Ethics is Everything

Images from an NPR article clearly show digital manipulation.

When I was a college student I loved my media ethics class. It was media ethics that lead me to minor in Philosophy, a choice I’m still glad I made.

Looking at the laws that constrain verses the laws that empower. Looking at various situations where journalists have to make judgments about how far to go, how hard to push, when to soften their approach and when to draw the hard line. Journalism ethics revolves around the truth. It is the highest principle to which we aspire — our goal is to be truth tellers. But there remains and entire bevy of concerns that have to be thought through, argued over, considered and even reconsidered when it comes to telling that truth.

If you photograph a person in a moment of grief have you invaded their privacy? Assume they are in the public eye and you legally have the right to photograph them, does that mean it is right? That photograph could haunt them for years? Do you take their pain into consideration? Or you photograph a fatal home fire. Someone’s loved one has died? What consideration do you give the family? How do you decide?

Some weeks ago I photographed a three car injury accident. One of the first responders on scene tried to wave me off, telling me I was not allowed to photograph the injured person because they were protected by HIPA (the Health Information Protection Act). I had to do my job, which means taking the pictures, but I also had to come back to the office and research HIPA vs. the Freedom of Information Act. Next time this occurs, I’ll know that HIPA constrains medical and or emergency responders, not photographers. If it happens in the public eye, I have the right to photograph it. But again, just because you have the right to do something, does not mean it is right to do it.

Here’s one I remember well. Imagine that you are photographing a group of high school students doing a car wash fund raiser. You just know that at some point a water fight is going to break out. Duh. The question is when. If it’s going to happen anyway, and you want to be there when it happens can get the shots, can you wink and nod at one of the kids to suggest he start the fight and that way you get the photos you want or is that directing the scene in an unethical fashion? It may not seem like a major infraction but it is. You have altered reality. And any time you do that, you are not keeping loyalty to the truth as your primary concern.

After so many years in the news biz, I am still amazed at all the little ways these ethical issues arise. Being an ethical journalist is a constant challenge. If my objective is to tell the truth, then that means I cannot stage an event. I get offers on a weekly basis where someone is trying to be helpful and they say something like, “Oh, I could just pull the people you need together and we could act like we’re doing that.” No. No. No. I have to tell them “No” because what they are suggesting is unethical. It is a visual lie.

One of the biggest challenges to ethical journalism has to do with photo editing. This is not a photoshop issue. Photo manipulation is as old as the darkroom. But with incredible tools like Photoshop manipulation has become easier and easier. It wasn’t that long ago that the photographer from the Toledo Blade was caught digitally manipulating photos. Twice he claimed to be changing elements to make prints just for himself, not meant for publication. There was a quote that came out of all of that which sums everything up perfectly: “Our credibility is all we have to offer – it must be protected.” That’s truth. Once you lie, you can never win that trust back.

Sadly, the news is not free of deception. Journalists can be deceived and thereby used to deceive others. We must constantly be vigilant and strive not to allow this. Today we’ve been given yet another example of photo manipulation being published as a document of reality.

I found this story on NPR: Snow-Wash: North Korea Doctored Photo of Kim’s Funeral.
http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2011/12/29/144420031/north-korean-funeral-photoshop-faux-pas?sc=fb&cc=fp

The problem is the people who were digitally removed. Take them out, remove the tracks in the snow and you have this nice clean line. That is obviously wrong. No question. But there is a harder ethical question for me in these images. The challenge for me has to do with the weather.

I face this question when I am editing and toning photos we pick up from the Associated Press. I know how our presses print, and I don’t really know what the weather was like when the photographer made their shot. Is the darkness the result of badly exposed images or actual cloud cover? If I lighten the image for our presses is that lying or am I simply making sure our readers can clearly read the image before them? Look at the crowd in the lower image, you can see more the human faces, not the details of them, but still enough to get the sense of individuals. Is that too far? And also, the two photos of Kim have been highlighted (the one on the car and the one on the building in the background). How much of this is communicating and how much is over-manipulation? Clearly, the lower image is too far, but where is the line in the sand?

Stories like this make me sad. Every time journalism is used to deceive, or rather misused, a little more of that public trust gets chipped away. I hate the lie and I hate the damage it will do, but stories like this are also an important reminder for me. Sometimes I can get to where I have been doing this for so long that it doesn’t seem like a major ethical matter. Familiarity breeds contempt is what they say, but for me familiarity breeds apathy.

My first loyalty must always be to the truth. That is the immovable line. Tell the truth. No more, no less. Every photographer must ultimately decide for themselves, because really, it’s pretty easy to cheat and lie and get away with it. You have to choose to aspire for better.

