Transcript

493:

Picture Show
Transcript

Originally aired 04.19.2013

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

It's been a week for looking at pictures, of the bombings in Boston, of course, the aftermath, the FBI suspects, everything that's happened since. By Wednesday, a few people in our office were going onto Reddit, the online discussion board, to read the conversation where amateurs were scouring through those crowd photos of hundreds of faces, searching for anybody who might be a bomber. Zach Barnett was one of those amateurs.

And he was a skeptic. He started Tuesday morning. When posters started chattering about a guy in the crowd that they nicknamed Music Man, a guy who was wearing headphones, a black jacket with a huge black backpack-- it was the huge backpack that made him suspicious-- Zach was the person who alerted everyone.

Zach Barnett

There was an image after the bombing had taken place with tons of ambulances on the scene. And there was what seemed to be Music Man with his backpack. And so this seemed to suggest that he was not responsible.

Ira Glass

Because if he has the backpack after the blast, obviously, it's not his backpack that caused the blast.

Zach Barnett

Right. Right.

Ira Glass

After this display of level headedness, Zach, who is a college student, was asked to be one of the moderators of the discussion on Reddit. There's been some criticism of Reddit for going through Boston Marathon photos looking for suspects. The Atlantic called it vigilantism and made it seem like these were crazed nerds on a delusional CSI witch hunt. And you definitely can find quotes that make it seem that way.

But if you read the full discussions, you'll see how careful people are trying to be, very aware of the dangers of accusing an innocent person of being a bomber. It's a big part of the discussion. When somebody posts the Facebook page of one potential suspect, people declared, this has gone too far.

The post is deleted. The poster's banned. And Zach was far from the only skeptic. Take, for example, the discussion of a pair of guys they called the Backpack Brothers because one of them had a big, heavy looking black backpack.

Zach Barnett

And he was wearing a white hat with some glasses on top of the hat. And then there was another man in blue track suit and running shoes, which isn't exactly out of place at a marathon.

Ira Glass

And he has a duffel bag, right?

Zach Barnett

Yeah. He had a duffel bag over his shoulder.

Ira Glass

There were a couple things about the Backpack Brothers photos that made Zach feel like of all the pictures, these had the greatest likelihood to be real suspects. Somebody linked to this ingenious photo which superimposed the shot of the Backpack Brothers on the sidewalk before the explosion with a picture of the same stretch of sidewalk after the bombs went off, with a big red circle drawn at the spot where the bombs supposedly had blown up. And damned if it wasn't exactly next to where those two guys had been standing. And even more damning were other photos taken still before the blast.

Zach Barnett

Where one of them definitely didn't have his bag. The person with the white hat did not have his bag with him. And the other one, you couldn't really tell if he did or didn't.

Ira Glass

And so the speculation is they had bags before the blast. And then later, still before the blast, they had left their bags somewhere.

Zach Barnett

Exactly. And based on the time of when the images were taken, which you could see the marathon clock in the photo, it did line up with roughly when people thought that the bags had been dropped. And so this led people to really be suspicious of these two.

Ira Glass

But by Wednesday, people at Reddit were discussing the details that would make you less suspicious of these two. Like, for example, the duffel bag was blue. Authorities never mentioned a bomb in a blue bag. Or, most important, except for the white cap, these two guys did not match the description of the suspects that authorities started to circulate by Wednesday afternoon. So by the end of the day Wednesday, most posters on Reddit, including Zach, seemed to be moving away from the Backpack Brothers as possible bombers.

Of course, this wasn't true everywhere. On Thursday morning, the New York Post blasted a photo of the Backpack Brothers across its front page-- it's the entire front page-- with a screaming headline, "Bag Men. Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon." Somehow, the Post didn't notice that these two men do not match the description of the suspects that was circulating by then.

By Thursday afternoon, authorities had publicly declared that these two men were not suspects. Photos of the real suspects were released. The Backpack Brothers turned out to be a high school sophomore, who was very surprised at all this attention, and his friend. And on Thursday when I talked to Zach about all the various photos, he was super careful not to jump to any conclusions, which, of course, is difficult.

Ira Glass

It just is so hard to look at these pictures without imposing a story on it.

Zach Barnett

Yeah, exactly. You just can't help but read the photograph, not just see it for what it is but to read a story on to it.

Ira Glass

Like here at our office this week, it was hard for all of us to not feel like, oh, look, look, it's him. It must be him. This must be the guy. And were you having feelings like that, too?

Zach Barnett

Oh, yeah. You can't help it. When people are posting all these images, and there's this person circled, and there's an arrow drawn from this person to this person saying, oh, these two are working together. And the danger is not even just that people are going to speculate and jump to conclusions that are unwarranted, but really what's going to happen when you jump to unwarranted conclusions. Who's going to be affected?

Ira Glass

A picture is what you think it means. It is not self-evident. And today on our radio show, we have two stories where there are pictures. And in each of them, whether you think the pictures are worrisome and troubling depends on what you believe about the story of how they were made. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Two mysteries will unfold. Stay with us.

Act One. Photo Op.

Ira Glass

Act One, Photo Op. It's no surprise that people disagree about how to interpret the photos and videos in this first story, because the photos and videos were shot in a part of the world where people disagree about how to interpret so, so many things. Nancy Updike tells the story.

Nancy Updike

I saw a video a while back that caught my attention. It's short, a shaky handheld video. And it shows an interaction between Israeli soldiers and a Palestinian family where there is no violence, no yelling, no confrontation. In the video, five Israeli soldiers show up at the house of a Palestinian family in a village named Nabi Saleh.

It's around 1:00 in the morning. The father answers the door, and he starts to film what's happening. And the soldiers let him film. The soldier in charge asks the man in Hebrew if there are any children in the house and how many.

Soldier

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Man

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Soldier

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Nancy Updike

The man's got four children, three of whom are here at the house now. The little girl is at her grandfather's. How many sons, the soldier asks. Three.

Soldier

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Man

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Soldier

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Nancy Updike

The soldier asks to see the two oldest boys, 15 years old and almost 12 years old. The man says they're asleep. And the soldier asks him to wake them up, please.

Man

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Soldier

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Nancy Updike

The man goes into the next room and calls his kids' names a couple of times. Again, it's around 1:00 in the morning. The kids lift up their heads, blink in the light, and slowly get out of bed.

They stand next to each other in the doorway of their room looking at the soldiers, who are in full gear, helmets, guns. The younger boy has dark blond hair, and his face is a little puffy with sleep. When the soldier in command says hello, he says his name, Muhammad.

Soldier

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

(SUBJECT) MUHAMMAD TAMIMI Muhammad.

Nancy Updike

The soldiers write down the boys' names and ID numbers. And then they take a photo of each kid. They've already taken a photo of the father.

During the whole process, no one offers or asks for a warrant, a charge, an explanation. As the soldiers leave, the one in command glances at another door in the building and says, any more children? The father says no.

The only question the father asks is, can he go with the soldiers and keep filming while they go to the next house? They say no at first. And he says, why not? So they let him.

I watch the unedited video he made that night, and I counted 12 more houses that the soldiers went to, waking up kids and photographing them. The undrama of this video is mesmerizing, the routineness, like watching a series of traffic stops. I've been coming to the West Bank reporting on and off for 15 years.

And I've been here when the routine was suicide bombings in Israel and in the West Bank, tanks and daily shootings. But it hasn't been like that for a long time. And the army taking photos of kids at night is something I'd never seen before.

Watching the video, I felt like it was a window into this moment in the West Bank, this period of quasi-stability. Israel went into the West Bank 46 years ago. What does it take to control so many people so effectively for so long?

And I know that lots of Americans feel like they have no right to ask questions about what Israel does, because they're not there, and they don't know what it's like to live with the dangers Israelis live with. But what Americans never seem to realize is how much Israelis ask questions, including about this video of soldiers photographing kids. The video aired on Israel's Channel 10 and also made the rounds on Israeli Twitter feeds and Facebook pages.

And plenty of people who saw the video said, well, the army's got to do what the army's got to do. But others were disturbed. They had questions.

And why shouldn't they? It's their sons and daughters who are in the West Bank or wherever else right after high school for years of mandatory military service. So I've got a question. What are these nighttime photos? The photos at night aren't new. It's a tactic that comes and goes, part of something the Israeli military calls mapping.

Yehuda Shaul

This is mapping. In the middle of the night, the guy is in his pajamas.

Nancy Updike

Yehuda Shaul did his army service during the Second Intifada years ago. But he did a lot of mapping. And he's talked to a lot of other soldiers about it. He's showing me a snapshot taken by a soldier in 2008 in the West Bank city of Nablus. And the photo shows an older Palestinian man, who seems to be in his pajamas, sitting at a table in his house across from an Israeli soldier who's writing something down on a piece of paper.

Yehuda Shaul

Yeah, basically, the ID numbers of the people who live, the names, drawing who works where, cell phones, all the kind of stuff that you collect in mapping.

Nancy Updike

Mapping is actually a general term that can mean a lot of different things-- photographs, diagrams of the layout of a house, where the windows and balconies are, what doors lead to which streets. Mapping's not violent, and months can go by without any mapping.

So it's not something that usually makes the news. It's just one more part of the overall routine in the West Bank these days. The mapping and nighttime photos started in Nabi Saleh, the village from the video you heard, a few months after the villagers began doing a weekly protest march, according to residents.

These protests are also part of the routine in the West Bank. They happen every Friday. They happen in lots of villages. They've been happening in different villages for years. And there's practically a script.

In Nabi Saleh, the day I was there, there was a march, chanting. The villagers faced off against some soldiers. And after an hour or so of this, a lot of the adults left.

But the bulk of what happens every Friday is what comes next, kids throwing stones. It goes on for hours. It's become the Friday afternoon activity for a lot of kids and teenagers in Nabi Saleh. Teens sit with friends by the side of the road talking and rough housing and then occasionally picking up a stone throwing it or launching it with a slingshot. The soldiers, on their side, respond with tear gas, rubber coated metal bullets.

[SHOT SOUND]

Two men have died from injuries they received at protests in Nabi Saleh in the last year and a half. But today, there's a lot of pretending to be fearless. One kid made a joke of acting like he'd been hit.

Boy

[YELLS].

Nancy Updike

At this point, throwing stones is one of the most common charges against Palestinian kids who are arrested in the West Bank. There are Palestinians throwing stones just about every day, not only at protests and not only at soldiers. A few weeks ago, a Palestinian was convicted of throwing stones that killed an Israeli father and his baby when they were driving in the West Bank. A stone hit the father in the head, and he lost control of the car.

The army takes stone throwing seriously, whether the stones are being thrown at armored jeeps or unarmed civilians. Soldiers videotape the weekly protests. And in Nabi Saleh, the villagers told me the army does that so that it can take those images and compare them to the nighttime photos. That way, the army can arrest people who throw stones and go to demonstrations. It's safer and easier for the army to arrest people at night rather than at the demonstration itself, though arrests actually might not be the point of the nighttime photos.

Nadav Bigelman

My officer tells me-- he told me before we left, bring your camera.

Nancy Updike

This is Nadav Bigelman. He was an Israeli soldier who took photos in mapping operations similar to ones in Nabi Saleh, He's 24 years old, and his army service ended in 2010. But his unit operated in villages that were also holding protests. Nadav said he'd just started his army service, and his commander told him to bring along his little Fujifilm camera one night to do some mapping.

