Category Archive: ethics
A week or so ago I posted this photo from Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant on dvafoto.tumblr.com, but in retrospect we wanted to feature it on the main blog as well. It is an important demonstration of what press freedom and access to power is all about and the inherent hazards in allowing government entities (or any other group) to provide their own coverage. The images may emerge from a democratic government, but they really won’t look much different than the propaganda released from a dictatorship.
This is the essence of a debate that has been raging since the Fall about access to President Obama’s White House (and before that, honestly: Scott wrote about issues of photography in the White House days after Obama took office). Ron Fourniner’s article in The National Journal titled “Obama’s Image Machine: Monopolistic Propaganda Funded by You” has a thorough account of a meeting that took place on October 29 in the office of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. At that meeting New York Times photographer Doug Mills laid out the complaints of the White House Press Corp about access to the President’s activities, and likened the White House’s activities to the Soviet Union’s state-run news agency TASS, whose successor ITAR-TASS, and fellow state-run media RIA-Novosti, is more recently known for supplying famously heroic images of Vladimir Putin to the international media.
Doug Mills’ meeting with Jay Carney was followed up by a letter hand delivered to the White House on November 21st (PDF), signed by a number of prominent media and media advocacy organizations, including the National Press Photographers Association, The New York Times, The White House News Photographers Association, ABC, CNN, NBC, Getty Images and the Associated Press. The AP also issued their own statement about this issue. Santiago Lyon, AP Vice President and Director of Photography, answered questions on the AP’s own blog:
The photos on that page [The White House official Flickr page] are visual press releases and are carefully vetted by administration employees before distribution. Such images are increasingly offered to the media by the White House in lieu of real journalistic access and we and other media organizations find this unacceptable. Media organizations generally do not reproduce written press releases verbatim, so why should we settle for these official images?
Santiago Lyon also penned an op-ed for The New York Times on December 11, 2013: “Obama’s Orwellian Image Control”. If you are interested in this topic, it is a critical piece to read. He reiterates his point above:
The official photographs the White House hands out are but visual news releases. Taken by government employees (mostly former photojournalists), they are well composed, compelling and even intimate glimpses of presidential life. They also show the president in the best possible light, as you’d expect from an administration highly conscious of the power of the image at a time of instant sharing of photos and videos.
And he ends with strong and wise words:
Until the White House revisits its draconian restrictions on photojournalists’ access to the president, information-savvy citizens, too, would be wise to treat those handout photos for what they are: propaganda.
Part of this issue is the distinction between public and private events. Some editors and photographers are arguing that when the White House releases its own images from events on social media – such as Presidents Obama and Bush meeting on Air Force One en route to Nelson Mandela’s funeral, which was off-limits to the press corp pool also onboard the aircraft – they are demonstrating that the events are not private and are indeed newsworthy. BagNews’ discussion “As Press Battles WH Over Photo Access, Did Media Cross its Own Line Publishing Obama/Bush Mandela Trip Pictures?” provides many good examples of the difference between White House coverage of events and that of the free press, including the Obama/Bush pictures on Air Force One. Another post at BagNews, “Photo Ops and Staging: Beyond White House Access, the Larger Issue is What We Have Access To” by David Campbell, has more examples of the exclusive framing of events that the White House photographers have that they deny members of the press access to.
For more context, photographer David Hume Kennerly talks about his time in the White House in an interview with James Estrin of the New York Times’ Lens Blog. Time Magazine’s Lightbox blog also published an article by former White House photo editor Mike Davis: “The Backstory: Why Photographers Need More Access In The White House”.
Furthering their terrific studies of these issues, BagNews announced this week that the subject of their next salon would be The Debate over White House Photo Access. It will take place on February 9, 2014. I also want to thank Michael Shaw, Publisher of BagNews, for providing me with resources and his insight on this topic.