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Capturing Christ

Long ago when I was in college I remember an art teacher who explained to me that one of the requirements of “good” sculpture is that it must be interesting from every angle. Because it is a three dimensional piece of art it is meant to be looked at from all sides. Therefore to be considered good it has to show more than simply a good view from the front. Look at it from the side, from the back, then ask yourself if it is still worth looking at?

Crazy Horse by Sunti

This year I have done a lot of personal work with an artist in Bigfork named Sunti Pichetchaiyakul. Earlier this year I got to photograph all of Sunti’s bronzes. It ended up being ten hours of photography, but it was so worth it. Sunti’s work is interesting from every angle. The details are incredible. And in all of his work there is such a sense of soul. His Legends of the Americas are based on photographs, or paintings. He wants the sculptures to be as true to life as possible. One of his sculptures is of Crazy Horse. There was no actual image so Sunti based his work on interviews with the descendants of the famed warrior.
His work amazes me. The attention to detail. The fine craftsmanship. I have a personal preference for his bronze work, but all of what he creates is infused with such life.
When I saw Sunti finish his sculpture of Gerald Ford my first thought was to wish that Betty Ford was still alive. She gave Sunti permission to do the sculpture and I remember thinking that if she had seen it, she would have wept. Somehow, through his art, the static bronze becomes dynamic. He captures, a look, an expression… It’s hard to explain. Photography captures the fleeting moment and freezes it in time. My mother is long gone and I miss her so much, especially at this time of year, but something of her smile lives on in one of my favorite photographs of her. Sunti’s work has a similar quality. I don’t know how to explain it better than this, but something of the people he sculpts lives on in the sculptures he creates.
This is why when Sunti told me he was planning to do a sculpture of Christ based on the Shroud of Turin I was instantly excited. There is a strong spiritual aspect to Sunti’s work. In Thai culture making a realistic representation of someone is a heavy responsibility as well as an honor. Sunti takes this very seriously. He is faithfully meticulous. A perfectionist. No detail is without significance. Having seen his other renderings, I literally could not wait to see what Sunti would do with Jesus Christ. I’ve enjoyed all of Sunti’s work, but this has been special for me because now he’s taking a look at someone central to my faith. Sunti is creating a portrait of God.

Because of tight schedules I haven’t had the time to follow the creation of this sculpture the way I would have liked to. The short story is Sunti worked very rapidly to have the sculpture done before Christmas. And with only days before the holiday the sculpture is finished. I got to see it Tuesday at the gallery. I’ll be coming back to do the formal portraits of this sculpture, like we did with the other Legends, but I didn’t want to wait until then to publish these photos. Besides, it’s almost Christmas. What better time to share these photos than in conjunction with the holiday that celebrates the birth of the savior of the world. So here it is, the finished piece. I’ll have more photos of this soon I hope, once we all have time to set up backgrounds and lighting and do the formal portraits. But for now, here it is: Jesus Christ, the first in the Legends of the World series, but Sunti.

Finally Free from a Past Failure

Once upon a time, a long time ago, when I was 26, and a new photographer working at my first newspaper job back in Kansas, my work presented me with a story that I didn’t know how to tell. This was my first full time newspaper. I had worked on my college newspaper when I was student. And I had freelanced for the local daily. But the Salina Journal was my first newspaper where I felt the pressure of filling the every day needs of a newspaper. Every newspaper has X amount of space to fill. The pages get filled with news, photos, ads, graphics, stats, and anything else the editors think the readers will be interested in. This daily need is referred to as the “news hole.” The space specifically allocated for local, state, national, and world events. Except, you don’t need to look at your local newspaper to hear about the latest round of Occupy Wherever. That’s what CNN is for. Local newspapers are relevant because of their connection to the regions they cover. As photographers we are told to be the eyes of our communities. That word community, it drives journalism more than people outside the industry might think, but that is an argument for later.

So, I’m at this job. A daily paper. I think of this as my first real newspaper. I work for an excellent photo editor. Tom Dorsey was a great boss for a fledgeling photographer. He was committed to a strong visual presence in the newspaper, excellence from himself and the photo staff, as well as teaching, training and mentoring. Tom was one of those photographers who would tell you anything. He had no secrets to his shots that he guarded close to his heart. You want to know how he did something, what he was thinking on a particular shot — ask him. Tom believes in teaching.

A story came in about a girl who had lost her leg in a lawn mower accident when she was just a baby. We were doing a longer piece on her and it was a perfect “project” for a photographer to spend some time on and really visually tell the story. By this point in my career I had some experience with this kind of project, but not much. And I was young. I was not nearly as confident in who I was as a person, or a as a photographer. That uncertainty drove me toward the safer subjects. Human suffering is never a safe subject.