Nadav Bigelman

You know, it was like my first few duty line after basic training and all that. I thought I'd have, like, the most important intelligence material. Yes, I thought someone would come and ask for these pictures. I think, in my mind, this is the most logical thing to do, that someone, I don't know, intelligence, will ask for these pictures.

Nancy Updike

But no one ever did ask for the pictures. Not only that, but Nadav says he later learned that all of the information they'd gathered, the ID numbers, the drawings of the layouts of the houses. all of it had gone in the trash. Nadav was a young soldier-- 19 years old. He didn't question why. He just deleted the photos.

Another soldier in Nadav's unit, Sagi Tal, confirmed that this happened. And Sagi said that over the course of his three-year army service, he saw the same thing happen again and again with mapping operations.

Sagi Tal

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Translator

One of the ways that I came to understand that this was just an exercise in futility was that every time a new battalion would come in and be in charge of a certain area, they would order this mapping procedure all over again. And so it became clear to me that these photos weren't being used and didn't go into some kind of database the way we were lead to understand they would be.

Nadav Weiman

In my unit, we called that kind of operations "Condoleezza Rice operations."

Nancy Updike

This is another soldier also named Nadav, Nadav Weiman. He was serving in 2008 when Condoleezza Rice was Secretary of State.

Nadav Weiman

Because every time Condoleezza Rice came to Israel, we did that.

Nancy Updike

You did a mapping operation?

Nadav Weiman

Yeah.

Nancy Updike

I thought Nadav Weiman might have had a different experience with mapping than other soldiers because he was in a special forces unit, and he was in charge of intelligence for his team, a sniper team. And he did have a different experience. The army sent him to a photo course and gave him a camera, a Nikon D200 with seven lenses. But when it came to mapping, it was the same with him as with other soldiers. He got back with all the photos and the information and the diagrams, went to his superior--

Nadav Weiman

And I said, OK. There's all the maps and the photos and everything. And he said, Nadav, erase the photos and just throw the papers to the trash can. And don't ever come to me again with all the papers, because you don't need to do that.

Nancy Updike

Were you surprised?

Nadav Weiman

Yeah, I was very surprised, because the first time we did that, we did it really seriously. You know, we asked, and we drew really accurate and everything. And then we understood that it doesn't really matter.

Nancy Updike

He says after the first time he did mapping, he just threw everything away automatically. I heard this, and I didn't understand. Why get all that information and photos and then throw it away? And why keep doing that over and over?

I went back to Yehuda Shaul, the guy who first explained mapping to me and showed me the photo of the man in his pajamas. Again, Yehuda did his army service years ago during the Second Intifada. But he's been in touch with hundreds of soldiers since then, because after he finished his required army service, he and some others started an organization called Breaking The Silence that interviews Israeli soldiers about their experiences.

Besides doing mapping himself, Yehuda's heard mapping stories from dozens of IDF soldiers-- Israel Defense Forces soldiers-- including ones who are serving now. And he wasn't surprised by what Sagi and Nadav and the other Nadav told me. He said it was the same for his unit in Hebron. They mapped the old city of Hebron twice, then destroyed all the data on the orders of their commander without ever passing it on or doing anything with it.

Yehuda Shaul

Look, very quick you understand that mapping is just another form of making your presence felt, right?

Nancy Updike

Making your presence felt. That's a phrase. It's a--

Yehuda Shaul

Yeah. [FOREIGN LANGUAGE]. Demonstrating your presence. The idea is very simple. Every Palestinian feels that the IDF is always right here, you know?

Nancy Updike

You're pointing right to the back of your head behind your left ear.

Yehuda Shaul

Yeah, yeah. We're breathing behind you. We're always there. We're always watching.

You never know where we're going to be, when we're going to show up, how it's going to look like, what we're going to do, when it's going to start, when it's going to end, right? So what do you do to make them feel this way? You make your presence felt.

But this is not a tactic. This is not a strategy that distinguishes between good guys and bad guys, right?

Muhammad Tamimi

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE].

Nancy Updike

I spent an afternoon talking to seven boys who were photographed in Nabi Saleh, the village where I saw the weekly protest. Most had been photographed more than once. Some had later been arrested. Some hadn't.

One of the kids I talked to was the younger boy from Bilal Tamimi's video, his son, Muhammad. Muhammad was almost 12 when the soldiers took his picture. He's just turned 14. But he seems young for his age. He didn't act tough or indifferent when I asked him about soldiers taking his picture.

Muhammad Tamimi

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE].

Translator

I was surprised that they were there. This is the first time that they entered our house. I had thought about it a lot before but never expected it to happen.

Nancy Updike

Muhammad's mother told me that he and his older brother worried in the weeks afterward that soldiers would come back. His older brother started sleeping in jeans and keeping his shoes next to the bed in case he was arrested in the middle of the night. Muhammad didn't like to sleep at all.

Muhammad Tamimi

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE].

Translator

I started staying up late, watching for the coming of the soldiers.

Nancy Updike

His mother told me that for months she would wake up at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning to the sound of the TV. And she would find Muhammad awake, half watching TV and half watching out the window to see if anyone was coming. Muhammad never was arrested, and neither was his older brother. But soldiers did come again to the house. Like before, it was around 1:30 in the morning.

And just like before, his father, Bilal, videotaped it. Bilal's had video cameras since he was a teenager. But a few years ago, he got a better one from an Israeli human rights organization called B'Tselem. Now he's got a video archive organized by date of the times the Israeli military has come into the village over the last couple of years.

Soldier 2

Sit please.

Bilal Tamimi

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE].

Nancy Updike

In this video, everyone has been woken up and is sitting in the kitchen. And one soldier is walking around with Bilal doing a search, asking him, in English this time, whether he has anything illegal or forbidden in the house.

Soldier 2

Do you have something who is unforbidden?

