Archive for category Ethics
I wrote the following letter to my University of Colorado photojournalism students after two weeks of relentless coverage of that story.
Though it wasn’t the first, 20 years ago it seemed like it should be the last. Columbine started a cycle that unfortunately we don’t appear brave enough to stop. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days thinking of the families who let me deep into their fear and grief to photograph. We all shared a conviction that understanding this pain could bring and end to violence like this. I wish with all my being that it had.
May 4, 1999
Two weeks ago a horde descended upon Clement Park to cover the massacre at Columbine High School. There bereaved families and students found themselves face-to-face with more camera operators than I have seen anywhere, and that collision created a perfect laboratory for us to look at ourselves, the job we do and how the public reacts to our work.
Today was an interesting day for it seems to be the end of the initial media blitz. Monday tornadoes ravaged Oklahoma, killing an estimated 45 people. Off to the next disaster raced most of the out-of-towners, leaving Clement park to the curious visitors and shocked citizens that flock there daily.
Up through yesterday the public’s perception of the media had been steadily sliding downhill. The situations I’ll describe here are not the only reasons for the public disgust and distrust of the media. We’ve been building up public exhaustion with our behavior for years. The Columbine massacre just handily lays it all out before us.
The day this tragedy happened I raced out the door like all the other journalists in town and what I encountered near the scene of the shooting shook me. I spent that afternoon at an elementary school near Columbine where worried parents congregated in wait for their children. Their faces were a terrible sight. The radio and TV were reporting up to 25 dead, making the odds that their children had been injured or killed very real.
That’s a tough situation to photograph. Standing near someone that horrified and frightened makes my camera weigh a thousand pounds. People reacted to me in varying ways — some not noticing me at all, others seeming to understand why I was there. I was also scolded by one man who said, “get that camera out of my face.”
I waited a minute for him to cool down, and apologized to him.
Initially the media who were there acted as part of the scene. I loaned my cell phone out to at least five parents or grandparents. I was constantly asked for updates, and I gave as much information as I could as graciously as possible. I handed out business cards, encouraging anyone to call if they had any questions at all. Later I did get a call from a pair of parents who when I last saw them on that day still hadn’t found their children. They thanked me for my concern and help at the scene, and happily told me their kids were safe.
But as the numbers of photographers increased, the separation between the subjects and the journalists grew. Crying children hid behind their friends and families. A few cursed the cameras. More photographers arrived, some greeting each other with back slaps and smiles. Some bragged about the “great pictures” they had gotten.
I stood and watched with the worried families. How callous that seems to someone in trouble — to see the media react to it as if it were just another excuse to exploit misery for ratings and contests and profit.
I know both sides of that story, though. I think the photographers there who did act that way were just blocking out the horror of the situation in a convenient way. Many of us do that after a few too many troubling scenes. We make the camera a block against reality and shoot pictures as if it were all a play laid out for us to photograph.
We in the media desperately need to realize that our subjects are watching us, too. We must behave in a sensitive manner around the grief-stricken. We need to show that we care and that we do this job because the public cares. We must be ambassadors.
At too many funerals I have seen photographers and videographers arrive in shorts and T-shirts as if they were at a baseball game. Being behind a camera does not mean we are separate from the scene. On the contrary, big equipment and tripods make us stand out like nothing else can.
Please be professionals. Dress for the situation. Wear a tie. Don’t march around with cigarettes dangling from your lips, or worse yet, with a huge dip of Skoal under your lip. If we expect the respect of our subjects, our viewers, and the public that grants us the rights on which we operate, we must be respectful to them.
Please never forget as you enter the working world of journalism that it is the First Amendment under which we operate. But free speech is not a right held too dear by much of the public. In their view, free speech is fine as long as it doesn’t speak badly about them. Free speech is dandy unless they find it offensive in any way.
The only example we need to see is the persistent attempts at a constitutional amendment against flag burning. Why do politicians brandish that idea about so often even if they don’t believe it would be constitutional? Because the public finds the burning of a flag deeply offensive even if it is free speech.
We must deal with our subjects honestly and fairly. We cannot be lazy with the facts. We must maintain the trust of the public we serve. As a journalist I am as afraid of suddenly being the subject of a news story (again) as I am afraid of an IRS audit. That isn’t because I have anything to hide or be ashamed of. Based on experiences on both sides of the act of journalism, I fear that the truth would not be properly portrayed. I fear that I would be a sound bite or quote delivered in a careless context.
On the second day of coverage of the Columbine story it was evident the community was already tired of the growing horde of journalists. At memorial services bands of parishioners began to form human walls even though the media were still being remarkably well-behaved at that point. The consequences of our voraciousness were becoming evident.
At Clement park, many mourners and groups of students were outnumbered by the media everywhere they went. The week wore on and anyone with any shaky connection to the event had been telephoned relentlessly, badgered at the door or offered large sums of money to appear on questionable TV shows.
I’ve heard of two disturbing incidents (surely there are more) — one in which one photographer laid on the ground in the middle of a huddle of crying Columbine students, blasting up at their bowed heads with a flash. In another tale, a photographer chases a disturbed, crying subject down the street, blasting away with a camera.
