February 16, 2022 - If you haven’t been on social media lately, particularly Twitter, you may not have been aware of the controversy that surrounded an independent photographer who allegedly exhibited unethical actions. It got the attention of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) board.
The accusations that were made are related to the second and fifth elements in the NPPA Code of Ethics:
- Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
- While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
NPPA leadership does its best to consider all factors before commenting on volatile situations. We do not participate in public thrashings on social media. Instead, we have been observing, discussing, reaching out, reporting, pondering and assessing. As of this writing, no members have brought formal complaints to the NPPA’s judiciary committee, which is the official mechanism for addressing such allegations.
I wanted to talk with the photographer. What was her side of the story? I believed she was deserving of a conversation. I reached out and we talked several times. More on that in a moment.
Interestingly, this situation is unlike past alleged ethical breaches by NPPA members. How it was revealed through social media could be seen as a sign of the times. This is the first time it was an independent photographer who was involved. This was not a Photoshop-related violation nor was it inappropriate social media posts. As in every case, there are pressure points that may lead to poor judgment, which ultimately may lead to imposed penalties.
Maranie Staab, an independent photographer based in Portland, Oregon, and a member of NPPA, was filmed on January 20, 2022, at an anti-mask protest and accused of staging photographs of a child throwing a mask into a smoldering trashcan fire. It was her second assignment for Getty Images and one she pitched to them. The video of Staab at work was posted on Twitter by someone self-described as antifascist and antisocial. Staab included the photo of the child in her edit to Getty.
“Within 24 hours after the fact, the editor on duty found out about the video and called her (Staab) to notify her that the photos were being removed,” wrote Sandy Ciric, Getty Images Director of Photography for the Americas, in an email to me. “We sent out a mandatory kill notification to the hundreds of Getty subscribers that the photos violated Getty’s editorial standards.”
Getty Images has a one-strike policy for violating ethical standards.
On Feb. 2, Reuters followed suit by posting a tweet: “ADVISORY: We are deleting tweets containing photos with the byline Maranie Staab that are associated with Reuters articles.”
A Daily Beast story included an additional quote from Reuters: “We have no evidence of concerns related to photos published by Reuters.”
When I emailed Reuters for a statement, a spokesperson wrote: “Due to concerns over editorial standards, Reuters has removed photos by Maranie Staab from its website, newswire and social media. We have no evidence of concerns related to photos published by Reuters.”
Staab said she hasn’t heard or spoken to anyone from Reuters.
Staab is an award-winning photographer in the NPPA 2020 Best of Photojournalism contest and she received multiple awards during the 2019 Northern Short Course. She has completed coursework toward a master's degree in Visual Communication from Syracuse University, but has not yet defended a final project. She was awarded two National Press Photographers Foundation (NPPF) scholarships.
I have never met Staab in person and have only spoken by phone and recently on Zoom. We were on a virtual panel discussion for an American University event last year. I see her social media and receive her newsletter (I get a lot of those). I have tracked how she was injured and assaulted several times at protests around the country. Her cameras were smashed. From my point of view, this was a person very deeply entrenched in the news of 2020-21. I recall being concerned about her.
Photojournalists are on the frontlines of hard news, which has been particularly challenging the last few years. As an editor, I have seen the consequences of stressful experiences adding up over the long haul for photographers. The costs of doing intensive work can be high and life-changing.
But I gotta be honest. When I saw the video, I was pissed. Here we are yet again. But this time it felt especially personal given the growing threats and attacks on journalists. The actions of one affect the credibility of all. I was seething and disappointed. I took a breath and considered what I was viewing, the words in the tweet and the source who posted it.
To hold ourselves and others accountable, there are many questions to be asked and answered.
Staab and I had two lengthy conversations about what occurred on Jan. 20. We also talked about what led up to her actions. She wants to be very clear.
“I own it. I own my mistake. And I shouldn’t have filed that picture with Getty. Hard stop.” Staab said.
And she wanted to provide context and nuance.
Staab was the only mainstream journalist there that day with a crowd of approximately a hundred people. Since this was an outdoor anti-mask mandate protest and she is vaccinated and boosted, she made the decision not to wear a mask.
“I decided not to wear a mask out of strategy. I didn’t want it to be an issue to get in the way of me working,” Staab said.
On the other side of the street, there was a counter-protest group who are self-described Antifa wearing black bloc (wearing all black clothing to encourage anonymity). This group is pro-mask and they are the same group, Staab said, who physically assaulted her in August.
“I was immediately harassed by this group (black bloc). I’m a known entity,” Staab said. “I’m getting heckled and yelled at and followed around because I’m not wearing a mask. I’m frazzled, I’m alone and honestly, it’s frustrating not to be able to do your job. So I decided to put on a mask in the hope that I would be able to continue working.”
In the video, there is a mom and her young son who Staab says had interacted with her earlier when the boy had thrown masks into the fire. The mother wanted another picture with her child but no one had a mask for the boy to toss into the fire. A couple of people can be heard looking for a mask as the mother says to her son, “So wait till, uh, this lady is going to take a picture of you, so wait til, uh, (indecipherable).., okay?”
At the :33 second mark in the video, as a mask is being located for the boy, Staab says, “I’d give you this one but these guys are watching me (indecipherable)…and they will yell at me.”
“That sounds, I mean, even to my ears, that sounds incendiary, it sounds devious, but it’s because I was being monitored,” Staab said. “It was meant to be an offhand comment to a kid. I wasn’t gonna give the kid my mask. That comment was just because I was being watched.”
At the :45 second mark a man’s voice is heard off-camera saying, “Here you go” and apparently hands the boy a mask.
At the :50 second mark Staab can be heard saying, “You don’t have to look at me just throw it in” as others direct the boy to throw the mask into the fire.
“Most photojournalists have had some version of this happen. I had a variety of choices I could have made,” Staab said. “I could have walked away. I could have said, you know, ‘I can’t do this’ ‘I can’t go along, ‘I can’t interfere with this scene.’ But I went along with it. Even that would have been okay. But I filed it with Getty,” Staab said.
“I want to be very clear. I don’t have any confusion about journalistic ethics,” Staab said. “I know we can’t stage photographs and I should not have filed it with Getty. That was a mistake. And I want people to know this: My intention was not to sensationalize a situation. It was already tense and heated in and of itself. And most, it wasn’t about deceiving anyone. It wasn’t about deception. It was a mistake.”
“We base so much off of integrity. I don’t stage photographs and I don’t remember making the decision to file that (photo).”
“Here’s the thing. No one is harder on me than myself … but it was my mistake and I’m dealing with the ramifications of that in a very serious way. I’ve never done anything like that before. I don’t make the same mistake twice. And, if given the opportunity to continue making work, I won’t make that mistake again.”
I asked Staab about describing herself as “frazzled” at the scene.
“The best word is probably preoccupied. I am usually someone who is very focused. Like very, in general, I’m very focused,” she said. “And what happened in August shook me. I mean, I left Portland for four months after that. … I was not okay.”
I asked her what happened in August. I knew Stabb had been assaulted but I didn’t know the details.
“In August I was attacked by this same group (black bloc). It was the physicality of that, but also it was the internet mob that followed. I was getting threats of violence and death threats. Some people found my phone number. It was bad. It was very bad. And uh, I’ve never said I’m not okay, but like, I was not okay for a while. So I stepped back. I did the work necessary that I think we all need to do. We all need to take care of ourselves in this field, especially freelancers because we don’t often have support in general. So, I was preoccupied. And yes, again, not an excuse. I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses.”
Photographers should assume that we are filmed while doing our jobs in the field. An activist posted the video of Staab and all hell broke loose on social media where people feel enabled to express their opinions. I wonder if high-profile individuals realize the impact of their words. In these times of brutal social media reaction, how do we move forward with civility, courtesy and compassion? “Diatribes need to become dialogues,” Kenny Irby, Community Intervention & Juvenile Outreach Director for the St. Petersburg, Florida, Police Department, advises through his diversity, equity and inclusion training.
Number 10 of the NPPA Code of Ethics applies to everyone: Do not engage in harassing behavior of colleagues, subordinates or subjects and maintain the highest standards of behavior in all professional interactions.
I do not excuse Staab’s actions and yet it’s easy to mess up at the click of the send button. Many photographers work without a net these days because, tragically, the advocacy role of picture editors in the workplace has diminished. Many of our deeply experienced visual leaders have been laid off or retired. Staffing is stretched thin.
Photo editors are the safety net for photographers. We especially need to be better at learning how to support independent photographers. Do we make it a priority – or an opportunity – to look through whole takes? Do we ask enough questions – or the right questions – after an assignment? It is necessary and responsible to seek understanding about what happened to potentially ward off repeat or similar actions by others.
Since this happened, we have seen people renew or join the NPPA because they value our Code of Ethics. I have heard from professors who plan to make this a teaching moment by not focusing on the video but through discussion of ethics.
“This might be a good day for up and coming photojournalists to re-familiarize themselves with the @NPPA code of ethics. …,” Nathan Howard wrote on Twitter. “Staging or manipulating photos is unethical and violates the public’s trust in us during a time of unprecedented misinformation,” he continued.
“Right now it’s more important than ever for visual journalists to stick together & work through challenges we face,” wrote Matt M.McKnight on Twitter.
Staab is paying the price. Her career may forever be impacted, but that doesn’t mean she can’t do personal work. Alternatives do exist and the healing process begins with contrition by Staab and understanding from those who are willing to move forward.
Sue Morrow is the editor and creative director for News Photographer digital magazine. She is not an NPPA board member. She can be reached at [email protected].