Bilal Tamimi

Unforbidden? Like what?

Soldier 2

Yes. Like knives. Like weapons.

Bilal Tamimi

I have a lot of knives and the spoons in the kitchen.

Soldier 2

The kitchen is OK--

Nancy Updike

In case you didn't hear it, Bilal is saying, I have a lot of knives and spoons in the kitchen. The soldier says, the kitchen is OK. I've got knives in my kitchen, too. The soldier keeps walking around with Bilal, questioning him.

Soldier 2

Do you carry a weapon?

Bilal Tamimi

Weapon? This is my weapon.

Nancy Updike

Bilal points to his camera as he says this.

Soldier 2

OK. It's a good weapon.

Bilal Tamimi

Yes.

Nancy Updike

Again, no one in the house is under arrest. The soldiers are just looking around, asking to see the older son's backpack, looking in cabinets and on shelves, asking more questions, and finally leaving. For sure, there are people in the West Bank who want to kill Israelis. Nadav Weiman, the special forces guy, showed me a photo he took after his team raided the house of a Palestinian man who had a workshop inside to build bombs.

Nadav Weiman

And we found a lot of ammunition and things inside his house and bombs and everything.

Nancy Updike

Nadav says the raid on that house was based on intelligence. And Israel has an incredible amount of information about who and what are in the West Bank.

They've got cameras, informants, listening devices, drones, undercover units. And Nadav says that over the course of his three-year army service, the conclusion he came to, based on his own experiences and conversations with other soldiers, including his two older brothers who are also special forces, was that some operations really were about gathering and using intel. He would go out and take reconnaissance photos, and they would be used.

But he says those operations, even for his elite team, were the exception. He believes that a lot of what they did, including most mapping operations, fell into a different category, the "demonstrating our presence" category. And in that category was a whole range of things from mapping to something else he says his team did called mock arrests. Other soldiers also talked about this. And a mock arrest is exactly what it sounds like, arresting someone who's not really under arrest. Even more than that, Nadav said before his team went out to do a mock arrest, they would call the Shabak, Israel's internal intelligence agency.

Nadav Weiman

And we'd say to them, we want to go to do mock arrest in that house. And we give the number of the house, because there's maps and all the houses are numbered. And they check.

And they have information about all of the Palestinians in West Bank. And they give us the OK, because if everybody in the house is innocent and not connected to terror, they say, OK, you can go.

Nancy Updike

Let me underscore what he's saying here. He said his team could only do a mock arrest after Israel's intelligence service told them that no one in the house is suspected of wrongdoing.

Nadav Weiman

And we'd go in the middle of the night, and we surround the house. And we shout, come out with your hands in the air. And we throw stun grenades, or we fire bullets at the walls of the house. Or we throw smoke grenades.

And then somebody comes out and is afraid, and he doesn't know what is happening. And we arrest him. And we shout a lot in Hebrew and Arabic. We arrest him. We put him inside a Jeep. And then we do like two or three rounds--

Nancy Updike

Driving around the village.

Nadav Weiman

Driving around the village. And then after, like, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, maybe the whole night, we put him back inside his house and drove away from there. And the goal in that operation, the goal is creating the feeling of being chased in the Palestinian population.

Nancy Updike

To create the feeling of being chased in the Palestinian population was an explicit goal that Nadav says he saw many times typed out in the PowerPoint presentation his team would be shown before a mission, right there along with all the other official information.

Nadav Weiman

Our team, our names, who is the officer, and what is the goal of the operation, and how we're going to do it, it's all written. And it's written to create the feeling of being chased in the Palestinian population just like that. That's the mission that I was sent. And you see that a lot of things I do in the West Bank as a soldier, I'm not here to protect Israel. I'm here to control Palestinians.

Nancy Updike

I ran all this by Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, spokesman for the Israeli military, the Israel Defense Forces. I quoted to him the objective Nadav Weiman said he saw typed out before some missions.

Nancy Updike

"To create the feeling of being chased in the Palestinian population."

Peter Lerner

I would not consider that a military objective at all. And when we do carry out military operations, a specific target would be to arrest an individual to gather intelligence for a specific mission. It would not be just to intimidate anybody. I would rule that out to begin with. Again, if there was a low-level commander making such a statement or event putting it in writing, it could be a mistake.

Nancy Updike

I told Colonel Lerner about the mock arrests Nadav Weiman and other soldiers said they'd done. I asked him what's the purpose of a mock arrest.

Peter Lerner

I can't even comprehend that type of term. When we carry out an arrest, we carry it out. We take the person. We take them for questioning. It could be a short questioning.

You ask them a few questions. You see if there's any basis for further investigation. And he could be released. It wouldn't be a mock. I would say that that definitely not be how we operate.

Nancy Updike

You've never heard that term?

Peter Lerner

No.

Nancy Updike

About mapping, he said--

Peter Lerner

In the past, we did military operations to map out populated areas to find out who's living where and who's doing what. I'm not aware of throwing data out or throwing intelligence out.

Nancy Updike

Never. You've never heard of that?

Peter Lerner

No. I doubt that would be the situation. It would defeat the object. We don't just send troops out just to go out. We safeguard our own safety. We don't send people and put them at risk. And we would look at every mission in a professional manner.

Nancy Updike

The years since the Second Intifada ended, around 2006, have been the quietest in a long time for Israelis, with some brutal exceptions. People don't worry about getting on buses the way they used to or try to find tables in cafes far away from the door in case a suicide bomber gets in. So you could argue that creating the feeling of being chased in the Palestinian population has worked, that mapping is important to Israel's security. And it doesn't matter whether data is kept or not.

But mapping and mock arrests are just a small part of things in the West Bank. For the last few years, there's been this intense cooperation between Palestinian Authority security forces and Israeli security forces. And Israel's built a barrier, a series of fences and walls, in much of the West Bank.

