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|| News Item: Posted 2007-04-15

Gray Matters: What is real?
By Jim Merithew, San Francisco Chronicle

Photo by Mike Kepka / San Francisco Chronicle

Photo by Mike Kepka / San Francisco Chronicle

Jim Merithew
I admit it. I am a ranting lunatic. Especially when it comes to photography, photojournalism and ethics.

So when offered me the opportunity to bring my ramblings about photojournalism and ethics to the masses (that's you) I hesitated and thought better of it. After all, almost nothing else is as much of a hot topic these days as the gray area of photojournalism ethics. And who in their right mind would wander into that gray area with so many people watching.

I lost a bet and have been forced out into the open. Thus begins my semi-regular column on ethics in photojournalism. As a precursor, I feel like I need to make a few confessions about my background for everyone to understand where I am coming from on the topic.

First, I have wanted to be a newspaper photographer since I was in the seventh grade, but I did not go to a fancy photojournalism school or even take more than the most basic journalism class. I went to a small catholic high school in Northern Michigan and when I went to my high school counselor, Sister Youshouldbeapriest, to tell her I wanted to be a photographer, she told me "photography is not a career, it's a hobby".

Second, I did a lot of things in my early days as a newspaper photographer that I would consider unethical today. I did not do them because I was trying to win awards, or make my job easier or even to make amazing photographs. I did most of the things that I cringe about today because I did not know.

That's right I did not know. Now granted I wasn't completely oblivious to ethics, it was more that I did not know how or when to deal with the gray area.

Third, it wasn't until I was almost 30, and went to work for Bryan and Mary Jo Moss at the Evansville Courier that I found out how black and white the gray area could be. Bryan Moss can be a bit of an eccentric, but he taught me that we all have to have an internal compass, a compass that points true north. There will always be times when you can't go north, but you should always know where north is. Do you know where your true north is?

Finally, my rants are not going to be about the ethics of what a photographer does in Photoshop after taking the photographs, but about what a photographer does before and during the process of taking pictures. If you are overworking your files, stop. If you are making them better in Photoshop, stop. If your photographs need help in these areas, go make better photographs.

Seriously, stop trying to fix pictures that are not worth fixing and go make a snappie that does not need your help in the shop.

Now that I have that out of the way let us move onto our first case study: You are assigned to shoot a feature for tomorrow's paper, so you get in the car and head out into the country. You have been driving around longer than you had hoped and deadline is looming, when out of the corner of your eye you see a couple of kids rowing a boat in their family pond. By the time you turn the car around and find the pond there are no children to be found.

So you:
1. Drive on.
2. Go up to the house and knock on the door to find out if the kids are done playing.
3. Knock and tell the children to come back out to be in the paper.
4. Bring the children back out and have them splash each other, so the picture will be more interesting.
5. Proceed with number 4, while explaining to the young intern that sometime you have to take matters into your own hands.

Well, if you picked number 5 then you would have had the same experience I had on the first day of a newspaper internship where I was shadowing an award-winning staff photographer. Even then, I knew that numbers 3, 4, and 5 were wrong, but what about number 2? Gray?

Can you wait around long enough so that the children are going to make an interesting photograph before deadline? Is failure an option? Do the editors care if the photograph is real and do you care if they care? What is real? Do you know which direction your compass is pointing you? I know what I would do now. Do you?

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 the San Francisco Chronicle. 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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