T he NPPA-L
has been running a great many responses to the news that a NY Times
photographer made a photo of a boy holding a toy gun in front of a middle
eastern grocery. The photo ran in the Times and it is alleged that the
photographer set-up the photo and directed the youngster in the construction
of this picture.
This dilemma has probably plagued journalism since the first photograph
appeared on a press. There have been many discourses on this subject
over the years and there is no simple answer. Before I go any further,
let me state, that first and foremost, I believe that there should never
be any manipulation of any kind in a spot news photo. Everything else
is a matter of fluff in varying degrees.
We once had a Managing Editor in charge of the Women's Pages who stormed
back to the Photo Department waving a recent issue of Life Magazine.
(Yes, this was a number of years ago.) Life used to run a feature called
"Life Goes To The Party" wherein they would display a page
or more of photos of some social event. They were beautifully produced,
well-lit, candid photos of socialites enjoying the affair.
"That's what I want on our pages", he insisted. "No more
set-up shots. I want lively candids."
I tried to explain to him that our daily paper didn't operate the same
way as the big. weekly magazine, but he would have none of it. He knew
what he wanted and he, by God, was going to get it, or else.
The next Women's Page assignment that I had was an afternoon tea held
by a woman's club. They were working on plans for an upcoming charity
event. My photo was to be an advance story about the affair. When I
walked into the living room of the hostess' home, I surveyed the scene
and composed my picture in the frame and shot a candid photo. Unfortunately,
the women were scattered all around the room, and the hostess was in
the kitchen preparing the tea. I had to use an extremely wide angle
lens to show that there were several woman there. The light was dim
so I had to bounce a flash to illuminate the scene. I made another frame
as a back-up. Then I proceeded to "set-up" the photo for the
next shot. I gathered the three or four of the major players in the
group and had them sit together on a couch while the hostess poured
tea for them. They were holding sheets of paper with the notes they
were taking as they planned the upcoming affair. I framed the shot with
the hostess and the tea pot in the foreground and set-up a side light
to accent the figures. I didn't change the editorial content of the
photo. I merely took all of the elements of what was already there and
arranged them in a pleasing composition and lit it.
When I returned to the office, after covering several other assignments,
I made a couple of prints from the Women's Page assignment and took
them out to the ME. I gave him the print of the first shot.
"What the Hell am I supposed to do with that?" he exploded.
"Gee, Lou, that's "Newsday Goes To The Party." Isn't
that what you asked for?"
When he got through sputtering, I gave him the "set-up" picture
and explained to him that Life Magazine sent an advance crew to the
scene a few days ahead of time and they wired the house with lights,
so that no matter where the photographer shot, he would have good lighting.
When the photographer arrived, he would have several assistants and
would spend the whole day covering the story and would shoot rolls and
rolls of film. We were a daily paper with a small photo staff and there
was no way that we could expend that kind of effort and money. Sure,
I would love to have been able to hang around and shoot candids. Eventually,
the elements might have come together on their own and I could have
been a hero. But, newspapers just can't operate that way. Lou wasn't
happy but we never heard anymore about "Life Goes To The Party."
The man who hired me stated, many, many years ago, that the sole purpose
for a newspaper to run a photo on a page is to prevent the reader from
turning the page. It is the photographer's responsibility to come up
with a photograph which will attract the reader's eye and lead him to
read the story. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But, head shots and real
estate photos ain't gonna do it. Nor are check passings, ground breakings
and grip and grins. The answer, of course, is not to cover such mundane
events. But, since no one ever asks the photographer for his opinions,
we are often found photographing such occasions. So, what do we do?
Opinions vary. Some say to shoot it the way it lays. Any attempt to
set it up to make a more interesting photo is unethical? Well, let me
ask you this? Do you really believe that this event would actually have
taken place this way if you hadn't showed up with your camera? Get real.
The whole event is a set-up from the git go. How ethical is that?
Let's assume that the story does actually have some value. Perhaps the
check will fund the addition of a children's wing on the local community
hospital. Certainly that is newsworthy. If I had my druthers, I'd druther
photograph the benefactor sitting with some kids in an overcrowded children's
ward to show the people who will benefit from this largess. But, no
one asks for the photographer's opinion. Pity. And, since most of us
have ten minutes to get this picture before heading off to the next
of three or four assignments, and the location of this was the man's
office and not the hospital, what then?
I have gone so far as to have the benefactor and the hospital director
sitting behind a desk with the check laying at the front edge of the
desk and then I have used a 14mm lens up close to the check showing
it large in the foreground with the men in the background. And maybe
some creative lighting and who knows; maybe it'll result in a photo
that tells the story and it might be interesting enough to stop a few
readers from turning the page.
Is that unethical? I have satisfied the responsibility that I have to
the reader and told the story about the donation to the hospital.
Set up? No doubt about it. BUT, these examples are not spot news stories.
Please understand the difference.
© Dick Kraus
Newsday Staff Photographer (retired)