What must be the public perception of this behavior? Do they see our actions in the field as separate from the final product they see on the TV screen or in print? I think yes. Clement park is a wondrous, sprawling example of that. It is the media that has drawn all those people to send offerings from across the country, or to bring their children to lay flowers or teddy bears on the ever-expanding mounds.
The satellite trucks have made the area the epicenter of grief. We draw them with our images, but they are taken aback when our cameras flash in their tearing eyes. To the public our product is separate from our work.
It is unfortunate that the public misunderstands the concept of privacy. I have long wished that every citizen understood that when they are in a public place they don’t have “privacy.” But the public feels that the right to privacy is something more akin to “the right to be left alone.” This is the only way I can explain why people would flock to a place surrounded by satellite trucks to grieve, and be angry when a camera pops up in front of them.
Saturday an estimated 7,000 people crowded the west steps of the state capitol to protest the NRA’s annual meeting in Denver. Fewer journalists were on hand to cover the event, already more than a week after the shooting. A grieving Columbine father spoke, followed by a family who had lost a son in a shooting. During one father’s speech a counter-protestor was pushed to the ground in a scuffle not far the podium. Most of the photojournalists, all doing their job by capturing a potentially explosive situation, turned away for a few seconds to photograph police dragging the counter-protestor away.
The speaker bemoaned the press for “scrambling to photograph that,” rather than pay attention to him. The crowd erupted in a cheer that gave me a chill. None of the photographers had done anything less than their job in that case, but the giant crowd showed immediately how uncomfortable they were with our actions in general. And surely most of the crowd realizes that without media coverage of the rally, it would have no effect beyond their ranks. They needed us there.
Monday the students of Columbine High returned to classes at a nearby school. As Chatfield students left to make way for the Columbine kids, they passed the small row of journalists reporting from across the street. Insults were hurled from car windows by students who hadn’t even been involved in the incident. A small army of parents stood on the school’s side of the road to chase away any journalists who wished to cross. Another group gave out fliers to Columbine students advising them of their “rights with the press.”
We are shooting ourselves in the foot with our own behavior. Competition for ratings, or circulation, or publication fees makes many journalists forget about the consequences of their actions. Sensationalist coverage breeds more disgust, reduces the public trust and hurts us again.
A touching moment happens in a park full of journalists and the dog pile begins. A Current Affair makes more money when people watch its sensational coverage, and other TV outlets feel the need to follow suit in pursuit of profit. Freelance photographers trip over each other chasing tears, stake out offenders’ homes, and badger neighbors only on the odd chance that they’ll make a few extra bucks.
This profession is not about money nor about winning contests. Journalism is about telling stories — carefully and professionally. If what you do in journalism ever becomes about money, find another career that will make more money for you. If what you do in journalism ever becomes about getting a picture or quote regardless of the effects on the innocent, find another career where you’re less likely to hurt someone.
This is not about money.
This is not about winning contests.
Causing pain or anger in the undeserving is not worth a picture or a sound bite with a news life of one day or less. Angering Pol Pot by brashly making a picture is one thing, angering and aggravating the innocent is another.
In the eyes of the media Columbine is now an old story. There are 45 new victims to cover in another state thanks to Mother Nature. Those journalists have raced off to that story leaving all the baggage of this one behind them, yet the families of the victims, their friends and classmates will be stuck with this story for the rest of their lives.
Please, as you enter the working world, think about what your subjects are seeing in you, and what they will remember about their experience with you after the flood lights have moved on. We need the support of the public to do our jobs well. We need the support of the public to guard our first amendment rights.
Journalism is a profession. Any field associated with that term bears a responsibility to the public — the medical profession, the legal profession, the education profession. From time to time we have the responsibility to expose the guilty with all our investigative talents. But we also have the responsibility to treat the innocent fairly and with careful, respectful consideration.
Let’s guard our professionalism. Know where that line falls.
By the time the Aurora theater and Arapaho High School shootings struck my city of Denver, I no longer accepted assignments to cover mass murder. A churn in my stomach stopped me.
I covered my first mass shooting as a photojournalist in 1991: Two suburban Florida families were executed on the same night, likely by the same killers. I covered extrajudicial executions, drug gang slayings and police raids on slums in Brazil. I scrambled to two mass shootings on the same day at separate Colorado churches and aimed my lens at the physical and emotional devastation of their communities. By far the most affecting was the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. I was on the scene with my cameras as it happened and on that unstoppable story for two years after.
Then at 9:27a.m. on May 25, 2018, I, my wife and all the other parents of my stepson’s Noblesville, Indiana, middle school received the following text message:
“Shots have been reported at West middle school. Reports of one injury. Police are onsite and school is on lockdown. Stand by for more info.”
I grabbed my camera bag because I sensed that the scuffed and worn camera gear would get me closer to my stepson. To the first responders I would look like I belonged at the scene. I could scan through my longest lens for Callum’s face.