Those things probably have a lot more impact on Israeli security than sporadic mapping operations. But then what's hard to calculate is the downside of mapping or mock arrests. What does it do when anyone, innocent or guilty, can be woken up by soldiers in the middle of the night along with their kids?

The soldiers who came to Bilal Tamimi's house and photographed his kids were notably polite. It's part of what makes the video compelling, the disconnect between how they're speaking and what they're doing. All of the soldiers I spoke with talked about feeling aversion of that disconnect.

And these are all people who entered the army wanting to protect their country. They joined combat units and did tough service. Nadav Weiman, the special forces soldier, wanted to be on the front lines. He went into Lebanon.

He was two days away from his reserve duty when we talked. And yet, he and the others I talked to feel that a lot of what they've done in the army is deliberate intimidation of civilians. They don't believe it made Israel safer in the long run.

And, yeah, these are a select group. A lot of people, inside the army and out, don't see it this way. Nadav Bigelman, the guy who had mapping photos on his camera, told me about one night when his unit was given glow sticks, like kids buy at concerts, before they went out on their patrol. And their commander said to throw them into people's houses. Just toss them through open windows or balconies.

Nadav Bigelman

And you can say, OK, it's not violent. It didn't harm anyone. But the idea is, again-- of course, just random houses, of course. The idea, again, is not the glow sticks but what the glow sticks make people think. I mean, just imagine, people wake up the next morning, prepare for school, to work, university, and they see a glow stick in the middle of their living room. And they understand the army was here.

Nancy Updike

That's how 46 years go by, sometimes with a heavy hand, sometimes with a light touch.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our program.

[MUSIC - "I TURN MY CAMERA ON" BY SPOON]

Coming up, a kid's drawing in ballpoint pen on printer paper. What could that possibly be worth? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. A Picture is Worth A Thousand… Dollars.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program we're calling "Picture Show," about pictures and how the story that we tell ourselves about a picture totally determines what we see when we look at it. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, A Picture is Worth $1,000.

Let's head now into the world of buying and selling pictures, where every picture has a price, the price is very, very high. This is the fine art world with collectors and galleries and, of course, artists. Scott Pinkmountain has this story about whether it is possible to get away from all that once you are deep inside it.

Scott Pinkmountain

Schandra Singh is a painter, a good one. Straight out of an MFA program, she landed a gallery in New York.

Schandra Singh

I was, like, minus $200 in my bank account. And I was driving to the city with some works on paper, because my dealer's like, well, maybe-- because I make really big paintings. And he was like, maybe if you have something small, we can sell it, you know?

So I'm driving there and I get a phone call from him, from my dealer. And he goes, Schandra. And I said, yes? And he goes, Saatchi just bought the "Lazy River" painting. And I just, like, dropped the phone and screamed.

Scott Pinkmountain

Saatchi would be Charles Saatchi, co founder of the international advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi and owner of the Saatchi Gallery in London. He's ranked among the wealthiest people in the UK and probably the most closely watched contemporary art collector on the planet.

Schandra Singh

He ended up buying three more from the show. Oh, and then when he buys it, what he does is that he automatically puts you on his website.

Scott Pinkmountain

Which is a big deal in itself, because the Saatchi gallery website is hugely popular among collectors.

Schandra Singh

And then, I don't know, all these collectors come. And then I was offered a show right away with a really good gallery in Switzerland. My gallery in New York, again, automatically wanted to book my next show. Saatchi said he wanted to see everything that came out of my studio. Oh, my god.

Scott Pinkmountain

Soon, all the other paintings in her New York gallery shows sold out. Then collectors bought every single piece in her studio, completely cleaned her out. This pace continued for five years.

This is a whole side of the art world that most of us only have a vague awareness of, where collectors buy and sell art like it's wheat futures or pork bellies. And Schandra's work was part of that. Schandra's gallery sold a couple paintings to this one guy who turned around and immediately tried to resell them for a big profit. It felt weird.

Schandra Singh

And that's a lot of people do, particularly with Saatchi. Like, they buy what he buys. They don't even hang it in their apartment homes.

They put it in a warehouse. And they watch the value go up or down. It's like stocks, you know? And then if it goes up, they hold onto it or they flip it.

You know, it's amazing to get all this success. But, like, painters really paint because there's sort of like this beautiful magic moment in it, you know? And after you're constantly making stuff all the time, and people are buying stuff, and then they're flipping paintings and it's all about money, it's like you just crave for that little magic moment again. It becomes corrupted if you let it.

Scott Pinkmountain

So it was in the midst of all this when something happened to Schandra. As she tells it, she was laying in bed struggling to get up and go to the studio to work on this big solo show.

Schandra Singh

I look on my cell phone, and there's this email from this father in England. And he says that he's a really big fan of my work, and he has a 13-year-old autistic son who really loves my work, too. He's really moved by my work and that his son is an artist.

And he's making work all the time, and that he's currently doing a series called "Fire From the Eyes." And that he wanted to know if he could buy Anthony, his son, one of my drawings or something for him because it would just make Anthony so happy. And then he said, you can reach us at our email. And then he gave me his address. And then he wrote, you know, best wishes, Benjamin and Anthony.

And when I got that, I was like, whoa, wow. There's this autistic boy in England who's moved by my work and really loves my work to the point that his father had to email me and tell me. And I just-- I don't know. It just, like, lifted me up.

And so I just thought it was amazing. And I told the story to a lot of people. And I ended up writing back to him. And I just said, look, I'm honored that his son loves my work so much. And thank you so much for the email and that I'd love to see Anthony's "Fire From the Eyes" series.

And the next day, I get an email back from him saying, Anthony would love to send you some of his "Fire From the Eyes" series. And I'm thinking about this whole thing. And I'm telling people this story about there's this autistic boy who's going to be sending me his drawings.

And so I was like, why don't I just do a trade with him? It's just a sweet thing to do. If he's going to be sending me his art, I'll just send him something of mine.

So then he writes back, Anthony's so excited about the trade. He's like, he can't wait. And he's like, we sent your package.

Scott Pinkmountain

So there's a lot of communication it sounds like.

Schandra Singh

Yeah, there was a lot of communication. And intimate communication, you know? He'd write things like, Anthony says hi. Anthony draws all the time.

And so then this package arrives of these drawings. And they had written me a letter with it, from Anthony and Benjamin. And the drawings, I take the drawings out, and they're just, like, totally insane looking.

They're just like, whoa. I mean, they're sort of stick figurey. But they're this man with his face with his mouth open. And then he's got all these googly things coming out of his eyes. And then there's random words written everywhere. And I was, like, transfixed.

Scott Pinkmountain

All the pictures were nearly identical, drawn in ballpoint pen on pieces of plain white paper. Schandra wrote Benjamin.

Schandra Singh

And I said, wow. These are so amazing. Thank you so much. I love his drawings.

Scott Pinkmountain

A few days later, she received a second package of drawings.

Schandra Singh

And in that package were more letters and then a box of chocolates. And I was like, whoa, a box of chocolates, you know? And so then, I guess my drawing arrived.

And he said, Anthony's so excited. The drawing just came. He wants me to frame it for him. Thank you so much, Schandra. So glad to hear you got the box of chocolates.

Scott Pinkmountain

Did you eat the chocolate?

Schandra Singh

I did. I did. It was good chocolate.

Scott Pinkmountain

Schandra's not a fool. She said there was a second before she bit into the chocolate where she wondered if she should eat it. Who were these people sending her chocolates and drawings?

She'd had little nagging doubts all along. And as things progressed, she wondered more and more about certain elements of the story. Like, how did Anthony find her work in the first place? Then Schandra was on the phone with a friend retelling the story in detail. Her friend was Nigerian, and he recognized Benjamin's last name as also being Nigerian.

Schandra Singh

And he says to me, he's like, I don't want to make you feel bad or anything. He's like, but, you know, I don't really trust Nigerians. And this is coming from a Nigerian, right? And I'm like, what do you mean?

He's like, I don't know if I trust that this is real. And I remember feeling a little hurt by him even though I felt like I had no reason to be hurt by him. But I was, in my brain, like, what? You don't think I'm moving this autistic boy?

And so I started asking people, like, do you think that this is real? And everyone I talked to would say, who would ever pretend to have an autistic child and then send you these drawings and write you these intimate details? Nobody thought it wasn't real.

Scott Pinkmountain

Schandra poked around online. She didn't really find anything. She never heard from Benjamin again, which felt a little strange, given how friendly and personal their emails had been. But she just let it drop.

Two years passed. Then, just a few months ago, Schandra was at a party in New York with a bunch of friends from grad school.

Schandra Singh

And I was hanging out with a friend of mine whose work I really love and I think is a great guy or whatever.

And we're talking. And he turns to me. And he says, oh, my god. I have to tell you. The most amazing thing just happened to me. And he goes on to tell me the same exact story.

Scott Pinkmountain

Everything's the same, the dad in England, the autistic son, the names, the address, the wording of the letter, "Anthony really loves your work."

Baker Overstreet

And my first reaction was, oh, well, I guess he's just a fan of both of our work, and wasn't sure if we were talking about the same person.

Scott Pinkmountain

This is Schandra's friend, a painter named Baker Overstreet. He's had a similar career arc to Schandra, both of them showing internationally, both collected by Saatchi right out of grad school.

Baker Overstreet

As I was describing it to her, I could tell she was eager to interject.

Schandra Singh

And he's like, no, no. This couldn't have happened to you. And I remember I looked at him, and I was like, did you get a box of chocolates? And he just stared at me, like, with this funny face, right?

Scott Pinkmountain

Baker pulled out his phone and showed Schandra pictures he'd taken of Anthony's drawings. Schandra told Baker, those are the same drawings I got. They weren't photocopies or replicas, just very, very similar.

Schandra Singh

The moment that happened, it was like my confirmation. You know, I'd been skeptical before. But then I was like, this is a scam.

Scott Pinkmountain

Because of Schandra's reaction, Baker decided to hold off sending a drawing. Schandra saw an obvious link. They'd both been collected by Charles Saatchi. Maybe Benjamin was just combing the Saatchi website looking for artists to write to. It makes sense. It would be an easy way to find artists whose work was potentially valuable.

Schandra Singh

After I found out about this happening to someone else, I was like, this has to stop. This is wrong. And what this man is potentially doing, if it is the Saatchi website that he's getting the artists from, is that if he writes to, say, 500 artists, and only 100 artists respond with a drawing-- that drawing I gave him is valued somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000.

The drawing that my friend would have given him might have been valued even higher, $4,000. He's got a $100,000 art collection. And getting the Saatchi artists to do it means that a majority of those drawings or those works are going to actually rise in price. So if he holds onto it for 30 years, he could have a $1 million art collection. It's, like, crazy.

Scott Pinkmountain

Was any of it true, Schandra wondered. Was there even an autistic boy out there who loved her work?

Schandra Singh

I don't know what to say. But it's just-- I mean, the way that this could actually be real, I feel like you'd have to find the people and say what's going on here? And I don't think talking, either, and I don't think writing letters, and I don't think writing emails is going to find out. I think actually physically meeting the boy. I don't know.

Scott Pinkmountain

So I suppose that would be A right there. Shall we?

So feeling half like Geraldo Rivera and half like I'd just conned This American Life myself, I boarded a plane to London to either catch an international art thief or meet the loving father of an autistic teenage artist.