BagNews argues, rightly, that, “One thing we need are images that address the construction of the image, including pictures showing photographers in the photo, the set-up of the photo-op, or using particular visual strategies such as different angles, depth of field, and framing.” One important function of the press is to create transparency about how the political machine works. Being able to have an independent look at how events are set up and designed is critical in understanding what exactly the events mean.
Time magazine points this out in other ways too with another of Phil Bicker’s great edits of handout photos in a post called “Public Service or Propaganda? Top Handout Photos of 2013″. Bicker posts often on Time Lightbox under the title “Man on the Wire”, and we wrote about one of his post’s last year: “Déjà Vu in 2012″. In this post he shows off all manner of official photographs that have been published in the press.
Besides the White House, Kremlin and the North Korean official news agencies, other notable sources for handout photos include the NTSB (for photos of the crash of Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco and a train crash in New York), NASA (for photos of space research, manned space flight and an unfortunate picture of a flying frog during rocket launch), the Government Communication and Information System of South Africa for pictures of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the U.S. Army for a photograph of Chelsea Manning.
I’ll finish this roundup with two examples of images that cross more obviously in to the sphere of possible-propaganda, images that look like they could be news photographs but are in fact handed out by political organizations: a photo of bodies of victims that Syrian rebels claim were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta and a photograph that the Kenyan Government provided from the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi showing the collapsed roof of a parking garage.
BagNews also provides startling examples of powerful official imagery that has, in one way or another, been made available to the press. “Ready, Aim, Backfire: Police Photographer’s “Rolling Stone Retribution” Photos” examines the photographs of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev leaked by a Massachusetts State Police official photographer. This is an interesting example of how official photographs might actually undermine the official narrative; see BagNews for more on this argument. Another post, from January 6, 2014, “Even if the Police Report Wasn’t Buried by the Holiday, What Photo Would Make Us Understand Sandy Hook?” is a powerful anonymous essay about the police report and evidence photos taken by Connecticut State Police from their investigation into the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012. This post looks closely at the photographs, ponders their meaning (or lack thereof), and asks why they were buried in the Holiday news cycle and rarely published.
The prevalence of handout photos being published in news sources demonstrates the success organizations are having in shaping the narrative they prefer by controlling the photographs that are available of an event. This is something that we should all be aware of, and wary of. There are times and places – for example, the President’s private family dinners and on the launch pad during a rocket ignition – where restrictions on access are acceptable and logical. But so many other times, as clearly laid out in the photos and articles above, this power is being abused. And we the media and the people are right to resist this.
I first heard about the death of Molhem Barakat in Syria by way of the above image posted to twitter on Dec. 21. Barakat was killed while covering fighting between rebels and loyalists over the Kindi Hospital in Aleppo, Syria. Covering Syria has been an especially dangerous endeavour for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists, as of this writing, states that 55 journalists have been killed in the country since 1992, all in the past 3 years. However, Barakat’s death raises even more questions.
Many of the reports of Barakat’s death state that he was 17 years old. Reuters has not confirmed this, but nor has the media organization given any age. As usual, duckrabbit is on the case, with a large set of links surrounding Molhem Barakat. British journalist Hannah Lucinda Smith wrote a remembrance for the boy, whom she’d known over the past year. She first wrote about him in an interesting, and provocative, piece called “My friend, the aspiring suicide bomber.” When the boy couldn’t join an Al Qaeda-linked group in Syria, he turned to Reuters to freelance. He was accepted. His work was good, used to accompany articles by major media outlets. Buzzfeed has a collection of some of his most powerful work from the conflict.
But many have been asking just what a 17-year-old was doing working for one of the largest media organizations in one of the most dangerous conflicts in recent history, especially for journalists. NPR’s On the Media broadcast a tremendous piece last September called “The Freelancers’ War,” which lays out what coverage of Syria really means. Although some media organizations have banned the use of reporting from Syria by freelancers, the vast majority of reporting from the conflict remains the domain of freelancers. For some, it’s war tourism. Vice had a particularly telling piece in 2012 called “I went to Syria to learn how to be a journalist.” The freelancers face extreme danger without insurance, training, adequate gear, institutional backing, or even a plan for what to do when things go bad.