Empathy is a key to successful photojournalism. I had imagined being in this situation every time I photographed someone actually in it. I needed to put myself in in the shoes of the subject before I could know what fleeting emotion, glance, expression or light to capture. This time I wasn’t empathizing. I was living it. To not know if a child you love is safe, to not know where he is, to not be able to soothe or protect him is terrifying.
I photographed as I searched, out of recognition of the dizzying fear and shock on the faces in front of me. The earth was being torn out from under us. I was photographing my reflection.
I finally saw Callum with my own eyes three hours later, through the tinted window of an evacuation school bus. I photographed him scrambling past military-armed police to enter the nearby high school gym. His mother waited there with hundreds of other stunned parents.
Through all of this I had not thought as a journalist. The images I made were loose frames captured reflexively rather than attentively. I hadn’t collected IDs of the subjects. After I saw Callum with my own eyes, 30 years of journalism experience turned on. I was angry, shocked, disgusted and I wanted to fight back. The tool I had for that was the photographs I had made.
My first call was to the New York Times, the client for whom I had photographed almost a thousand other stories. The email response was polite, expressed condolences that it had happened at my kid’s school, and declined the images. For the Times this would stay a short story on the web with a wire photo. That was all.
Journalists use the fatality statistics of mass shootings as shorthand for scale. This number is how we have come to compare events like Parkland, Florida, or the Pulse nightclub shootings with this one at Noblesville West Middle School. I stared at that e-mail, angry and incredulous. Mass shootings are now so commonplace that a high fatality count is the measure of newsworthiness. This shooting, according to CNN, was the 23rd such event of 2018, happening in the 21st week.
I knew from living within this story that the more than 5,000 people directly connected to this school would never be the same. One 13-year-old girl was shot seven times, in the face, neck and torso, before her science teacher took three bullets tackling the armed classmate. Both are alive and recovering. The child shooter awaits trial as a juvenile on attempted murder and battery charges.
Fatalities are unquestionably horrible. Those of us on the periphery can only imagine the emotions and pain suffered by the families at the center of the act. But being both the subject of this story and a journalist covering it made strikingly clear how our focus on the fatalities alone unwittingly leads to the ignoring of the larger emotional damage.
I observed this after Columbine, where the focus of reporting was first on the shooters and their parents, then the 13 fatalities and their families. The 24 injured students and their difficult recoveries received far less attention, and the city of Littleton was only covered as a hotbed of suburban dysfunction. Already by the next morning those of us covering the story could feel a palpable chill from the community for doing a job we considered important: to understand the tragedy, its causes and consequences.
At the time, this chill seemed to me to be solely the result of a few journalists behaving insensitively and aggressively in pursuit of the scoop. Now, as a member of a community that has also been forcibly ejected from its sense of self, I better understand the chill that borders on hostility. We do not want our friends and neighbors exploited for ratings or clicks. We want you to understand that the thousands of seemingly unaffected people on the edge of the story are also the walking wounded.
In 2016 and 2017, the FBI reports, there were 50 active shooter incidents in 21 states. In those events 221 people were killed and 722 injured — more than three times as many injuries as fatalities. To add the wider affected communities would raise those numbers to the hundreds of thousands, yet we scale shooter events by the fatalities as we add to the ever-growing list.
I was angry that an event I was so closely living would get limited national coverage. But my awareness of the role journalism likely plays in how these events are inspired also shortened my breath that day. Had my diligent, empathetic and careful coverage of Columbine for the New York Times contributed directly to a shooter opening fire in my own stepson’s school? Sue Klebold, mother of one of the Columbine shooters, argues that this may be the case.
Five days later the New York Times published a story on the “seemingly contagious” nature of school shootings. It features a disturbing slideshow of images — many of them my own — identifying the visual vernacular of mass shooting photojournalism. “The phenomenon (of school shootings) is feeding on itself,” psychologist Peter Langman told the Times. “It’s gaining momentum, and the more there are, the more there will be.” In one paper, Langman mapped the influence of the Columbine shooters through a cascade of the style trappings they inspired in others. “We don’t do this intentionally, but we glorify shooters by showing the damage they’ve done — all the crying, all the empty seats — and for people with rage that has a particular appeal for them,” Klebold also told the Times.
I had heard her observations several times before, and as I scrambled to get my pictures into publication on May 25 her sentiment gnawed at my gut. Was my son’s school paying the price for my own coverage of Columbine 19 years earlier? What if the work good photojournalists do to show the human toll of these events was fueling disturbed young men to repeat the Columbine shooters’ actions and bring glory to their own suicides? For decades we avoided coverage of suicide due to its correlated contagiousness.
Our coverage has led, positively, to such movements as Never Again MSD and has fueled and informed political and social debate for more than 20 years. We now better understand what drives these events, who may be likely to aim a firearm at classmates, coworkers or the other, and how to better react as a community when they do. Noblesville West Middle School and the community surrounding it handled the event and its aftermath with far more expertise than any other shooting I covered.