I have forgotten how much time I had to do this project, but the short version of this tale is that I failed. I was so uncertain of how to tell a painful story. I was uncertain of how to read my subject and find her boundaries, find out what she would allow and what was a bridge too far. And I was uncertain of my own ability. And all this uncertainty equals a lack of trust.

One of the most difficult challenges in photography is to go into a situation blind, meet someone new, exhibit kindness and compassion, and then earn their trust. Promise them in actions that you will not embarrass them or hurt them. Promise them with your smile and your eyes that you are going to do everything in your power to tell their story faithfully and to not add pain to their lives. And if you don’t trust yourself, they are not going to trust you.

So there was this girl. She was a young teenager and we were doing a story on her life because she was an amputee who played softball. I put the assignment off for as long as could. Rather than spending more time with her, getting to know her, earning her trust, I avoided a painful situation that I really didn’t know how to handle. I guess you could best describe my behavior as punching the snooze button. “I promise I’ll get up, just give me 20 more minutes.” Buthe deadline approaches. There’s a whole to be filled. And my staying away isn’t doing anything good toward filling that space.  So, not only did I have the challenge of a difficult story, I had the added pressure of publication date hanging over my head. That is a great environment to be calm, clear, creative and compassionate in. Yeah, right.

The practical results: I got the assignment done, but it was lack-luster at best. I knew it. And I knew Tom knew it. I could see the disappointment. He’d presented me with an opportunity to really grow as a photographer and instead I had shrunk away from the work. It’s only one day. One day’s paper. But the weight of that failure stayed with me a long time. In some ways, it was good. I became determined to do better next time. To not repeat my mistakes. But for all that forward looking, forward-thinking, I still couldn’t go back and undo or redo the story on the girl. The deadline had come and gone and I missed my chance.

If I am remembering this right, this was 2003. Now we flash forward eight years. I’ve been in this business full time now for what feels like a very long time. And I’ve grown up. Not just as a woman, but as a photographer. I am more mature, more confident, more sure of myself and the value of what I have to offer as a visual storyteller.

But fear is funny thing. It lingers. So much longer than I realized. And once you fail, then you have not only the original challenge to deal with, you have the added fear of a repeated failure. I was amazed this week to realize that I have carried a fear of failure for eight long years.

Wednesday morning I came into the office as usually and looked through the assignments for the day. There was an assignment that Candace had added after I left the night before. She was working on a story on a man Ian Reynolds. He’s 24. Years ago he was injured when playing with a sparkler bomb. Seriously injured. Two years after the initial accident Ian’s lower right leg had to be removed. To read the full story check out: http://dailyinterlake.com/news/local_montana/article_e0c12c22-1e3b-11e1-aa98-001871e3ce6c.html

I could tell from the assignment that this was going to be a great story. Candace writes: “In the end, his foot amputation took his life in a whole new direction, working with Kendall and Gina Carpenter at Glacier Prosthetic Care fabricating prosthetics and orthodics. As a snowboarder, mountain biker and climber and cliff jumper, Reynolds has a passion for assisting other amputees to live the life of their dreams.”

Ian has the most amazing outlook on life. But I didn’t know that when I first saw the assignment. All I saw was a person who had lost their leg and a photo story was being done. In my mind, as I read the assignment, I immediately thought Patrick should take this one. But then I questioned myself as to why. I realized I was avoiding this story because it reminded me so much of my failure on that story back in Kansas. I was afraid that I would fail again.

I hate being controlled by my fears. I am terrified of heights, but I will still climb, sometimes up onto a precarious perch when the photo demands it. I’m also afraid of spiders and snakes and sharks. I’ve held both snakes and spiders (yes, I once held a tarantula in one hand and held my camera in the other so I could document my moment of insanity when I put a large furry deadly, long legged, eight legged, monster on my arm). I haven’t lived anywhere that I’ve needed to confront my fear of sharks, but I know that if there was photo I really wanted that somehow required me to deal with sharks, I’d find a way to get through it.

As soon as I recognized my fear as the driving force behind my decision I changed my mind about who should do these photos. It’s a good story and I’m a good photographer. I knew that I could do this, and it was time to prove that to myself. So I called him up and set the time for the first photo shoot. And now I am incredibly glad that I did. One, because I had a great time meeting this person. Too many times I’ve crossed paths with people who have been destroyed by what has happened to them. They’ve faced death or loss, some great tragedy and they simply could not find it within themselves to go on. They become victims, someone to whom something happened, and it always breaks my heart to meet such people. But it’s the survivors who inspire me. They take what life presents them, they face unimaginable loss and they build a life after their tragedy that makes your heart soar just to hear it.

