Monday, June 25, 2007

Do we stage photos? Generally no.

At least once a week, our photographers are asked questions like these: Can you make me look 10 pounds lighter? Can you erase my wrinkles? Can I pretend to be doing something while you’re taking my photo?
In other words, would we please “stage” their picture?
The answer: Generally no.
Our photographers deftly try to handle such questions weekly from people who are eager to please.
“They typically ask me something along the lines of ‘What would you like me to do?’ or ‘I can pretend to be doing such and such,’’’ said Joe Johnston, who has worked at The Tribune for seven years.
“My response is always, ‘Just do what you were going to do and pretend I’m not here,’’’ he said. “We are not movie directors,’’ he added. “We document what people actually do.”
To be sure, there are occasions when we set up a photo – whether it’s a business executive in her office or food for Dining Out reviews or fitness experts demonstrating various exercise routines for our weekly Get Fit story.
“But it is clear in these images that the subject is aware of the camera, and readers are sophisticated enough to understand that this is not a found moment,’’ said David Middlecamp, who has been a Tribune photographer for 21 years. “Lights may have been set up,’’ he said, “or I may ask for the subject to sit in a chair that does not have a loading dock behind it.” Tribune photojournalists adhere to the code of ethics established by the National Press Photographers Association, which says they “have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its images as a matter of historical record.”
Clearly, electronic technologies provide new challenges to the integrity of photos. Yet “accurate representation is the benchmark of our profession,’’ the association says. “We believe photojournalistic guidelines for fair and accurate reporting should be the criteria for judging what may be done electronically to a photograph. Altering the editorial content ... is a breach of the ethical standards recognized by the NPPA.” To give you a better understanding of how ethical judgment guides our photography, consider these recent examples:

Snakes on the Plains (pls use female snake picture)
When Johnston met with a Cal Poly biologist conducting research on rattlers at Carissa Plains, she was seeking a female rattlesnake to surgically implant devices that would allow her to locate the snake and track its body temperature over time.
She wasn’t seeking male snakes because she had already tagged enough of them to observe their natural behavior. But if she couldn’t find a female snake, she offered to grab a male snake so that Johnston could photograph her holding a snake.
“I told her to just do what they would normally do,’’ Johnston said. “Fortunately, we found a snake hidden under a rock and they had to grab it and bring it out in order to identify it as male or female and I was able to get a photo of them handling a snake.
“And as luck would have it, we later found a female and I was also able to get additional photos of them handling that snake as well.
“However, if on that day we did not find the female or did not need to handle a snake at all, then my photos would have had to reflect that. I would have just gotten photos of a male snake on the ground undisturbed with the researchers observing it.”

In Meth’s Grip
Often we have to invest time to allow the person we’re photographing to relax and just be themselves, Middlecamp said. “Ordinary moments are far more telling than anything I could imagine.’’
As the photographer who worked on our four-part series on local methamphetamine use, Middlecamp said it was impossible to get all the images he needed in one visit. For example, he spent about 25 hours over six months with a woman recovering from meth addiction to show how she was trying to rebuild her shattered life.
“The routines in her life changed from week to week as she was able to find a job, buy a car and move to a new apartment. The reporter and I had to spend enough time with her to find real moments, but not smother her efforts at recovery,” Middlecamp recalled.
“The more you learn about your subject, when they laugh, what makes them stop and think, the better your images can be.”
None of the images he took during his first meeting with the woman were published. He obtained a leading front-page photo on his last visit.
Should we hide the clutter?
A reader recently complained that photography in our weekly Home section – which takes readers inside local homes and gardens -- didn’t portray local houses to best advantage and suggested that we “stage’’ more photos.
Here’s how Rochelle Reed, features editor of The Tribune, responded:
“Staging is a term used when a home is accessorized in order to sell it. ‘Styling’ is the term that interior-decorating magazines and now television shows use when they temporarily supplement or completely replace a homeowner’s furnishings and accessories with more fashionable items.
“During the decade that I styled homes for decorating magazines, I straightened shelves, hid televisions, replaced dead plants and frequently brought in entirely new furniture. After a time, I realized how unfair we were to readers, who imagined that other homeowners lived in perfect environs totally without clutter. So in Home, we show homes just as they are, often well-lived or … maintained in pristine formality.
“What you see is what really exists.’’

-- Sandy Duerr

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