around and all you could hear was this “bzzz” of the drones in the sky — these unmanned aircraft. It tells you that someone’s watching you, that you are being seen from the sky. And then you’re walking around and, suddenly, some huge bomb takes out an apartment block. It’s random. I’m not suggesting at all the Israelis dropped the bombs randomly. They obviously had targeting and intelligence about where they were putting them. But from a journalist’s perspective on the ground, it was random as to when it was going to happen. You couldn’t predict it.


After a brief negotiation with Curtis and Santiago Lyon, the Director of Photography for the AP, Curtis and I talked at length about the Mickey Mouse photograph and that entire day in Tyre, Lebanon, the day the Mickey Mouse photograph was taken. It was my attempt to put the photograph in context, or, if you prefer, to write an elaborate caption for it.

I was curious about the exact location of the photographs. And so I attempted to pinpoint the location on a map. There are a series of UN reconnaissance maps and photographs[3][4]. I sent them to Ben Curtis and asked him to identify where the Mickey Mouse was found. He sent back an e-mail,

Re: the map and the insert “Destruction of 8 large residential building…”

This does appear to be the same as the location of the Mickey Mouse incident. I couldn’t say 100%, but it’s in pretty much the correct area and the layout, particularly the green area to the left of the buildings makes sense. That green area is I think seen on far left of the “truck” photo.

The hospital (from which I took the photo of the smoke from the buildings) is a small way down a side street on the right of the road that leads from Tyre center to the buildings site, but I couldn’t pinpoint it exactly… We didn’t have any maps then, I’d only recognize it from ground level.

Satellite View of Damage in Tyre (pdf)
The maps provide a “picture” — two of them are photographs — of a vast area of destruction, but little explanation of why the destroyed areas were targeted. Were they of strategic value? Why were they destroyed? Without additional information we are left with a cornucopia of possibilities. We can see from the detail of the satellite reconnaissance map that a number of buildings around the Mickey Mouse were destroyed. Were there families living there? Had the buildings been occupied by Hezbollah? If wire service photographs are often too specific, these satellite photographs are too general.

I waited for Ben Curtis’ AP photographs to arrive.



1. “In Defence of the Caption… ” on Lightstalkers.

2. “Reuters Doctoring Photos From Beirut?”

3. This map of Lebanon provides an overview of the war zone through the movement of U.N. relief convoys as of Aug. 7, 2006. This map was produced by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

4. This map of damage in the region of Tyre, Lebanon, as of Aug. 14, 2006, was produced by UNOSAT, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Program, implemented in cooperation with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Errol Morris, New York Times


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