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Does the public care about ethics? PT.1

April 29, 2007 by Mark Cornelison  
Filed under Mark Cornelison

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The subject of ethics comes up all the time in our business.  The rules are clear to the photo staff at the Herald-Leader. Don’t set up photos, and don’t manipulate photos in photoshop. When I say manipulate I mean changing the content of the photo, or removing content making the photo inaccurate. Plain and simple committing these offenses can mean your job. My question today is, does the public care one way or the other? When you read the Herald-Leader or look at photos does the question ever come up in your mind as to whether they are real or not? Do you assume that everything is set up for the good of a photo? I am starting to think that the public just wants to see nice photos period. This is frustrating on many levels with the first being that a big part of my job is depicting an event as accurately as possible. MANY MANY times this means being very patient and waiting for the key moment of an event to happen and be ready to nail it when it does. It does not mean creating the key moment right then for your benefit so you can get the shot and move on. Sometimes the "moment’ does not make the best photo. That is where the skill comes into play. We have to try to anticipate the moment from where it is going to be, what angle would be best, which way are the heads going to turn (in the event the moment has people in it), and the photographic part of the equation, focus, exposure etc, should not even be a factor because we are trained to get that done without even thinking about it. It is expected. We can’t have the moment redone because we blew the exposure. We have to go back to work and let everyone know we missed it and it was our fault in that case. It is tough sometimes to have to admit you missed it but it happens to all of us. Do people think that the perfect game winning touchdown catch is set up? Do we have them re-do the play so we can get a better angle? No we don’t. We get it when it happens and that is what separates professionals from the rest of the pack. The pack being all those who now own digital cameras and digital video recorders who get credentials and are suddenly involved in events from a media perspective but with no training on how to handle it, both professionally and ethically. I don’t blame people for wanting to be where we can be. It is a great job and we see a lot of cool stuff. But people need to understand the whole job and how it is done. Once you have a credential on your neck most subjects don’t know that you don’t work for a legitimate media outlet and when you set up photos and manipulate situations it kills the credibility of those of us who play it straight. I was at Keeneland racetrack this morning shooting horse workouts. After the horses leave the track it is common to follow it to the barn to get shots of it getting bathed and eating in the stalls. It helps break up the monotony of shot after shot of horses running on the track. Today I was shooting a Derby favorite named "Circular Quay". He was in his stall eating and his exercise jockey Angel Cordero Jr. came up and gave the horse a piece of candy. I got the shot. Not a perfect shot because of the angle and some harsh shadows from the early sun but I still got it. An amateur videographer was nearby and asked me if I got it and I said yes. He said he got it too but the light was just horrible. He suggested we get them to bring the horse out in the light so we can get a better shot. I kind of thought he was joking at first but he wasn’t. I told him we don’t do set up shots and he kind of laughed like I was the one joking. I wasn’t. I explained that setting up photos was a potential job-losing situation. He questioned me as to what was wrong with it. It is not reality I said. You are making a situation happen that would not be happening if you didn’t ask for it. Some other people were nearby and seemed surprised too that we don’t set stuff up. That really bothered me. The video guy persisted to talk about it being all right and I told him I didn’t want to argue about it. I asked him whom he was shooting for and he said he was doing a documentary and I said he was already way off track if he is setting up photos for a documentary. The whole point of a documentary is to tell the true story. Otherwise it is just a movie.  The situation did not end pretty and I left. As I left I heard someone ask Angel to go over and hug Circular Quay. I looked back and saw Angel with the horse as people shot photos so I turned and shot one too. See below.


This photo was not one I turned in to the paper today because it is not real. Sure no one told Angel to put the hat on the horse and it made a nice photo but I still new it was not real, but does the public care. Would you rather see the fun photo of the horse in that hat, or a "true" photo? Had I been at the other end of the barn and seen this and shot it would that have been wrong? If I didn’t hear the people ask for it would that make it right? I’m sure we have all shot stuff that was set up and we didn’t know it, but we sure try not too. It’s the way it is supposed to be.

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7 Responses to “Does the public care about ethics? PT.1”
  1. clay says:

    preach on, preach on, agree 100%- great post.

  2. Tom Eblen says:

    Good post, Mark. Photojournalists shoudl be about fact, not fiction; truth, not invention. What separates the Herald-Leader and most other traditional news organizations from some television and new media upstarts are their ethics and their commitment to telling stories rather than creating them. Does the public care? In the final analysis, I think they do. Or, at least, they should.

  3. Amy Crawford says:

    Amen. Praise God and Amen again. I’m sending this to our photo editor.

  4. Carlos Moreno says:

    Great post, but it seems that all the comments are from people in the biz.

    The public doesn’t seem to care enough to enter the fray. That might say something right there.

    I don’t want to pigeon hole a group, but I’ve caught more than my fair share of videographers from TV setting up shots or asking someone to do it over.

    The worst I’ve witnessed was a crew that didn’t want to or couldn’t move it’s live truck. So to get a shot of some protestors the crew asked them to move closer to the van and turn toward it so they could get the shot.

    I worked at a newspaper at the time and came very close to calling the TV station’s management, but I chickened out.

    My bad.

  5. Mark Cornelison says:

    Thanks alot for the response. I totally agree with you Carlos. I have seen more than my fair share of set ups and it is sickening. TV does “seem” to not share the ethics we try so hard to use in newspapers. I don’t know why.
    I am going to address this in an Ethics Pt. 2 post!
    Thanks again.

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