Ian is a survivor. It would be easy to assume that losing a leg in such a way, at such an age, would be a life crushing tragedy. Only in this case it wasn’t. As I’m photographing Ian he talked openly about his belief that this was God’s way of pointing him toward his purpose. You see, Ian is just a rock climbing amputee. Ian now makes prosthetic legs for others. And he uses his own personal experience to make his work the best that he can. At one point I photographed him while he was using a heat gun to warm the inner liner of a prosthetic leg. He would warm the plastic and then carefully bend it slightly down and out making for a more comfortable fit when attached to someone’s leg. Why does he do this? Because he knows it makes the prosthetic more comfortable to wear. It’s something no one ever did for him. Ian is passionate about helping people who’ve lost a limb to live full lives. And he’s joyful. Even when he’s serious he’s smiling.

That’s one reason I’m glad I took this assignment. The other reason I count myself fortunate is that in doing these photographs I feel I have redeemed a failure from my past that I didn’t even realize I was still haunted by. A few weeks ago I was writing about the things I’ve gained and lost in my life as  professional photographer. Now I can add this to the list, I’ve gained confidence. In the years that I have been working as a photographer I have gained the ability to walk up to a complete stranger and ask if I may take their picture. I gained an awareness of my own worth as a photographer, I trust that, and I now have the ability to win the trust of those I photograph. No, not every person ends up trusting me, but most of them do. At least they trust me enough to let me tell their story and I am honored by this.

This is the kind of story I wish I could have spent weeks on rather than hours. I got the assignment Wednesday morning and the deadline is Thursday afternoon. I got the deadline pushed back to Friday morning so that we had time for two photo shoots, one at the office and one of Ian on the climbing wall at my gym. I feel like I only got the scratch the surface with these photos, and yet they are enough to make me feel free. I can’t undo my mistake from my days at the Journal. But I can let it go. I’m a better photographer now. I’m also a better person. And I can tell this story. I don’t have to run from it. And won’t ever run from it again.

“Oh, the cleverness of me!”

Peanut Butter What-nots

One of my favorite lines from Peter Pan is near the beginning. Wendy carefully sews Peter’s shadow back on, and Peter, who is notoriously forgetful, ignores her contribution and celebrates his success by shouting “Oh, the cleverness of me!” This line has become the epitome of braggadocio to my mind, and yet, when I taste my newest dessert these are usually the words that I’m thinking. : )

I’ve made these four times now, and for each occasion I’ve been given quite a few compliments and some much appreciated feedback. They are really quite good and so I’ve decided to share them here. These are an adaptation of one of my mother’s recipes. My mother made these as bars topped with a powdered sugar syrup that hardens into a carmel-like topping when cool. She called them Peanut Butter Chews. I have loved these since I was  a little girl. But, as any one who knows me can attest, I am an unabashed choc-o-holic. I wanted to dress these up a bit and find a way to combine the peanut butter base with my love of rich dark chocolate. As I said the results are in. These are a definite keeper.

To make them you will need:
2 cups of creamy peanut butter
2 cups of Rice Krispies
4 cups of Corn Flakes
2 tsp of vanilla
1 cup of light corn syrup
1 cup of brown sugar
1 cup of heavy cream
2 bars of excellent chocolate
1 tbs of rum
and sea salt to taste

You start by putting the Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes in a large deep pot (the high walls make it easier to combine the ingredients than using a bowl). Add PB and vanilla and stir to combine.
In a double-broiler melt the corn syrup and brown sugar together. When melted pour over the PB and cereal mix. Mix it all together. This is not easy as everything is highly sticky, but it’s well worth the effort.
Cover a large baking tray with wax paper, then pull out a small amount of your PB mix and form into balls, setting them aside on the wax paper. Again, this is a rather long process and not easy, because this stuff is really a sticky mess to work with.
Once you have all the PB balls formed stick them in a freezer for 20-30 minutes.
Now that the balls are ready chop two bars of dark chocolate (I like Ghirardelli) and place into a large glass mixing bowl. Bring heavy cream to a boil and then pour it immediately over the chocolate. (Watch this step closely because the cream will boil and then rapidly spill over if you are not careful.) Whisk the cream and chocolate together finally adding the rum and doing a final quick whisk.
Liquid chocolate. Yum.
Spoon the chocolate over the balls and then top them with sea salt.
I usually put these in the fridge before serving them. You don’t want the chocolate to melt all over someone’s hands.
The next time I make these I am thinking of making one bar of white chocolate and 1/2 cup of heavy cream for a lighter, decorative topping to the dark chocolate.

There’s only one problem with these…they don’t yet have a name. I’m looking for something cool and suggestions are welcome.