A New Year But an Old Lighting Trick
January 2009

by Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Here's to you in 2009!

Before we close the book on the old year, we'd like to address a comment posted by photographer Karen Lenz on her blog, because it is a reminder of the fact that, as professionals, what we each do as an individual matters. It matters a lot.

Writing of Jill Greenberg, Lenz has said, "One mission she did accomplish was [to] make life even harder for emerging professional editorial photographers."

As if it is not already tough enough.

Lenz was referring to Greenberg's work during the recent presidential campaign.

Greenberg is the talented photographer who was hired by The Atlantic Monthly, a current events magazine, to take a photograph of presidential candidate John McCain for the magazine's cover.

Greenberg has shot lots of covers for magazines like Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Entertainment Weekly, Wired, The New York Times Magazine and Inc.

She took the pictures of McCain on assignment and, at the end of the shoot, she asked McCain to step to a spot on the floor where, lit from below, she was guaranteed to capture an unflattering image of the candidate using a technique that is commonly referred to as "monster" lighting.

She apparently submitted that photograph, along with others from the McCain shoot, to The Atlantic Monthly editors, who have since said that they didn't choose that particular photo for their cover. Instead, they chose a "respectful" image of the candidate.

The flap arose when Greenberg doctored the unflattering photo for her Web site. She created an image that made McCain look like a ghoul with rows of bloody shark's teeth, with the words "I am a bloodthirsty warmonger" printed above his head. (She posted several other modified images from The Atlantic Monthly assignment on her Web site as well.)

Greenberg has said that she deliberately manipulated Senator McCain so that she could get the "monster-lit" photograph in order to make a political statement.

Editors at The Atlantic Monthly have accused her of unprofessional behavior and have publicly distanced themselves from "the manipulated images" of Senator McCain that she created for her site.

It would be easy to say that the magazine should have known that Greenberg is first and foremost an artist and should have been familiar with her shooting style. Her Web site is, after all, called "Manipulator." []

It would be easy to say that the editors should have also known that she is not enamored of Republicans. She criticized the Bush Administration with her photo series of crying children entitled "End Times."

It would also be easy to say that Greenberg is not, strictly speaking, a photojournalist and so may not be obligated to meet the profession's standards and practices.

Those statements may all be true. But that doesn't allow Greenberg to escape the ethical scrutiny of her actions.

Greenberg is a human being. Like all of us, she has an obligation to avoid deception. She has an obligation to avoid a conflict of interest. And she also has an obligation to avoid harm.

Greenberg failed on all counts.

She admittedly deceived the senator to get the "monster-lit" photograph. She was representing the magazine when she engaged in the deception.

The potential for a conflict of interest exists in any work situation. When a photographer works for a client, it is assumed the client's interests take precedence unless the photographer has a sound moral reason for putting his or her own interests first.

Greenberg apparently had the legal right to use the photos she posted on her Web site, and she is certainly entitled to her belief that Senator McCain is evil. But she caused harm to The Atlantic Monthly with her deception and when she used the photos for a purpose her client didn't intend. Thus, she put her interests ahead of her client's and caused harm for no morally defensible reason.

If she didn't agree with the magazine's professional standards or political views, she should have declined the job and figured out how to get the photos on her own.

Finally, she harmed the profession of photojournalism in the process.

When they learned of Greenberg's actions, the magazine's editors went on the defense and apologized to the senator. They said Greenberg publicly disgraced herself with her behavior.

The large mainstream magazine has an easy out and in this case they took it. The editors have simply said that they will not work with Greenberg again.

But that is never the end of it for people like blogger Karen Lenz. She and others have to slog their way through the damage that was done to professional photographers and photojournalists, as well as those trying to break into what she calls an "almost impossible industry to get into."

With her actions, Greenberg damaged her own credibility, the reputation of the magazine that hired her, and the reputations of current and aspiring media professionals.

It is hard to care about her reputation if she doesn't.

But what about everybody else's?

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© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.