Icarus

This column deals with the aftermath of the revelation that the photos of President Obama announcing that Osama bin Laden had been killed were recreations.

This column appeared in the May 2011 issue of News Photographer Magazine.

By John Long

Icarus believed he was invincible and could fly anywhere he wanted with the wings he had made. But he died when he flew too close to the sun and his wings melted. He is usually depicted as the classic example of hubris.

From a photojournalist’s perspective, the few days surrounding the Osama bin Laden shooting gave us a trifecta of ethical issues from the White House. There was the controversy over the non-release of the photograph of Osama dead in his compound. There was the digital altering of information within the photograph from the White House Situation Room. And there was the "fake" still photograph of President Obama speaking to the nation.

[photograph of President Obama speaking about the killing of Osama bin Laden, staged for photographers after the actual televised address]

I am sensitive to the idea that it would be best to hold off on distributing the photograph of a dead bin Laden if it would cause harm, but sooner or later it should end up in some historical archive for the nation. We have seen thousands of images of the dead and dying from 9/11; this would be the final image in the series.

Then, as a colleague of mine said: “There has been much discussion in our photojournalism world about manipulated photographs during the bin Laden events. In this photograph, it was noted that documents on the table in the Situation Room were Photoshopped because they were top secret. The question I pose to my classes is that if we manipulate anything, any reader will ask, 'What else did they alter?'" Within one day I had a copy of that photograph with "The Situation" [from television's "Jersey Shore"] added to the Situation Room crew. I know the government cannot divulge secret information, but if there is no way to present an otherwise great picture (which this definitely is) than by destroying its integrity with Photoshop, then I am afraid the photograph should be left on the cutting room floor or filed away until the top secret information is no longer a problem.

Now, take a look at the photograph of President Obama speaking, staged for photographers after the actual televised address. Even if the caption says, “WARNING: THIS PHOTO IS A REENACTMENT,” the picture itself is a visual lie. The picture itself deceives the reader because the photograph looks as though President Obama is addressing the nation – and he is not. It’s a lie, and as I have said for years, no amount of captioning can make a visual lie acceptable.

It comes down to a matter of values and sticking by these values under pressure. People wanted to see the President addressing the country in their newspapers because they saw him do this on television. The temptation was to bend the rules and make this happen.

The White House knew they had an award winner in the Situation Room. The temptation was to bend the rules and obscure a detail in the center so the public could see the rest of the picture, which really is the photograph of the year. It is a question of values: Is it more important to protect the integrity of image or to show an otherwise iconic photograph to the public? We all know now what the answer to that question has been – The White House released the photograph, The New York Times ran it six columns and Time magazine ran it as a double truck. No one seems to believe the integrity of the image is more important. Isn’t this why Allan Detrich was fired from The Toledo Blade?

To be fair, Detrich created images that intentionally deceived the reader while there was no intent to lie with what the White House did. Their intent was merely to cover up information that was sensitive and many people in our profession look at this as analogous to redacting words in a written document. Many people think that since the White House openly pointed out what they did and this did not change the meaning of the image, Photoshopping was permissible in this case, since it was such an iconic image. I have difficulty with this idea but I can understand the reasoning and I really like the photograph.

Television routinely shoots cutaways, B-roll, and other forms of reenactment footage due to the needs they say they have for sequencing. We in still photography find it disturbing when we shoot video and are told it is now okay to have a subject “do it again, for the camera,” since this is how video works. Some news organizations are saying that when you shoot stills, use the ethics of still photojournalism and when you shoot video, use the ethics usually associated with television. I cannot buy this concept. Staging photographs is wrong. Period.

Those of us who work the local scene know you cannot restage a governor or mayor’s event. If we do, we get fired. We look to the national level and see staging of photographs as a way of life, so much so that a Reuters photographer could write a blog on how it was done. Picture editors then tried to clear their consciences by making sure the caption indicated the timing was out of sequence (some captions were less than definitive, such as this from Reuters: “U. S. President Barack Obama is pictured after announcing live on television the death of Osama bin Laden…), but this does not forgive the fact that the photograph itself was a visual lie. Don’t the rules apply to the top echelons as well as to the journeymen working outside the Beltway?

The impression is that the there are special needs around the White House, that there is a need for security not faced on the local level, that this is the way it has always been done, that dealing with the White House is dealing with an immoveable object. I may be a naïve provincial but isn’t there a similarity here to the hubris of Icarus?

Maybe they should use or transmit only video frame grabs of the speech. Or maybe it is time to do what many of us have done on the local level with our court systems: establish a pool and use a blimp to silence the noise. Hollywood has been doing this for years to make stills while a movie is being shot. This takes shelving your ego and your desire to beat the competition, but it is a way of getting honest photographs in difficult situations and serving the needs of the public. There is enough hubris inside the Beltway without the photographers being guilty of it also.

Steve Raymer, a professor of journalism at Indiana University, a distinguished National Geographic photojournalist, and a member of the NPPA Ethics Committee, wrote: “As an ordinary reader and consumer (of) news, having been out of the Washington bubble for a few years, I feel deceived. My reaction is the same as anyone who feels betrayed or lied to – these images are fakes and we were led to believe they were authentic. ... My suspicion is that many have known about it, at least the day-to-day White House shooters and ex-shooters, and consider it business as usual. And that's the problem – the DC bubble.”

Peter Southwick, associate professor of journalism at Boston University, a long-time Boston photojournalist and also a member of the Ethics Committee, added: “I can see no justification for excluding still photography from that event. We often talk about how we are recording history, but it is quite rare we photograph a moment we know to be historic at the time. This was one of those instances, and I cannot see how reasonable people would agree that a 're-creation' of the event is sufficient. … It has everything to do with being truthful communicators to the public, the citizenry, the people who elect the president and expect a level of honesty in the information that comes from him and his appointed representatives.”

The NPPA Ethics Committee had a spirited discussion of all these matters and though there wasn’t total agreement, the committee is saddened by a number of things. That the White House has historically believed that it is proper to create a fake speech photograph shows a lack of understanding of what photojournalists do and, to the extent that the wires and newspapers have participated in the fakery over many presidential administrations, shows a distain for the principles they say they live by.

NPPA's Code of Ethics, item #2, says, "Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities."

As we go to press, the White House has announced it will no longer stage photographs but will work with the photographers to create new protocols. This is exceptionally good news and NPPA applauds the White House for hearing our concerns and responding in such a positive way. If some sort of pool arrangement is the best option, I hope all parties set aside their egos and do what is best for the readers. Maybe Icarus can learn to stay away from the sun this time.

Ethics Committee members Steve Raymer and Peter Southwick contributed to this article.