by Al Tompkins Published May 4, 2011 12:41 pm Updated May 4, 2011 6:48 pm
Until Wednesday, the White House debated whether to release photos showing Osama bin Laden’s body. In theory, the photos would be proof to any doubters that the terrorist is dead. But not all photos can be believed — not even when they seem to show the president of the United States making a historic speech.
Reuters White House photographer Jason Reed describes how the president made his speech to a single TV camera, then immediately after finishing, he pretended to speak for the still cameras.
“As President Obama continued his nine-minute address in front of just one main network camera, the photographers were held outside the room by staff and asked to remain completely silent. Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of that teleprompter and the President then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.”
That means the photograph that appeared in many newspapers Monday morning of Obama speaking may have been the staged shot, captured after the president spoke. This type of staging has been going on for decades.
John Harrington, president of the White House News Photographers Association, tells me that the Obama Administration has used this technique before and they are not the first.
“I am aware of it happening in previous administrations. I believe Bush 41 [George H.W. Bush] did it too,” Harrington says. “The times where I have known of it happening before is when the president is in the Oval Office and you are working in a very tight space.”
Other photographers who work at the White House told Poynter.org that since the Reagan era (and possibly before) it has been the standard operating procedure that during a live presidential address, still cameras are not allowed to photograph the actual event.
“AP understands why the still photographers are not allowed into the live address area and the captions disclose that these are re-enactment situations as well,” says David Ake, the Associated Press’ assistant bureau chief for photos in Washington.
Because of the noise from the camera shutters and the placement of the teleprompter, “we are not able to photograph those events.”
Senior AP Staff Photographer Pablo Martinez Monsivais was called in from vacation on Sunday to cover the White House announcement.
“There is nothing that we do as photojournalists that is unethical” about this, he says. “We fully disclose in our captions that this is a re-enactment, after the live announcement. We put that in.”
“The statement for the photographers took place two to three minutes after the live speech and it happened very quickly — extremely fast — with each photographer rotating into the center position.”
Doug Mills, New York Times photojournalist and former Associated Press staffer, says it has been done this way “always, always … well, as long as I have covered the White House, going back to the Reagan administration. We [still photographers] have never, never, never, ever been allowed to cover a live presidential address to the nation!”
Poynter’s Senior Faculty for Visual Journalism, Kenny Irby, explains, “The most obvious concern is noise. The 35mm cameras emit shutter noise, that would be multiplied by several photographers and increased by the echo which resonates off of the marble floors. The other visual distraction is the placement of the teleprompter that impedes the photographers’ line of sight to the president.”
Harrington says there are alternatives to staging the photographs.
As video images are increasingly detailed, it is easier to use screen captures that meet still photograph standards. He also points to devices like the “Jacobson blimp,” which he demonstrates in a YouTube video.