I thought requesting an interview over email or telephone would just give this guy a chance to turn me down. This American Life producer Jonathan Menjivar joined me there. And on a freezing cold Sunday afternoon, we went to the address that had been included in the letters to both Schandra and Baker.

[KNOCKING]

Scott Pinkmountain

Hi.

I have to stop the tape right here. A woman answered the door, told us she didn't want to be recorded, asked us who we were and why we were there. She told us to go away.

She said she smelled a rat. We left our phone number and figured Benjamin would never call us, that we'd flown all the way to London for nothing. And then, in less than two hours, we were stunned when he called and even more stunned when he agreed to let us come over.

Benjamin

I'm Scott.

Scott Pinkmountain

Hi, Scott. This is--

Jonathan Menjivar

Hi. I'm Jonathan. It's nice to meet you.

Benjamin

Is that recording?

Jonathan Menjivar

It is recording.

Benjamin

Can you turn it off for us?

Jonathan Menjivar

Sure. Sure.

Benjamin

Come on in. Come.

Scott Pinkmountain

Benjamin greeted us at the door to his home and let us in. He's a tall black man, about 40. He was in socks and a sweater. The place was modest.

We entered the living room, and the woman who'd answered the door earlier, who turned out to be Benjamin's wife, was in one corner. A boy who was introduced to us as their younger son was on the couch playing a video game. There was no sign of Anthony. But I also didn't feel comfortable asking where he was right off the bat.

We thought maybe the house would be packed with drawings and paintings by artists that Benjamin had written to. But there was no art on the walls. Instead, there were nails and hooks where things appeared to usually hang.

Without any prompting, Benjamin explained they were in the middle of renovation, so they took everything down. There was tape around the edge of some of the windows, and the room smelled faintly of paint. We sat down, and Benjamin asked a lot of questions, what our motivation was, who this was for. Were we going to edit and manipulate the tape? Then he said OK, and then we started. I asked him to explain what's going on.

Benjamin

Well, you know, from my perspective, Anthony is autistic. And he's got a gift, in my opinion, for art. Now, regarding contact with other artists, from my understanding, there's a tradition of artists exchanging works.

They exchange works left, right, and center. Internationally, there's this constant swapping of art, you know? So we're not doing anything different from what they're doing amongst themselves.

It's just that, probably, we're breaking into their circle in an unconventional manner. Now, who's this dude? He's written to that person and that person and that, but who is he? Is he real? Is he some fiction? Is he some big scam? And he's real.

Scott Pinkmountain

Yeah, I mean what would you say to that? Is Anthony real?

Benjamin

Of course, Anthony's real. Yeah, he's real. Yeah, he's absolutely real.

Scott Pinkmountain

Benjamin said, you'll get to see him. And we realized, oh, he's actually here in the house somewhere, though Benjamin didn't seem to be in a hurry to go get him. And before we had a chance to ask, Benjamin made it clear he wasn't going to let us speak to Anthony.

We wouldn't be able to talk to him directly about these art trades. Benjamin later explained Anthony has trouble in social situations and especially with communication. He said it was best to speak on his son's behalf. We asked Benjamin how many artists he'd written to the way he'd written to Schandra and Baker. He wouldn't say.

Scott Pinkmountain

How many artists have you contacted or communicated with about this?

Benjamin

How many artists have spoken to you about it?

Scott Pinkmountain

A couple.

Benjamin

Well, off the top of my head, I don't know. But let's just leave it at that.

Scott Pinkmountain

I mean, I guess--

Benjamin

Specific numbers, I don't know specific numbers. Well, we'll put it this way. There have been quite a few. Put it that way. There have been quite a few. But to give you a number off the top of my head, no. But there have been quite a few.

Scott Pinkmountain

Have quite a few responded by giving you drawings or paintings?

Benjamin

Well, I'm guessing if you guys flew in from New York, this is not just one or two drawings we're talking about. If you guys have come all the way from New York for this-- well, there's been quite a few. It's been quite a few. Put it that way.

Scott Pinkmountain

Are we talking like 10 or 100 or--

Baker Overstreet

Well, quite a few is what I will say.

Scott Pinkmountain

We were annoying. We were persistent. At one point, Benjamin looked around the living room and answered at least a little more fully.

Benjamin

If you take a look behind you, unfortunately, it was a blank wall. No, it's a blank wall. But you'll see there's some nails that we've put in. And it's because we've been painting.

And they're right up there, basically. Can you see? Can you acknowledge that you do see? You do see them. So, basically, we hang them up on the wall. I mean, over here, that's one work. That's another work.

Scott Pinkmountain

So we're looking at a blank wall here.

Benjamin

That's another work. It's a blank wall because we're painting. That's another work. That's another work. That's another one. That's another one. That's another one.

Scott Pinkmountain

There were maybe a dozen blank spots on the wall. Benjamin confirmed their collection was larger than that and added that they also change up what's hanging so the kids can appreciate different works. We asked for the names of the artists.

Benjamin either said he couldn't remember off the top of his head or he didn't want to violate their privacy. We asked to see Schandra's drawing. We wondered if he'd sold it. He went upstairs and was gone for a few minutes. Then he came back with the drawing. It was unframed.

Benjamin

Yeah, so this is it. We're going to have it framed and put it up eventually.

Scott Pinkmountain

We asked lots of other questions. Why was Benjamin's correspondence with different artists almost word for word the same? He said, it's just a formality. Why vary it?

We asked, how did Anthony find out about Schandra's work? Benjamin explained that when Anthony finds artists, well, obviously, there's some adult input. He said, I can't recall where we came across her wonderful work.

Did you learn about Schandra and Baker's work from the Saatchi website? He said he found Schandra's work online but wouldn't get more specific. Did Anthony really have a special response to Schandra's work? How do you know what he responds to?

Benjamin basically said a parent can just tell. Have you sold any of the work you've received? He replied that 99.99% of the collection is intact. After almost an hour of talking, my producer Jonathan cut in with this question.

Jonathan Menjivar

One of the possibilities, when you look at the situation, is that you're using his autism to collect art, that it is some version of a scam.

Benjamin

That's interesting you say. I mean, yeah, you could say that. That's one way of looking at it, absolutely. I mean, it's not a scam. Put it that way. And I would understand if people thought that. But it isn't a scam. It's just a simple love of art, you know? That's all it is. Yeah.

Scott Pinkmountain

At one point, Benjamin was explaining to us what Anthony's early drawings were like. He told us Anthony was obsessed with trains. And then Anthony just wandered into the room.

Benjamin

--trains to begin with. That's Anthony by the way.

Scott Pinkmountain

Here's one question we got a definitive answer to. Anthony is very real. He's a tall, broad shouldered teenager. He's 15 now.

He was barefoot, and I could see that a few of his toes and fingers were slightly malformed. He only kind of acknowledged us and went and sat beside his mother. I don't personally know much about autism, but Anthony appeared to have a disorder.

He spoke a few times but never to us directly. His speech was slow and hard to understand. Benjamin told us that their other son is also autistic. Benjamin mentioned that Anthony played piano. And when we finished our interview, they brought down Anthony's keyboard and set it on the table.

Anthony

I'm going to play rap.

Benjamin

You want to play rap?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Scott Pinkmountain

I'm a musician myself, and I've heard hundreds of piano improvisations. Anthony's music had the kind of spaciousness, repetition, and tiny deviations of some of my favorite avant-garde music. It was both thoughtful and intuitive, strangely confident and vulnerable at the same time. I was hearing something unique.

I was really conflicted. I liked the family. They'd let us into their home and offered as tea and tolerated our questions. I believed that these were two parents who care deeply for their children.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Benjamin

Wow, I'm going to clap for that.

[APPLAUSE]

Scott Pinkmountain

Bravo.

Benjamin

What was that piece, Anthony? I couldn't tell it.

Anthony

I'm really [INAUDIBLE] Antipop Consortium.

Benjamin

Oh, OK. Thank you.

Anthony

It's from [INAUDIBLE].

Benjamin

OK. I'm going to let him go.

Scott Pinkmountain

Thank you so much.

Benjamin

Thank you very much.

Scott Pinkmountain

When I got home, Benjamin finally gave me the names of a few artists who've collaborate with Anthony. I was able to reach three of them. They'd all gotten letters similar to Schandra's saying, I have an autistic son who's fallen in love with your art. Two of them got chocolates.

The only artist I spoke to who actually met Benjamin and Anthony was Tillman Kaiser. They showed up at his gallery show in London last summer. He was also the only one who was able to address our biggest question, the thing we couldn't figure out at Benjamin's. Was Anthony truly engaged with the art his dad was exposing him to?

Tillman Kaiser

He was standing in front of the canvasses and sculptures and had a look. And I really had the impression that he enjoyed meeting me. And he seemed to be quite interested in the paintings and looked at them one by one.

Scott Pinkmountain

Tillman said Anthony even made up his own titles for a couple paintings.

Tillman Kaiser

"Elephant Ears." And the other one, he called it "Drug Addiction." I mean, I think it's totally weired what they're doing. But I don't want to judge them, you know? I don't want to say they do bad things.

Scott Pinkmountain

Finally, I met again with Schandra and told her what I'd learned, that Anthony does exist, that he probably has some disorder, that Benjamin seems to be collecting from quite a few artists. She was torn.

Schandra Singh

It's like on the one hand, it's really wonderful. I wish maybe it would have been-- I guess, wish that maybe it would have been proposed to me that we have this autistic child, he really responds to art, we're amassing a collection of art for him to learn from, to be inspired from, to realize his own talents. It would be so special if we could do a trade with you, because we know he loves your work. Like, all these things maybe would have helped me kind of understand, as opposed to writing an email saying, you're the one that moves Anthony.

Scott Pinkmountain

And what if that's totally authentic?

Schandra Singh

Well, I mean, I think it's a wonderful story then, that he's wanting to do all of this for his children. But it's just like, why did Baker and I feel so awkward when we found out that we both got asked the same thing? Why did we both think it was so much about us, you know?

Scott Pinkmountain

So yes, Schandra thinks Benjamin could be more transparent with the artists he's contacting. But I agree, if he's doing this for his kids, that's a wonderful story. It's optimistic. And so many artists are optimists.

Proof? Schandra's friend Baker, hearing what we discovered in London, still wants to send Anthony a drawing. Two of the other artists I'd spoke to, artists who'd sent Anthony their work, were totally OK with what Benjamin's doing.

And if there's one thing I've learned from this experience it's that, man, artists are an easy mark, because it's so obvious what they want. They want to reach people. Otherwise, why show your art? Why be an artist?

So all you have to say is, I'm moved by what you do, or my kid is moved by what you do. So many artists are like, you want to pay me? Great.

But you say you love my work? Even better. Let me send you some.

Ira Glass

Scott Pinkmountain is a composer and musician and writer in Pioneer Town, California. By the way, you can see some of Anthony's artwork at our website.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "LET ME MOVE YOU" BY JIMI HENDRIX]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien and me with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Alissa Shipp and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Phia Bennin.

Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson is our administrative assistant. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddes.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss Mr. Torey Malatia.

You know, I have asked him so many times over the years, over and over. And every time I get the same answer. I ask him, Torey, how many women have you slept with?

Benjamin

Quite a few, of course. Put it that way. There's been quite a few. But, you know, to give you a number off the top of my head, no. But there have been quite a few.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC PLAYING -"LET ME MOVE YOU" BY JIMI HENDRIX]

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.