After the news of Barakat’s death, people have been wondering why the organization hired a 17-year-old to work in this danger. Corey Pein’s blog post covers the important issues, and includes an empty response from Reuters received by Stuart Hughes.
So the questions remain:
- Was Molhem Barakat 17 when working for Reuters?
- If so, why is a child working for one of the largest media organizations in the world?
- Why would a media organization hire someone who had previously tried to join Al Qaeda?
- Did Reuters provide the expensive camera gear to Barakat?
- What was the agreement between Reuters and the 17-year-old? Was he given safety equipment, training, insurance? What about assistance for his family?
- Does Reuters, or other news organization, regularly employ people under 18 when covering conflict? If not, why now?
Corey Pein has many more questions, all of which demand an answer.
Maybe our own M. Scott Brauer, recently returned from a hunting trip in Montana, can give us some better advice than this guy, who just sort of hung out with an Elk while he was trying to take pictures. The video is awkward and asks a lot of questions.
Scott, did this guy do good? Should he have run away screaming? Or stood up and scared the Elk off? (Which was what I was rooting for). Or. better yet, gone for a close-up? Strange video.
“In Illinois, if a person dies without a will, their property goes to their closest living relatives. But if they literally have no living kin anywhere in the world, then the decedent’s property will ‘escheat’ to the State of Illinois. That rarely happens, though, because the law is written so that the property will go to the decedent’s relatives, even if they are very distant.” – Steven Dawson, a trusts and estates lawyer with Bryan Cave LLP, speaking to Gapers Block
We’ve written about Vivian Maier before (first all the way back in 2009), and you’ve probably read or seen much more. I just saw one of the traveling exhibitions of her work at Brandeis University outside Boston, and it’s well worth going to see her work in person, if you can. There’s a recently-released documentary (trailer above, IMDB) that seeks to get the bottom of just who this woman was. There may be a biopic in the works. There have been exhibitions and publications of her work all around the world. Two books have anthologized her photos: Vivian Maier: Street Photographer and Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows.
All of these books and movies and exhibitions stem from three separate collections of Maier’s work bought at auction after her death. The larger and more well-known collection is John Maloof’s, but Jeffery Goldstein also controls a substantial number of images (here’s a piece on Lens about that collection. A third man, Ron Slattery, bought a smaller collection of negatives and prints in 2007, before Maier’s death, though I can’t find a link that collection. A forthcoming book, Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive, tries to make sense of all of these different collections and the woman herself.
The question remains, however, of just who owns the copyright to these photos. Ordinarily, copyright of unpublished works with a known author stays in place for 70 years after the death of the creator. Maier died in 2009, which means her copyright belongs to her heirs until at least 2079. But because Maier left no will and had no known heirs, the ownership likely goes to the state of Illinois, where Maier died. As Chicago-area web publication Gapers Block reports, “First, the state could do nothing, which would allow the owners of her work to continue with their ventures. Second, if the state decides it is the rightful owner of Maier’s work, cease and desist letters will be sent to the current owners explaining the laws of succession, how the state is now the main beneficiary, and that any selling of her work needs to stop and all profits made would need to be paid to the state.”
Maier’s photographic legacy now is worth thousands, if not millions, of dollars, so the state and the stewards of the various Maier collections have a compelling interest to maintain and exercise their ownership of these materials. It will be interesting to see how this legal situation plays out over the coming years.
The Atlantic, a 156-year-old publication, has been at the forefront of digital media. Its diverse blogs (I read James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates) and online projects (InFocus, Atlantic Cities and the Atlantic Wire, for instance) have helped the Atlantic lead the push into the new media environment, all while making the publication profitable again. That’s what makes Jan. 14′s missteps, publishing an ‘article’ sponsored by the Church of Scientology in the same format as the Atlantic’s online news, so confounding and laughable.
Here’s what happened: The Atlantic is experimenting with models of funding online journalism. The Atlantic decided to start running paid content in line with its regular reporting, the first of which was something called “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year” (archive of article with a few comments) posted at 12:25pm on Jan. 14, 2013. This article and some associated sidebar content looked indistinguishable from regular Atlantic content (and showed up in searches of the Atlantic’s online archive), though they were marked with the words “sponsored content.” The Atlantic’s marketing team was monitoring comments on the Scientology article and deleted a number of negative comments. Criticism of the article spread across social media. And at 11:35pm, less than 12 hours after it was published, the advertorial was removed from the site and links to it forwarded readers to a message stating, “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads” and saying “We screwed up.”
Advertising content that looks like editorial content is nothing new. You can see “special advertising sections” in many newspapers and magazines. The Chinese and Russian governments have been particularly persistent with advertorials that look like news reporting in international news publications, including the Washington Post and New York Times. But the Atlantic’s Scientology debacle was a step too far for readers, not least because the Church of Scientology has a reputation for being a threat to democracy and unfriendly to those reporting or sharing information about the church.
For more about the Church of Scientology, make sure to read the New Yorker’s piece about director Paul Haggis and the Tampa Bay Times series investigating the inner workings of the Church.
And in the vein of editorial independence in online media, earlier this week a CNET writer resigned after CNET’s parent company CBS forbade the writer from giving a technology award to a company that CBS is currently suing.
This week the Seattle Times Company, publisher of The Seattle Times newspaper, announced that they would be donating ad space in the newspaper to support two Washington State political campaigns: the “Yes on R-74 Campaign” (a referendum supporting Same-Sex Marriage in the state) and the Republican candidate for Governor Rob McKenna as a pilot project to prove the worth of paid political advertising in newspapers at a moment when such investment by campaigns is dwindling. The Times is the only remaining daily newspaper in Seattle following the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s move to web-only in 2009. The first of the full page ads, which are considered independent expenditures and the content of which is not coordinated with McKenna’s campaign (or the Seattle Times’ newsroom, for that matter), appeared in Thursday’s newspaper and will continue this week. The value of the contribution of ad space in support of the McKenna campaign, at market rates, is $75,000 so far and it is believed a similar value will be given as an in-kind contribution to the Washington United for Marriage campaign which is advocating for the approval of Referendum 74.
The Seattle Times newsroom has a comprehensive article about the controversy: “Times Co. criticized for McKenna, gay-marriage ad campaigns” and The Stranger, an independent weekly newspaper in Seattle, also has strong coverage of the story on their website’s blog called the SLOG, including their news item about the ads, questions raised by Rob McKenna’s Democratic opponent Jay Inslee and responses by The Seattle Times company and some of the reporters in the Seattle Times newsroom.
The Times Company’s spokeswoman Jill Mackie describes this move as a “one-time pilot project aimed at demonstrating the power of print advertising” in an interview with The Stranger. The Times has previously endorsed both the Republican candidate for governor and the pro R-74 campaigns in this election cycle. Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman said in the Times’ article that the Seattle Times news department “was not part of the discussion or the decision to do this.” In the same article the Times quotes Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute: “It’s not the newspaper’s problem; it’s not the publisher’s problem; it’s not even the readers’ problem; it’s the problem of the reporters who are covering these issues and these candidates. Their credibility at stake.”
Paid political advertising in our national newspapers is not new, and is not under oversight at this moment. We must look closely at the Seattle Times’ leadership and ethics as a company that intends to buy advertising in their own product to support one particular position on a electoral vote (R-74) and one partisan political candidate, while also attempting to maintain an effective and neutral newsroom. I, for one, am angry and confused about the handing of these expenditures (their planning, their placement, their timing) no matter the possible benefits each campaign might receive from the Times Company’s donation. I have positions on both of the campaigns that are at the center of the Times’ marketing stategry and that does not get in the way for a moment about my anger of how this is being done. It is not about the issues in the campaigns, I see the issue as how a newspaper company can so clumsily be trying to help swing races in this manner. The ethical shortcomings are vast and disheartening. But it remains to be see if this is a smart business decision, as I cannot help but admit, that might be the only avenue the Seattle Times Company has left: growing its business of selling political adverts at the cost of further undermining its own editorial divisions. This could indeed be a smart business decision, that least the newspaper’s readership and in turn our democracy in a far less informed place.
There are a lot of questions, and way too many speculations to indulge in here. But have any of our readers heard of similar programs which blur the business of a newspaper so much as the Seattle Times Company placing their own branded ads into their paper alongside editorial pages? And what must the staff think about this inside work-around on political fundraising and expenditures? There are rumors of a Seattle Times staff rebuttal to how they are being treated (for example: this momentous decision happening behind their backs) but also expressing their concern for the future of their reporting careers in this city in the possible wake of the paper losing credibility amongst some sources and voters.
This will be a test case to watch. Can you think of any other ones like it that we can see and compare with? Interesting times in my home town, no matter.
More than a year ago my friend John Malsbary and I began trading emails about a couple of films and some ideas that they inspired. I suppose it is a follow-up to our first post together: Dvafoto Book Club, Vol 1: The Hurt Locker. This discussion started when he told me to watch Winter’s Bone and after I saw it I started drawing a lot of connections to my fascination with the documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. So I asked John to watch that documentary. This post is an edited form of the ongoing discussion John and I have been having, and jumps around quite a bit to other bits of art and society that we’re interested in. We hope you find it interesting. Watch the trailers for Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus and Winter’s Bone.
I think the most important thing that sticks out to me personally with Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (directed by Andrew Douglas, 2003), in concert with Winter’s Bone (directed by Debra Granik, 2010) is the different approaches to telling stories that I’m interested in. I could see myself working on the stories at the heart of either movie, but I don’t know how I would do that with still images.
Watching Winter’s Bone, I kept thinking .. could I do something like this? Take a very realistic story and use some fiction to be able to communicate the story better? Would it allow me to give the audience more than they could see if I shot it ’straight’ as a documentary? For instance, some of the stories I’ve heard in the Roma camps (I spent much of 2009 photographing the destruction of a Belgrade Roma community), there is no way to show all of those elements in still images made at the moment. These were things that happened in the past, things happening where I can’t photograph, or mental images described to me. It seriously makes me think about doing some work on films some day, to explore that itch to tell a more complete story than “purely” what is in front of my lens. Or maybe there is indeed a way to do that within documentary photography.
It is the same thing with Wrong-Eyed, it makes me dream about making a documentary film. What they are able to pull out of the story, with some scripting, some crew, some lighting, is different than what I would get with my still photographs if I were standing there the day before or after with the exact same idea or perspective. Likewise, their way of telling a story would probably not work at all with the stories I have done. My stories exist because I’m one guy moving quickly with one small camera, really no equipment, and just shooting what happens in front of me, no set-ups at all. That movie can not exist without those setups. It took a crew of people to set up access and equipment, to get those people (in jail, in the bar, the preacher) to say their deepest thoughts in those particular tableus. We could both get in to these places, but our way of working changes what we will get on film. And making the decision about how you physically approach a story changes what you will record.
That’s the essence of what I’m interested in this conversation: the nature and method of story telling. And how choices about a medium, given their specific limitations and advantages, can reveal new elements of the story.
Since watching the film the first time I’ve read up quite a bit more on Wrong-Eyed and have fallen deeply in to Jim White’s music (see the embedded video below for one scene of White playing some music and telling a story while driving around). If you like his tunes and want to hear him talk about the making of the film there is a great live set and interview from KEXP in 2005. There is also a nice press kit with much info about the film, found on the website of the distributer.
