Of Photo-ops and ethics

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy stops to tie the shoe of 3rd grader Damian Ayuyu, 8, in Stacey Hungerford's 3rd grade class during a visit to Stanton School in Norwich Friday, October 19, 2012. Stanton is the third of the four "Commissioner's Network Schools" the governor will visit across the state highlighting his administration's education reform efforts.

There was a certain irony, or maybe it was merely coincidence, that I would find myself awaiting Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy at Norwich's Stanton School while embroiled in various online discussions of the various ethical pitfalls of political "photo ops".

A couple weeks ago FoxNews made a stink over a photo from a Mitt Romney campaign event. The photo originally moved over the wire without an explanation for the facial expression of a schoolgirl in the photo. On first look it appears that the girl is looking at Mr. Romney's backside when in fact she is reacting to where it is he is about to sit (on, or near, one of her classmates).

Now, FoxNews cites a clause in the National Press Photographers Association's Code of Ethics prevailing upon photojournalists to respect the dignity of our photographic subjects. Absent an explanation the humorous photo could certainly be considered potentially disrespectful to the girl, the candidate or both of them. Once explained the photo is something most photojournalists seek every day on the campaign trail; something other than the spoon-fed photo-ops that make up the bulk of what happens on the trail.

Less than a week later the issue of ethics and photo-ops surfaced again. This time the director of a soup kitchen in Ohio took Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan to task for washing already-clean pots and pans during a photo-op.

As it turns-out, the pots and pans were not clean, the soup kitchen director was misinformed on that matter, but the question of the ethics of documenting the dish-cleaning photo-op continues to buzz about the journalism world. Despite the dishes still being dirty, it turns-out the candidate arrived long-after the soup kitchen was done serving for the evening and volunteers, at the behest of the campaign, left some dirty pots and pans for Mr. Ryan and his wife to clean.

This is where the problem arises. I have a simple standard when faced with a photo-op, whether it be political, civic or business-related; if the activity would be happening regardless of my presence, then it's okay to photograph and publish. If the activity is only being done for my benefit (and obviously some planned benefit of those staging the photo-op) then I politely decline the offering.

This does not mean that most photo ops are not "fake" in some way. Clearly when a politician appear at a soup kitchen, for example, to wash dishes, they are doing that out of a desire to appear sympathetic to the cause of the soup kitchen. It is my belief that the vast majority of consumers of news understand that nuance and are able to see those for what they are. Columnist Michael Shaw at the photography/politics web site BagNews responded to the Washington Post's defense of the Ryan photo-op coverage with a quite eloquent indictment of the practice.

And where does Dan Malloy and the student's show fit into all this?

Gov. Malloy would have toured the Stanton School whether or not I was there. I even suspect he would have tied the student's shoe regardless because he did not hesitate to let me get into a better position for the photo. I had to lunge across a group of people and shoot the photo blind just to get the moment. Those sorts of things are not necessary when the spin doctors and media handlers are in charge of a photo-op.

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