Set-up Pictures
November 2002

Opinion by Dick Kraus

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
Contributing Editor
Newsday Staff Photographer (retired)

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist