WHEN PHOTOGRAPHS (AND PHOTOGRAPHERS) LIE

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Staged photographs in news stories have a long history, dating back to the birth of modern photography itself. Consider the example above, for instance. Taken by Alexander Gardner in July 1863, the photograph seems to capture the valiant last moments of a Confederate soldier at the height of the Civil War. Historians claim that this wasn’t the case at all––they say that there is ample evidence that Gardner or one of his associates dragged the body from a nearby hillside, deposited it in this natural bunker (called the “Sharpshooter’s Den”), and then found a rifle and propped it up next to the body, presumably for dramatic effect. Although the technology did not yet exist to publish photos like this in newspapers, the photograph nonetheless became a dramatic symbol of human loss and pro-Union sentiment. Moreover, it’s safe to say that people had always believed that the setting was in fact real and not staged.

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After nearly 150 years, not much changed. The photograph above is of 15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma, who was shot dead by police on January 19, 2010, after reportedly stealing three framed pictures in Port-au-Prince after an earthquake devastated Haiti. The photograph, taken by Paul Hansen, went on to win a Swedish Picture of the Year award. But take a look at the photograph below.

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This photograph, taken by Carlos Garcia Rawlins, was reportedly taken minutes before other photographers––including Hansen––arrived at the scene. This seems to make it clear that someone, maybe even Hansen himself, moved Cherisma’s body so as to make it more compelling and to make her identity more visible. The ethics here are such that news photographers are not to alter what they see; they are to merely document news events with the aid of their cameras. That said, they are also to provide the necessary context for stories, to make them understandable in ways that words can’t. The moral problem, of course, is balancing these two imperatives: visually documenting events and telling compelling stories. So the question is this: Is it ever permissible for news photographers to alter settings before they take their photographs, all in an effort to better tell the stories that they document?

Here’s something else to consider: Hansen’s photograph won an award. Cherisma’s body being re-arranged (whether by Hansen or someone else) seems to cast a negative light on the serendipitous nature of good news photography. For example, the photograph taken by Charles Porter immediately after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, while it too won an award, elegantly captured a horrible moment frozen in time. So which photograph is more deserving of an award?

Update #1: On February 15, 2013, Hansen won top honors in the World Press Photo awards.

Update #2 (February 26, 2013): Rightly or wrongly, Hansen continues to get favorable press, this time from National Geographic. Given the dubious circumstances surrounding Hansen’s photograph of Cherisma, I think he’s probably more deserving of harsh criticism than he is of garnering awards and favorable publicity. This is, it seems to me, just another case of someone profiting from immoral behavior.

Update #3 (March 1, 2013): A commenter (“Tito Chris”) raised some very good points. It’s certainly true that I have no proof that Hansen moved the body; after all, I wasn’t there and I haven’t myself actually spoken to anyone who was there. I’ve merely analyzed the anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless, let’s consider four different options for what happened: 1) Hansen knew the body had been moved and photographed it anyway; 2) Hansen himself moved the body; 3) Hansen had no idea the body had been moved when he photographed it; and 4) Cherisma fell in that position to begin with. Options 1 and 2, in my mind, are equally as bad insofar as they both reflect an intent to deceive. Options 3 and 4, of course, exonerate Hansen from any ill intent whatsoever. That said, it seems to me that options 3 and 4 were unlikely to have happened (I emphasize unlikely; not impossible or improbable). Given the number of photographers on the scene (and how they might have talked among each other), I think it unlikely that Hansen simply happened upon Chermisa’s body in that position. Similarly, it seems unlikely Cherisma fell in that same (allegedly posed) position after having been hit.

“Tito Chris” mentioned the good that the photo might have brought about, regardless of how it was taken. That’s an excellent point. Some have claimed that Cherisma was in fact murdered, allegedly by the Haitian police. And she was reportedly shot dead for stealing picture frames, of all things. So yes, this photo did (and still does) inform us all about the seemingly lawless state of existence in Port-au-Prince following the earthquake and the need to bring Cherisma’s alleged killer to justice. I must point out, however, that such a viewpoint is itself very Machiavellian insofar as it asserts that the ends justified the means. That certainly doesn’t make the view bad or wrong in itself; it’s simply another way of looking at what happened. I don’t argue that the photo might have done some good. The fact that we’re discussing it right now is evidence of that. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t examine Hansen’s behavior and motivations as a photographer who was reporting on what took place after the earthquake, and who was proud enough of what he did to submit the work to be juried for awards.

At left, photographers descend on the body of Fabienne Cherisma. At right,  a man identified as Cherisma's father recovers her body. Sources: Nathan Weber, www.guardian.co.uk
At left, photographers descend on the body of Fabienne Cherisma. At right, a man identified as Cherisma’s father recovers her body. Sources: Nathan Weber, guardian.co.uk, prisonphotogtraphy.org

DOES IT SHOCK OR INFORM?

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Sometimes photographs used in news stories are criticized because they do a better job of shocking readers than they do of informing them. The photo above, taken in 1996, is an excellent example. Shortly after being convicted by a Northern California jury of murdering 12-year-old Polly Klaas, Richard Allen Davis stood up, turned to press-pool photographers and held up both of his middle fingers. The San Jose Mercury News chose to run the photograph along with a “Dear Reader” box soliciting reader responses to the photograph and explaining why the editors chose to run it. Because Davis’s trial was well publicized, most people already knew of his courtroom conduct––he regularly demonstrated a complete lack of remorse, and behaved contemptibly. Thus, many editors asserted that the Mercury News merely wanted to shock its readers and sell newspapers.

The photo below might be similarly criticized for a seeming desire to profit from shocking the public. In January 1987, five days before he was to be sentenced for conspiracy, mail fraud, and racketeering, Pennsylvania State Treasurer R.Budd Dwyer held a news conference during which he read a 25-minute manifesto criticizing fellow politicians and the media. At the conclusion of the conference he pulled a .357 magnum revolver from an envelope, put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Still and video cameras recorded every instant. On the noon news that day in Philadelphia, a number of broadcast news stations chose to run footage of Dwyer, cutting the videos seconds before Dwyer fired. Some newspapers also ran photos. The Daily Times of Philadelphia published three photos on page one, including one of Dwyer with the revolver in his mouth and one taken a split second after he pulled the trigger, with an apparent explosion of blood behind his head. If you were a Pennsylvania newspaper editor or television news director, what would you have done?

photo3November 27, 2013: The front page of today’s The New York Times featured a photograph of a woman bearing her scarred breast for a story on the high incidence of breast cancer among Israeli women (see “NYT Powerful Front Page: Was it Necessary?”). This case offers a different perspective on the question of whether photographs shock or inform.