Despite those better outcomes, a debate over a fundamental change in news coverage of mass shootings appears in the pages of journalism professional publications since at least 2015: Should we publish the names and faces of shooters? Criminologists have argued for a decade longer that this contributes to a contagion effect, and the data they use to support the argument are compelling.
Prior to reading these arguments I, like many of my journalism contemporaries, would argue that the name is fact No. 1 in reporting. “Who” starts that familiar list of interrogatives. When two decades of my photojournalism students turned in photographs without IDs, I would flunk their assignment for failure to get the most basic fact. USA Today argued the same in a 2015 editorial. While acknowledging the contagion effect and the need for compassion for victims and their families, that editorial most strenuously argued that withholding names might lead to censorship or a violation of the public’s right to know.
However, these arguments put journalistic dogma before the thoughtful pursuit of professionalism. There are many precedents for journalists withholding unnecessary information, from FDR’s wheelchair to our decades-long avoidance of suicide and bomb threat coverage. We often use our journalistic dogma for good — to argue a first amendment right, to limit undue influence from the outside, to lend voice to the voiceless. But like all dogma, ours is also used as a lazy excuse for not thinking hard enough about what we do. We work too often on autopilot, arriving at the events, collecting facts, quotes and images, and publishing them simply because that’s what we’ve always done. The profession of journalism is far too important to not have constant reevaluation of practice, motive and ethics.
Other researchers argue that the media plays far less of a role than before or that campaigns like #NoNotoriety oversimplify a complex issue. But as a profession, we need to do better.
Professional journalists show their values through their actions. Ignoring a data-supported public concern on behalf of an aphorism like “the public right to know” appears to put our internal needs or wishes above those of the public we serve. Though anyone with web access may find a shooter’s name, it wouldn’t be us delivering it, repeating it and adding to his fame.
Journalism is far from easy. It relies on an instinct about when to put a neighbor’s pain on display for a greater cause of public safety or to fuel the fight against injustice or terror. The practice of journalism must constantly be rethought, however, balancing tradition and experience with the constant evolution of the world we cover.
A few days after the shooting, my wife and I found ourselves at a school lunchroom table with other parents. None of their children had been in the room and all were physically safe. Yet tears streamed down the faces of sleepless, stressed, unable-to-work parents lucky enough to mourn only the loss of a sense of security. They had lived too close of a call to quickly step back into their prior lives. We were all enormously fortunate — we didn’t have to bury anyone, sit beside a hospital bed for weeks, help a child through the intense counseling required after witnessing a horror.
We will recover, but we want you to understand that we exist.
This article originally appeared in the Poynter Institute’s daily newsletter on October 18, 2018.
I first published this post on the tenth anniversary of the Columbine shootings. It’s been rolling around among the knots in my stomach today, after a yet more devastating and senseless shooting in metro Denver. I am rerunning these events in my head once again.
April 20, 2009
Here is a professional truth:
We carry every story, good and bad, with us. It’s the result of the empathy we need to do our journalism job fully. All the good journalists I know feel their stories to the bone despite professional detachment and analytical scrutiny.
Today is the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, the story that has followed me most intensely for a decade. I write this exactly ten years after Eric and Dylan went bowling.
My career has been filled with wonderful stories. I have been overwhelmed by fascination and joy, happiness and friendship. My life has been changed for the better by most of my subjects. The good has outnumbered the bad by tenfold.
I have also seen horrors beyond Columbine. I’ve tiptoed around the bodies left by drug gangs and corrupt cops in Rio, looked into the eyes of sudden widow in India, and faced the grief of the family members of the Oklahoma City bombing. I’ve listened quietly to people tell me of personal losses and fears, and I have seen the aftermath of scores of fatal crashes and deadly fires.
That’s the job.
And though we feel all these things, you would have to add up the background pain of a hundred journalists to equal that of any of the victims of an act as senseless and violent as Columbine.
Not long after the event my colleagues at the university wisely took the opportunity to discuss stress and trauma issues among journalists. It’s a valuable discussion. But at the time it smacked of too much self pity to me. By comparison to our subjects, I felt, our pain was trivial. But trivial as it may be, I now look back on how that story changed me. I have yet more empathy for the victims in any story.
For them multiply what I experience by 100.
I felt the first blow of the story days after photographing the tortured faces of terrified parents and shell-shocked students. On my way out of a big public memorial service the weekend after the shooting I came across the first paramedic team on the scene. The small group stood under an umbrella at the back of the huge crowd — not in a place of honor as I would have hoped. There gazing blankly at the space above the stage were the men and women who held the dead, dying and injured.
I snapped two poorly composed frames, crumpled to my knees and sobbed for five minutes. I gathered my wits and went off to develop film and send my images to New York.
I am sure that catharsis helped me get through the next months of covering the story again and again, listening to the harrowing details from survivors and steeling myself to the growing hostility from the larger community.
That hostility is another difference from all the other stories I’ve covered. Our heavy presence, rush to deadlines and competitive streaks left a foul taste in the mouths of anyone who watched it happen. Within days the surrounding community, which had no connection to the story beyond proximity, let its discomfort with our process be known.
In a few cases we deserved it. Our behavior was terrible in spots, and all it takes is one nasty action to create a rumor, a stereotype, an expectation. But all the good and sensitive journalistic behavior I saw was trumped by the bad.
Not only was this story tough in subject matter, but we had a very tense relationship with the subjects.
All these emotions well up in me at every subsequent Columbine stop — the funerals, the shot-up school tours, the exhibition of the weapons, the ticking anniversaries. It caught me this year as I heard the father of victim Rachel Scott speak about his daughter.
The reactions vary, from a jaw clenched to soreness, to sleepless nights like last night. But my expectations of subjects have also changed.
In August 2007 I was in Price, Utah, to cover the ongoing tragedy of the collapse of the Crandall Canyon Mine. My jaw clenches now whenever I imagine covering a community struck by tragedy. I wrongly anticipate excessive resistance if not outright hostility.
I walked out of my motel room on the first morning I was on the story to find a new tire flat. I looked around it and found no nails, no holes. Rather than my assumption being that a seal or a valve had broken, I instantly jumped to the completely irrational conclusion that someone in town had taken it upon themselves to go empty a few tires in the lot of one of the journalist motels.
I was, of course, wrong. And, despite losing nine local miners and rescue workers, the community was no more difficult to interact with than any other.
Over all the other tragedies I’ve seen, perhaps it is because Columbine was so senseless and unexpected that it has stayed with me. Drug wars in Rio and untimely death in India can unfortunately be expected. Crashes and fires happen every day. In 1999 a school shooting in an affluent suburb with such a toll of dead and injured was not expected. Unfortunately now stories like that are just another part of the tragedy landscape.
Again, all of this reaction is trivial by comparison to the victims, or to those who have seen mountains of tragedy.
To see and hear the tales of journalists really haunted by what they have covered, watch in “Dying to Tell the Story” Don McCullin’s thousand-yard stare as he describes his war-dead subjects climbing out of his film filing cabinets at night and walking the halls of his English country home.
And listen to Paul Watson in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross describe his inner conversations with Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland, the dead man he photographed being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
My point is not to show obsession with my reactions to one story. It is to make clear that no matter what stories we cover, we carry them with us forever after.
This is one of those terms you’ve heard before, but might not have ever gotten to fully understand. It is what it sounds like — thoughts out of tune. More particularly, it is the feeling we get when our thoughts, beliefs and morals clash with our actions. It’s that uncomfortable feeling we have after we buy something we really couldn’t afford, or do something we know we shouldn’t do.
As adaptable beings we dispatch that feeling with justifications. “I really need that new [insert toy name here] even though I ain’t got the cash, and here’s why…” Aesop had a good fable that fit this too. A fox sees some grapes hanging too high to reach. After trying to get them and failing, he struts off arguing to himself that they must not have been worth eating. It’s where the old “sour grapes” saying comes from. We are also prone to justify away the dissonance we would otherwise feel when we take a shortcut we know we should not take.
In journalism justifications like that pop up frequently to argue why something considered unethical should be seen as okay “under the circumstances.” You’ve heard them: “magazines are different from newspapers” or “the cover is an advertisement” to explain away a breach of journalism ethics. Our ethics should determine our actions, of course. But there seems to be an unending stream of ways journalists justify letting their actions determine their ethics. Neither market forces, ease nor style should trump ethics in the images we produce or how we use them. If we act like we are delivering truthful information, then we must follow through on that promise.
It happens among photojournalists more often than we might think. We pay a lot of attention to the egregious breaches of our ethics: major alterations, serious cases of reenactment or direction of what would appear to be a spontaneous moment. But as professionals who document reality we need to stay aware of how we might let convenience, competition, drive for a style or a wish for the approval of an editor or producer affect our work. This can come down to many of the mundane tasks we perform in our work, including — to pick only one example — things like toning an image.
There’s a difference between choosing a moment of perfect light and color that actually existed and fixing dull light to make it more dramatic in a photo. We like dramatic images. They attract reader interest, appeal to editors and feel satisfying to us. But isn’t the satisfaction and pride much stronger when we took the time and energy to seek out the light and color rather than pumping it up with software tools? And isn’t it simply more honest?
Our talent — the one that separates us from all the other flavors of photographer — is that we capture reality quickly and delicately and without influence. It is an incredible skill that takes great attention and effort to develop. We take pride in our ability to think and act quickly and to know the story as we are seeing it happen. We slice telling moments out of the unstoppable flow of time, and when we miss, we miss.
Photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson said, is “…an immediate sketch, done with intuition, and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it, it’s the next picture. Life is very fluid, and, well, sometimes the picture has disappeared and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, ‘oh, please smile again, do that gesture again.’ Life is once, forever.”
Having made all that effort to catch the decisive moment without any before- or after-the-fact fixing, why would we let any overrated sense of market pressure discredit that work? Look again at Cartier-Bresson’s images in which the moment and geometry are so perfect that trivial stylistics like color and contrast don’t matter at all.
I am not making an excuse to shroud dull images in a cloak of ethics. Our challenge is to find the impressive image in any circumstance — no matter how colorless or flat in light — without needing to embellish it after the fact. We do that by skillfully getting to the right place at the right time to capture true storytelling images and minimizing our influence on a scene.
If any of our actions need a justification to exempt them from our core ethical standards, then those actions need to be reconsidered. It is our ethics that must determine our actions, not the converse.
For an entertaining and disturbing look at cognitive dissonance at work in the cable TV world, have a listen to radio producer Rebecca Hertz’ piece on how process trumped ethics in the production of a reality TV show, for NPR’s Snap Judgement. In the show segment she compares the experience of the producers and participants to the Stanford Prison Experiment of the 1970s.
This year in the World Press Photo Awards an honorable mention was awarded to Michael Wolf, a prior World Press award-winner from Germany. Wolf’s entry this year was for a series of photographs made of the screen of his computer as he explored Google’s Street View, a service in which automated cameras mounted on vehicles trawl the world to present the street in virtual space.
The debate over the award (as is often the case with World Press Photo) is interesting to read.
The criticisms ring with complaints that they are not his pictures, that it wasn’t him standing there slicing those moments from time, that he’s not out in the world struggling with the rest of us.
These criticisms are a bit navel-gazing in that they are mostly about how we define ourselves as photojournalists, not in how we define what photojournalism does. The boys at dvafoto have an excellent post on these points. You can see Wolf’s comments and thinking in an interview in the British Journal of Photography.
Photojournalism (and photography in general) has a long history of overvaluing process when the only thing that matters is the result. What really matters to the reader? The process or the picture? The complaints smell a bit of “you took the easy way out.” That’s not a legitimate argument.
I don’t specifically care that Wolf chose to use the automated, surveillant and serendipitous cameras of Google. I also would not care had he used screen grab software rather than a camera to make the pictures. Using the camera here just smells of a strange justification and trying to find a way to make himself the photographer. The result is the same as a cropped screen grab but with lower quality. And as others have pointed out, screen grabs from surveillance cameras or TV have been published alongside what we consider “real photojournalism” for a very long time. (A notable difference is that these sorts of images have not won photojournalism awards in the past that I know of. Correct me in comments if I’m wrong.)
Wolf’s collection of images is fascinating, powerful, opinionated, curious and somewhat addictive. I like them very much. They are art as Girl Talk’s remixes or John Cage’s Chance Music are art. But they are not photojournalism. By presenting this work with a venerable photojournalism award, the World Press Photo jurors have declared them photojournalism, even when Wolf himself apparently does not.
My argument against these images as photojournalism is over the lack of context. As photojournalists we all know how critical it is not only to understand how an image we make or publish would be read, but also what the circumstances are surrounding those images so we can correctly inform the reader. We’ve all made photos sliced out of air that without context might mean something entirely different than the story we were there to tell. In our outtakes we all have images that might accidentally lie, and as photojournalists we have the responsibility to make sure those don’t see the light of day as journalism.
What is happening in these images? We can assume, but we cannot know. Wolf can assume, but he cannot know. He was not there to see the moment unfold and interpret its meaning. He could not follow up with the subjects to clarify what just happened.
Wolf uses the term “curate” to describe these images, and I think that is closer, but still not correct. He is collecting things out of context and interpreting them from personal experience, but not the background information. A curator has context and background from the maker of the images. Wolf lacks even that. An editor of photojournalism should also gather the background and context from the photographer/witness before publishing. Wolf can’t (realistically) do that either.
Our job is an imperfect one. We inevitably contextualize important events through the filters of our own eyes, our own lives and our own experiences. But we should do the same through the objective circumstances of the scene. It is the valiant effort to understand the scenes we photograph that makes us journalists. It is not the process we use to capture the images.
World Press Photo’s jurors surely knew this would be a controversial award. I find nothing wrong with Wolf’s work other than the label put on it by the jurors of the contest and by Wolf in entering it there. There are many appropriate venues and labels for “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” but Press Photo is not one.
I was walking on a beach in northeastern Brazil several years ago, taking a few hours break from an assignment there for the New York Times. I was in the middle of a rough patch in my personal life and the stream of thoughts and imagined conversations was rolling so fast I actually forgot where I was and what I was doing.
I stopped, looked down at the sand, and watched — straining to turn off that stream of words and just see what was below my feet. I was in an amazing place, covering a wonderful story. And I was forgetting to be there and savor it.
When I let my thoughts return, it wasn’t about what was happening in my personal life. I realized that my images — whether personal or professional — were much more successful when I had been truly emotionally and personally present in the scene I was photographing.
We work in a medium that can either engage us with a subject in an intimate way or separate us from our subjects with a big mechanical device to hide behind.
There are several ways we should come out from behind that camera to be present.
That old photojournalism dictum of “250 at f/8 and be there” always applies of course. We do our jobs by getting to the scene above all other considerations.
But if we are mentally present — really seeing the subject — our compositions are better. If you are struggling to understand how Richard Kalvar constructs so many complex layers of action from a single fleeting moment or how Stephen Crowley sees amusing irony around him, then try to stop that inner narrative and just watch every corner of the frame.
We should also be present with our subjects as something of a collaborator.
It’s easy in an emotional scene to hide behind the camera and burst forth with streams of motor-driven frames as the key emotional moments reveal themselves. Those pictures can even be quite impressive. But few would say that this one-sided interaction with a subject is not predatory.
I once watched an intern for a local paper bound up to within inches of a crying subject who had just learned she and her family would not be receiving government aid for health problems resulting from work in a nuclear weapons plant. His pictures certainly conveyed emotion to the paper’s readers. But all the other photographers present wanted to chase him out of the room for wrecking the intimacy we had gently tried to build with the subjects.
No matter how we would like to be flies on a wall, we never are. We are the biggest presence in the room and almost always work with tacit cooperation of subjects. When we have that cooperation and intimacy, our pictures are more true, and the subjects take away with them a sense that we were there to understand them rather than just use them.
We also need to be present to understand ourselves and what we bring to that collaboration. Our mental state matters in how we see a subject, what we understand of that person, place or event, and what about it we relate to our readers.
Though true objectivity is impossible, we gain the trust of our readers by making the best, most valiant attempt to see a subject clearly. And when I leave my own baggage at home, my subjects let me deeper into their lives.
And lastly, we work in an amazing profession that takes us into the homes, offices and lives of fascinating people, to locations most only dream of visiting, and into the rarely seen inner workings of the world. Be present and enjoy it. Put down your camera and absorb where you are or who that person in front of you is.
If you seek in your images the complexity of Cartier-Bresson or Kalvar, the emotional intimacy of Krisanne Johnson or Paolo Pellegrin, the spiritual metaphor of Kathryn Cook or Michael Ackerman, or the joy and humor of Elliot Erwitt, then be there — 250 at f/8 or not.
Remember that you are here, now, and wherever or whatever that place is, you are exceptionally lucky and you may never get back there.
The following is a journal entry I love, from a day at the beginning of my freelance career in which I left the camera at home, stopped to breathe-in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and just watch. I smiled at the cinematic little ballet happening in front of me, glad for a change to not be distracted by trying to photograph it:
July 14, 1995
I stood at a corner in my neighborhood of Flamengo today, leaning for a moment against one of thousands of one-meter-tall concrete obelisks that line the sidewalks here to prevent space-frustrated drivers from parking their cars in the path of the wretched pedestrians.
I watched people pass.
Around the corner a woman begged, cradling a child on a blanket while her son of perhaps four years skipped among the pedestrians asking for a “trocadinho” — a bit of change.
An ancient woman struggled across Rua Senador Vergueiro on small deformed legs. She planted the cane carefully in front of herself and pried her way across the street with it. Half-way across, the light changed against her, but she held to her lever.
Impatient horns erupted from the line of cars who waited for her to move. The other cars, view blocked, honked at a cabby who defended himself with high-fisted protests. He waved back to the impatient to signal his innocence.
A tall, chivalrous-as-only-a-gentleman-can-be, old man with polar white hair and neat yellow pants rushed out and took her arm. They walked together like they were propping each other. The moment she cleared the cabby’s path by a hair he blasted forward around her.
The chivalrous old man deposited her on the other side of the street, and took the arm of yet another elderly woman. He helped her across the street in the opposite direction and kept going with her. I thought she must be his wife until she yanked herself loose in protest and turned up another direction on the sidewalk with a huff.
The helpful gentleman raised his palms to the air, incredulous at her lack of appreciation for his great knightly aid, and followed her for a moment with his gaze before he disappeared.
The first woman he helped never looked up from her path.
Rounding the corner on the curb to step out onto the perpendicular street, she dragged herself — a small grocery sack on one arm — against the traffic again. The cars waited until they could pass her without killing her, then broke loose like greyhounds.
She changed the hand her cane was in and reached out to the fender of a parked car. Her fingers stretched out for it. The car lingered just out of her grasp.
Her stride stopped completely, and she reached forward slowly — like honey dripping from a spoon. She teetered forward on her toes, and I got ready to catch her and the 2 liter bottle of Sprite hanging in a sack on her left arm.
Four or more people let out their breath when her fingers made contact and she pried her way past the car and onto the curb.
I turned back toward the other street.
A large delivery truck came through the intersection with a blue passenger door open slightly. It moved past me. The passenger hunched out of the door releasing his half-digested lunch to the pavement in heaving foul streams. He looked up between heaves with a pained grey face.
The light changed and two directions of traffic spread the bile in plaid patterns across the pavement.
I was unhappy to see today that Britain’s venerable Economist joined the ranks of other foolish magazines that unacceptably alter cover images.
Its June 19 cover features an image of Barack Obama in front of an offshore oil rig, looking as upset as Obama seems capable of looking. It’s a strong metaphor that fits their “Obama v BP” headline.
The problem is that there were two other people in the original Reuters image. And in seeing the whole frame Obama is not looking down in dismay. He’s gazing at cleanup materials at his feet or bending an ear to parish president Charlotte Randolph. The context for the downward gaze was entirely removed.