The White interview on KEXP gave me some interesting perspective on what they set out to achieve. In response to one of the things you raised in your reading of the film, the whiteness of it all. They say that they chose to focus specifically on the rural southern poor white perspective. And for me, that is something that I haven’t seen much real documentary of. My experience with this population is mostly just jokes about rednecks and northern snootiness. Man, I want to just go drive around the south now. I don’t think I have the balls or emotional space at the moment to actually open myself up to these experiences and go to all of these places right away though. Something I’ve realized living and working abroad: it really can be easier photographing away home. Less personal baggage that you hear off the cuff. Not knowing the nuance at first (though I am obsessed with finding it over time, this is why I am five years in to my project with barely an end in sight). You can photograph and not feel so bad not knowing word for word the details of their life story.
I have no idea why you would be afraid of these places. You are straight, white and male. People would make fun of you for being northern/west coast, but that would just be their way of trying to know you. The struggle would be to put up with the hateful shit they’d say, and keep your cool, and not judge them or fight it. Or maybe you would feel you have to fight it.
You know, I think you’ve put yourself at such a disadvantage by talking to people in a foreign country. In America I sometimes feel like narratives are a dime a dozen. Part of my job, as I’ve told you before, is just being where people are aching to be heard. My supervisors occasionally say that people with literally no money only have their story to trade. No one wants a hand out from me. So I receive stories like they’re legal tender.
For me it’s a pleasurable job. But I get a kick out of incoherent pandemonium. I think the hard part for a story teller would be sewing it all into something coherent.
We recently wrote about unblurring blurry photos a couple weeks ago. Now comes video (embedded above) showing real-time, dynamic, and easy-to-do insertion of fake objects into any photo. This is part of research led by Kevin Karsch, a PhD student at the University of Illinois / Urbana-Champaign. The user makes a bare-bones sketch of objects and lighting in the photo, and then drags an object into the image. The software then realistically places the object into the photo with proper lighting and collision. It’s difficult to describe, so you really should watch the video. Look for animations going through photos, bouncing off walls, casting proper shadows, and interrupting complex light patterns in a very natural way. Ordinarily, this sort of composite work would take expertise and hours, but the narrator says that one example in the video was done by a novice user in just 10 minutes.
I found this video via James Fallows’ blog at the Atlantic. Fallows calls this the latest, “What hath God wrought?” moment for technology and links to a short essay worrying about the democratization of image manipulation tools.
With only a few clicks, a blurry image is quickly analyzed, allowed Photoshop to discern exactly how the image was messed up (sic). That is to say, if you accidentally moved your hand slightly to the right and down while the shutter snapped, it’ll pick that up. And then it reverses it—and that’s the totally magical part. – Gizmodo
I came across this very strange story about a Dutch documentary filmmaker embedded with US Special Forces who, when his video camera died, decided to pick up a rifle instead and fight alongside the soldiers. The video report here is very thin, a lot of the story feels like it is missing, but it is potentially a unique twist for embedded journalism. I can’t recall ever hearing about another case of this happening, and I know tons of folks will react negatively to this in a heartbeat.
The filmmaker is Vic Franke and the documentary is called On Killing: The Aftermath. He says of the project,
This documentary portrays the private lives of two US Special Forces operators in Afghanistan as well as in the privacy of their homes stateside.
Filmmaker Vik Franke experienced all of this, while making “09:11 Zulu“, a documentary on the Dutch and US special Forces in Afghanistan. Riding with them in the desert for two months, hunting for the Taliban, he even had to pick up a gun himself in a huge ambush. The impact of the experience on his own life and having become of the ‘Fraternity Born in the Smoke of Danger & Death’ was enough to look up the only guys that he could talk to about it.
After looking at his website, the trailers for his films and the way he describes the work (including in this video piece), it appears to me that he seems quite eager to join the fight as a bit of a thrill. It comes off very inappropriate and rather offensive, and from what I’ve seen with these examples it really calls in to question the point of his films. Can you ever pick up a gun and still call yourself a documentary filmmaker? Can we take this work seriously? And what the hell does the US military have to say about such a thing?
(via War is Boring. Video report by Een Vandaag, Radio Netherlands Worldwide)