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|| News Item: Posted 2008-02-05

Gray Matters: The photograph is not perfect.
Jim Merithew says most people don't care how you got the photograph. They just want it to look good.

By Jim Merithew, Wired News

Photo by Jim Merithew

Photo by Jim Merithew

Jim Merithew says you want the world, your world, to know what happened in front of your camera today. Here a woman tries to handle her dog backstage at the University of Arizona in Tuscon in 2004. Merithew shot this during one of his road trips.
I think I tried to make this clear in the past, but I am going to give it another go. You have one of the greatest jobs on earth. You are a photographer. And if you are not a photographer, you want to be a photographer. Sure it doesn't pay a whole lot. The hours can really suck. And most people don't really appreciate what you do, let alone understand it.

But you do. You get it. You know why you do it and you love it. It means everything to you. You want the world, your world, to know what happened in front of your camera today. You will stand in the rain, for little or no pay, just to document the important events for your readers.

And then... Somebody has the audacity to say the sky in your photograph is not blue enough and suggests you "fix" it.

This incident between a young college photographer and his media advisor has been discussed a lot on this site so I wanted to take a step back and look at the big picture.

First, this incident has nothing to do with why we work as photojournalists. We aren't in it for the perfect blue skies. We are not and should not be striving for perfection. We should be trying to reflect the world back to itself, grey sky and all.

Second, 99.9% of all people could give a crap about ethics, realism or honesty in photography. Just about everyone has an early childhood memory of being asked by their mother or grandmother to smile for the camera. Say cheese. We started smiling for the camera every time it was pointed in our direction. We were taken to K-Mart, positioned next to a big pink bunny and applauded for sitting up straight, staring into the camera and acting happy.

Hell if you want to make any real money in this business you have to get them to smile AND dip them in chocolate, have them put summer clothes on in winter, set them on fire, or put seventy strobes on them.

I'm not surprised that most people don't understand the ethics of photojournalism. I am surprised that we are continually shocked by their ignorance. Most people don't care how you got the photograph. They just want it to look good. And in the case of writers, editors and the journalism advisor, all they want to know is that you have something to fill the page or the assignment.

Which brings us full circle. If you look at the ethics cases that have made history, they almost always involve a case of someone trying to "fix" a photograph; remove a coke can, add the missing tip of a surfboard or get the ball into a basketball photograph. Why?

The photograph is not perfect.

And not to pick on the young man who threw down the gauntlet over his ethics, but that was not much of a frame to quit your job over. I'm guessing you could have solved all of your problems by asking why the advisor needed to make the sky blue. Instead of getting upset about a frame that doesn't work, you should have looked around to see what else you had to offer. What other options were there?

When confronted by anyone criticizing your photography, you have to stop and think about how you made the photo. These confrontations usually happen over a photograph of questionable quality.

Can I go back and re-shoot?

Did I miss something in my initial edit?

Do I have other choices to offer?

Great photographs don't come along often. But when they do, you want to be ready. You always want be the team player and the problem solver so those above you give the photo the ride it deserves. If you have no options, no additional offerings, no time to go back and no leg to stand on, then you calmly explain why you are in this situation and why "fixing" the frame is not an acceptable option.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and the author alone. They do not represent the views of his employer, co-workers, friends or family.

(Jim Merithew is a picture editor at Wired News. Jim invites you to direct your questions and comments about this column and other issues involving photojournalism ethics to him through his member page:

Related Links:
Merithew's member page

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