The criticism over the last two days has been justifiable, and the response from the editor in command as unjustifiable. Economist deputy editor Emma Duncan told the New York Times:
“I was editing the paper the week we ran the image of President Obama with the oil rig in the background. Yes, Charlotte Randolph was edited out of the image (Admiral Allen was removed by the crop). We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers.
“We often edit the photos we use on our covers, for one of two reasons. Sometimes — as with a cover we ran on March 27 on U.S. health care, with Mr. Obama with a bandage round his head — it’s an obvious joke. Sometimes — as with an image of President Chavez on May 15 on which we darkened the background, or with our “It’s time” cover endorsing Mr. Obama, from which the background was removed altogether — it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead.
“I asked for Ms. Randolph to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story. ‘The damage beyond the spill’ referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America.”
If I could bring her into my classes and ask her to comment on the alteration decision, I doubt she would survive long under questioning from students. I, like most of my colleagues, hope to train students beyond the simplistic “you just don’t do that” argument. Critical thinking is a key to good journalistic judgment, and rarely does the easy answer hold up.
Let’s look critically at Duncan’s reasoning.
1. “We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers.”
First, intent is not evident to a reader. Her lack of intent to make a political point is irrelevant. You lose any argument that a decision is apolitical as soon as an alteration is made, because why else would you alter history?
Second, a puzzled reader is a simple thing to overcome. As Wilson Hicks, the venerable editor of Life Magazine noted, it is the combination of words and pictures that most effectively communicates. Few if any journalism pictures can stand alone without a caption. More puzzling than a mysterious extra person is the choice to put a deceptive picture on the cover of one of journalism’s most esteemed publications. Why would she want to erode reader trust by changing what was before the camera?
2. “We often edit the photos we use on our covers, for one of two reasons. Sometimes — as with a cover we ran on March 27 on U.S. health care, with Mr. Obama with a bandage round his head — it’s an obvious joke.”
“Obvious” is the key there. Digital alterations of news images is a hot-button issue because as journalists we seek to not deceive readers. I frankly have no trouble with heavy-handed art made from news images in news publications as long as it is patently obvious to the average reader that the image has been rethought, combined with others or torqued beyond question. I have not seen that March 27 cover, but I would guess it is pretty clearly a digital mashup. But this June 19 case is certainly not so. They made this woman disappear in a way that Stalin would envy.
How many of you image-savvy professionals out there would have spotted this as an alteration? Would you flip several pages deep to hunt for the six-point credit that reads, “Photo Illustration by…”?
And if the average person did, would s/he think that the term “photo illustration” was anything more that a couple redundant words before someone’s name? (Having not seen the magazine yet I have no idea if they credited the image in this cryptic way).
It’s OK to be plainly, playfully obvious I think. But this was certainly not a transparent change.
3. “Sometimes — as with an image of President Chavez on May 15 on which we darkened the background, or with our “It’s time” cover endorsing Mr. Obama, from which the background was removed altogether — it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead.”
I think they did intend to bring out the central character here, and I can sympathize with that hope. I am sure their ideal cover involves a clear, simple graphic statement that acts as a metaphor or confirmation of lead story. Having seen neither the Chavez nor Obama Health Care covers, I can’t judge whether they were obvious enough for me. But removal of anything from an image is misleading and can be even if the image is only cropped. There was context behind both those heads, and perhaps even context cropped by the photographer as s/he shot the images. Cut-out images need to be as transparent as any other. Even if those two other examples were as clear as I’d hope, this June 19 image is not.
Here are some questions I’d ask a class:
How many images have been made of Obama? Of the Gulf oil spill? Of Obama at the Gulf oil spill? Is this really the only image out there that makes this point? Isn’t a better answer — one that would maintain the critical trust of the readers — to find a different image?
If all that is impossible and you feel the only image available would not work without being altered, then why not go all out? Why cop out with the simple removal of a person who was there giving context to that image when you could find a perfect Obama, a perfect flaming oil rig and make something infinitely more artful and obvious?
Caricature-like montage illustrations are a cop-out in my book too, but if there’s any place they work it might be magazine covers or opinion pages, so it’s a reasonable choice here — certainly better than this deceptive alteration.
This is an excellent example of why we should not alter journalistic images. Intent to deceive or not, the entire story has changed from the original to the final alteration.
4. “I asked for Ms. Randolph to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story. ‘The damage beyond the spill’ referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America.”
Then why is this the one and only image that could be used? Why was this frame so important that it needed to be deceptively altered? For me the resulting image says only that Obama is disgusted with the spill somehow. And that isn’t the true message of the original frame. The original Reuters picture says Obama discusses cleanup efforts with local and national officials. So this altered image lies. And if the story is about the damage to business in America, then this image is a total failure. No hint of that message is there.
Like every similar case I see, the excuses are simply excuses. When a publication decides to make an alteration to a news or documentary image it all comes down to laziness. They didn’t take the research time, the creative effort or the thought to find the honest solution. And the resulting justifications (of which there are hundreds) are simply poor justifications.