In the photo with my column today, I “chopped off” the head of young biker. It was not intentional, not a creative crop, and neither was it something like a tilted horizon to make a boring image more interesting.
It just happened that way. I was photographing a young father and his kids riding their bikes on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. After they passed and I started walking to catch up to them, the dad circled back around and this time started doing wheelies. I got ready and positioned myself to make a picture, but he passed too close.
When I went over to say “hi” and get their names I also showed him the photo, apologizing for his missing head. He thought it was “chill.”
I actually liked the picture that way too, so when he volunteered to “do it again,” I told him no need. (I did make other photos of him and his family biking that day, and one was published with the story).
It raises a question though, that has been around as long as I have been a newspaper photographer. What are the rules about “setting up” a photo? Or even reenacting one?
In 1971 what is known as the “Munich Declaration” spelled out the “Duties and Rights of Journalists,” but it left some wiggle room about staging photos: Rule No. 4 states that an obligation of a journalist is, “Not to use unfair methods to obtain news, photographs or documents.”
Even the current Code of Ethics of the National Press Photographers Association contains some gray area: No. 5 is: “While photographing subjects, do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.”
A lot of what I write these days starts out with “I remember when ...” But years ago at the Inquirer, as photography began moving from the darkroom to the computer, photographers were wanting to draw up a set of guidelines both for ourselves, and to help explain our sensibilities to readers and our writing and editing colleagues in the newsroom.
This came soon after National Geographic used a computer to manipulate an image of the Egyptian pyramids so they’d fit better on its cover (the picture was shot on 35m film, before digital cameras were in use).
One of the top editors at our paper sat in on our ethics meeting as we discussed a common scenario that photographers might encounter while cruising for features. You are driving past a park and see someone flying a kite. The pretty sky, the colors of the kite, and the exuberance of the kite flyer combine to create a perfect scene. All it needs is for a photographer to find a place to park. By the time you do, the kite flyer has reeled in his kite and is about to leave. So the question we all asked in the meeting was: “Do you ask them to go fly a kite? A little longer, just for you, and your picture?”
The editor replied. “sure.” He said the kite flying was reality, and the photographer isn’t changing that, just extending the action.
All of the photographers responded with a resounding, “No way!” We see it as the visual equivalent of a reporter making up quotes.
For us it was — and still is - a slippery slope. Something seemingly minor can easily lead to to something ending up all wrong, in a major way.
Besides the honesty, I asked myself, what if the kite flyer trips over a log and breaks a leg? Or a wheelie rider loses control and runs over a kid on the boardwalk. “The photographer made me do it,” is not an answer I want to hear, whether it’s for causing a disaster, or just furthering the loss of trust many today have in the media. Once we lose that trust, there is no going back.
Since 1998, a black-and-white photo has appeared every Monday in staff photographer Tom Gralish’s “Scene Through the Lens” photo column in The Inquirer’s local news section. Here are the most recent, in color: