By Donald Winslow
NEW YORK, NY (August 30, 2013) – When New York Yankee Ichiro Suzuki swung at a pitch and connected with his 4,000th career base hit during the first inning of a home game against the Toronto Blue Jays on August 21st, it was a record-making moment worthy of the cacophony of motor-driven camera shutters that followed.
But at least two of the photographers working the game on the third base line that night didn't capture the moment: Debby Wong, a USA Today Sports Images photographer, and Andrew Theodorakis of the New York Daily News. Wong was either looking at her earlier pictures on the camera's LCD display, or she was pointing the camera elsewhere, when Suzuki hit. And Theodorakis' view was blocked by Wong, when she rested her 300mm lens over her left shoulder at the exact moment of the crucial pitch.
Which can happen, as those who frequently shoot sports can attest. Not everyone gets every important shot every time. Sometimes it's the photographer's fault. And sometimes the view is blocked by another player. Or sometimes the obstruction is an umpire, or a fan, or even – as in this case – another photographer.
When she started hearing a few rumbles, Yankees' chief photographer Ariele Goldman Hecht came over from her first base spot to see what was going on.
"To begin with, she [Wong] wasn't where she was supposed to be," Hecht said. "I had put her in the second row. It was crowded because of the record, and she told me that she had switched positions with one of the Japanese photographers. I told her that wasn't allowed. The Yankees decide who sits where." Hecht said that Wong apologized, and the photographer told them that she was sorry for blocking the shot.
And so the game went on.
And in most circumstances this is probably where this small incident would have ended; we wouldn't have heard anything more about it. Only the handful of other photographers along the third base line who had witnessed the little dust-up between a couple of their peers would have had something to chat about for a few days.
Except it didn't end there. Because later that night on the USA Today Sports Images photo Web feed a picture by Wong appeared. And then the same picture also appeared in a photo gallery published on the USA Today newspaper Web site. Its caption and photo credit said:
"New York Yankees right fielder Ichiro Suzuki singles to left field to record his 4000th career hit during the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium. Debby Wong, USA Today Sports"
Wait ... What? The photographers who worked the Yankees game and who saw or heard what happened during the Suzuki hit were perplexed. How did she get this picture? A few compared Wong's image their own pictures and to others. The background looked different, one said. The swing and follow-through didn't look quite the same, another photographer said.
The conversation had new life.
Then two days after Ichiro's big game the news broke that Thomson Reuters will soon be dropping their network of freelance sports photographers in North America come September. Instead of using their own shooters, Reuters will instead be taking a picture feed from the USA Today Sports Images team and delivering those images to Reuters picture clients around the world.
With that development, the conversation really heated up inside sports photojournalism circles. The topics included who will – and who won't – be shooting major league sporting events in North America come this autumn. And what impact having former US Presswire photographers who have become USA Today Sports Images photographers shooting pictures for Reuters might have on the photojournalism industry and freelancers in North America.
Five days after the Reuters deal became known, when Suzuki's big hit had almost faded into recent history, USA Today Sports Images added fuel to the dialogue when they transmitted to their clients a "Picture Kill" notice for Wong's photo. They told their clients that it had come to their attention that the picture "was not correctly identified." Clients were advised to pull it from their archives.
Bruce Odle, the president of USA Today Sports Images, told News Photographer magazine tonight that someone outside their company notified one of their staffers of a problem with the image. Earlier this week, News Photographer had learned that Wong's editors had requested her entire take so that they could examine the images shot by shot.
"We were made aware that an image provided by one of our contributors was not correctly identified and we immediately looked into the situation," Odle said tonight. "After determining that the photo was incorrect, we issued a Picture Kill to alert our customers consistent with industry practice and to minimize disruption or resulting impact, if any."
Odle also confirmed that in the aftermath, Wong's work agreement with the picture service has been terminated.
"We have clear language in our contributors agreement and we have internal policies consistent with industry practice with regards to ethical matters," Odle said.
Wong did not immediately return calls requesting comment.
USA Today Sports Images is an arm of the USA Today Media Group, which was formerly known as the Gannett Digital Media Network. Its parent company is Gannett Company, Inc.
Odle heads USA Today Sports Images, and he managed the sale of the company to Gannett in August 2011. It was founded by former Sports Illustrated photographer Bob Rosato, who is now its chief operating officer. The sports photo service rebranded itself in December 2012 to provide sports images to all Gannett properties. Before then, Rosato's picture service was known as US Presswire.