I made a picture at my first newspaper of some youngsters walking along the railroad tracks on a hot sunny day. It was a perfect example of the quintessential newspaper standalone “weather art” feature photo.
My editor loved it, and thinking about it today, I can image the emotion he might have been feeling. As in the ending scene of the coming-of-age Rob Reiner film “Stand by Me,” where Richard Dreyfus, playing the grownup adult narrator typing the green text on his 1980s computer’s CRT monitor says, “I never really had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.”
But my railroad tracks picture elicited a different response in others and provided me with an early lesson in how our photographs connect with viewers. My editor received a letter a few days later admonishing the newspaper for “encouraging” children to “play on railroad tracks” and informing us how many people are killed every year by getting hit by trains.
Newspapers still get similar emails and letters whenever we publish photographs of people in the city’s fountains or at open hydrants. Or, even if a general photo of a street scene includes someone riding through on a bicycle without a helmet, we are accused of helping people to make “bad decisions.”
That is certainly not our goal. And as much as I want to believe in the power of photojournalism, I don’t think our pictures change people’s thinking or actions that much.
The criticisms of our work have become even more pronounced in the current time. And I am not even talking, as I did a few weeks ago, about the increase in aggressions by the police against journalists. Protesters are shouting “don’t take my picture!” and demanding newspapers blur their faces before publishing photos at public demonstrations.
Even health issues have become politicized with our pictures labeled as propaganda or irresponsible, depending on which side of the aisle the viewers are on.
I covered an “old-fashioned, summer outdoor picnic” this week. It promised social distancing measures would be in place, with “plenty of room to spread out.” A newspaper reader emailed me the next day, complimenting me on my previous work, but questioned whether my pictures of the attendees dancing was “really a great image for these times?” They found it “jarring” and added: “I count two masks on faces, one under a chin. No social distancing. And no comment on this in the caption.”
I do understand how a person’s perspective can shape their feelings about newspaper photos, especially on emotional issues. I replied to the email that my job is to document events happening in our community. It’s not to teach people how to behave in public.
Many readers just don’t understand what visual journalists do. Danese Kenon, the newspaper’s Director of Video and Photography, said “media literacy is so important.” When the pandemic finally eases, she would like the newspaper to do more outreach to inform and educate the public.
Kenon talked with a reader twice on the phone after the reader posted on social media the accusation that we manipulated photos in the first days of beach re-openings at the Jersey Shore, to “purposely lie with the sole intention to scare people and make a quick buck.”
A couple of weeks ago my colleague Jose Moreno had just finished photographing the “totchos” (tater tots smothered in she-crab bisque and bacon) for a Craig LaBan outdoor dining review when he was dispatched to make a beach picture before the upcoming Fourth of July weekend.
“I walked onto the beach, took a picture to my left, then turned to my right,” he said. All told, he figured, he was there no longer than 15 minutes. His photo ran online the next day with a story headlined, “Pennsylvania coronavirus cases are trending up, with worries about bars, young people, and the Jersey Shore.”
The reader, who posted on a friend’s account, described Moreno’s photo as “OUR KIDS on the beach amidst a throng of beach goers!!!! TOTALLY PHOTOSHOPPED!!! … I understand that COVID is real but I am tired of being lied to. This FAKE NEWS has to stop!!!” They went on to say, “There are soooo many things wrong with this picture. I will provide details if needed. It is obviously picture upon picture superimposed upon each other. So I would say that you and your staff are undeniably totally busted . . . While I am being responsible along with EVERY OTHER SOCIALLY DISTANCED PERSON on that beach today you have lied and turned it into a disgusting ploy to sell a paper.”
As of this weekend the post has been shared 734 times, and has generated 261 comments. Here is a sampling:
“…was on the beach all day yesterday, it was not crowded at all. This is totally wrong.”
“I’m not surprised media liars.”
“Maybe they got the town wrong. A couple people raised points of what they noticed in background.”
“That’s mainstream media for you, my friend. They only do things that meet their specific agenda. They no longer give us true facts.”
“So typical of the elitists from the left who believe they are the ones to tell us what we can do, where we can go and how we are to think. Good for you calling them out . . . "
“I suspect the photographer manipulated the photo, then sold it to the paper, whose editors did not fact-check it because they rely on their photographers to supply honest and accurate photographs.”
These examples really reveal how misunderstood the work of visual reporters is to most of our readers. “We take these things seriously,” Kenon said, as she reached out to the reader, telling them “the accusations you’re making can end someone’s career.”
The two had what Kenon said was a respectful discussion that included the sharing of smart phone pictures taken by the reader and her friends. By looking at the metadata Kenon was able to show the reader that their pictures were taken in the early morning – and compare them with the beach scene Moreno captured in the late afternoon. .
It’s hard to change minds when you have to do it one person at a time. I covered the homeless encampment that grew in the wake of last month’s protests. The camp has a “no photos” rule and even a uniformed “security guard” to “protect the privacy” of the residents. On the periphery of the tent city my writer colleagues and I were able to have respectful conversations with people as individuals – and make some daily life pictures (albeit with my iPhone).
While I was there, I politely asked at the medical tent if I could take a closeup picture of their bright orange “No Photos” sign. They adamantly refused, and a woman sitting in an adjacent tent said “leave now or we will take away your phone and burn it.” As I walked away I heard another guy say to her, “he thinks he’s funny taking an oxymoron.” He knows it!
**Even today, with the rise of selfies and other social media photography, Pennsylvania Operation Lifesaver (PAOL) reports more than 20 Americans have been killed or injured in photography-related train track incidents since 2011. The state branch of the national nonprofit public safety education and awareness organization is dedicated to reducing collisions, fatalities and injuries at highway-rail crossings and trespassing on or near railroad tracks. They present free rail safety education in schools and communities throughout the commonwealth.
Since 1998, a black-and-white photo has appeared every Monday in staff photographer Tom Gralish’s photo column in The Inquirer’s local news section. Here are the most recent, in color: