Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Photographer's responsibilities to their subjects

Ages ago, I was a newspaper reporter and a photographer. Basically, pretty much any given day for just under a year there was a picture I took on the front page of our local paper. Which means I took an awful lot of pictures.

So this recent article by NPR caught my eye - What It Feels Like To Be Photographed In A Moment of Grief.

The article is well done, so I suggest reading it first because this will be entirely in response to that. Anyway, the point of it is that a woman was grieving at a religious statue in Newtown, Connectictut after the Sandy Hook shooting and a photographer took her picture. The picture was then sold and licensed to several news services, and published pretty much worldwide. All without the woman being contacted or talked to in any way.

Understandably the woman, Aline Marie, was upset about this. But to my surprise, she reacted very reasonably, saying that she didn't want to photo taken down, and she wasn't offended. But she did want people to understand her perspective on the situation and that she felt that somebody should have asked her permission.

The comments that come withe the article range across the board, but several said that photographers should "always" ask permission BEFORE taking a picture. Most agreed that photographers should speak to the subjects of their photos at some point. Though no one I saw really takes in the most important fact of the photo to me - which is that the "private" moment of grief is already heavily observed by cameras int he background, both photo and video. Which is part of what makes it a powerful statement, in my eyes.

Okay, so here's the way I see this. First - asking permission before taking a photograph isn't a good idea. While I never really took controversial pictures for the paper, my favorites are almost always candid ones where the subject doesn't realize I'm there. People act differently the moment that a camera is involved. Even if you tell them, "pretend I'm not here," "do what you were doing," "just act natural." Nothing will get you as good a picture as that candid moment before they realize you're there. I will never say that photographers should speak to their subjects before the picture.

However I will point out again that in this picture, Marie is already being observed on all sides and was likely aware of it. Which, again, is partially why it's a powerful image about this moment in our history. It can be a note about many different aspects of the moment. So again, I don't feel the photographer should have spoken to her before he took the picture.

But then we get to the question of after. Listen, when I was a photographer I was the world's WORST about talking to people after I'd taken the picture, even when they saw me. It was a benefit that my local paper was relatively well known and my picture was in it once a week so people probably knew me (and if they didn't know me from that, more than one of my subjects turned out to be people who knew my family, it was a small town). But on at least one occasion I had a man come into the newspaper office yelling and screaming because he was in a picture I took at the local fair that we had published in the paper. He threatened to sue, got belligerent, and generally made me want to hide. My desk was easily visible from the front desk of the paper, so I was in full view the entire time, though he thankfully didn't connect my name with me sitting there.

The editor came out and took care of the situation with a simple fact that most people don't realize: if you are in public or visible from a public area then any photographer is allowed to take a picture of you and use it. Especially newspaper photographers, they do not need your permission, they do not need your name, they can use it "to sell papers" and so on. This is a matter of legality, and most photographers know the ins and outs of it pretty well. I'm not as well versed in it anymore, but back then I was well aware of exactly what I could and could not do.

So, legally, this photographer is well within his rights. The AFP is within their rights to publish and sell the photo. And I, for one, don't want to see this changed. But was it moral or ethical? Is it moral to take a picture of somebody grieving? Or to be taking pictures at all at a time like this?

The photographer should have spoken to the subject. He should have gotten her name, found out if she knew anyone at the school, and shown her the picture (digital cameras give us that power) so that she could see first hand that his picture was respectful. He didn't because he was embarrassed and because he didn't want to intrude, and those are very valid feelings. I felt them constantly when I was at the paper, and in an instant like this those would only be heightened. Even passing her his business card would have been nice. Ethically, he could have done better. But in a situation like this, I can't give him an awful lot of fault for it.

But as for taking the picture itself? I believe we need to take pictures at times like these. We have to, because in ten years, twenty years, thirty years, this is what we'll have. Photography is how we record our history and we are a better people for it. These photos are able to capture more than words can, because they not only show you the emotion on the part of the subjects but they create an emotion in the viewer. We must take these pictures.

So lastly, I want to make a point about how people in these situations treat the photographers. I remember once I was sent to take pictures of a particularly bad car accident on the interstate, because that kind of thing is front page news in a small town. There were miles of people slowing down to stare as they drove past, and there were victims being airlifted out by helicopter from the scene of the accident. I went to a nearby service road, which was also backed up with onlookers and even people pulled open to stare and watch. But the second I took out my camera, I started getting heckled, honked at, insulted, and even flipped off.

Those people maybe didn't realize I was with the press, but even if they did I bet they would have thought it was disgusting. Though I don't see how it's any more or less disgusting than slowing down to gawk, especially considering I made sure to stay on the service road and no one working the accident was even aware of my presence. Maybe they didn't realize that we had a policy at my paper to never publish a picture of a victim, and so when I came back with my images I went through and deleted the ones where you could see even an arm or a leg that wasn't covered. We published a picture of the stretcher being loaded onto the helicopter where the patient was blocked from view by emergency personnel, even though I had better shots, because it was the most respectful one.

Did they send me on that assignment out of respect? No, they did it because pictures of wrecks sell papers and they wanted to sell more papers. But was there a way for us to do it properly and did we do that? Yes. So what should those onlookers have done when they saw me with my camera? First of all, nothing, there was no reason for them to say anything. But if they absolutely must speak, they should have simply said, "excuse me, do you really need to take pictures" or "I'm sorry, but why are you photographing this?" And I would have replied, "I'm with the newspaper, we'll do our best to be respectful of the victims. I would be happy to give you my editor's information if you'd like to speak with him more about it." We all could have moved on with our lives and maybe contemplated sensationalist journalism over our dinners that night instead of being insulted on the side of the road.

Christmas TV Movies Special: A Christmas Wedding Date

So a few weeks ago I reviewed one Christmas Movie we randomly ended up watching, Christmas Twister. Then a bunch of stuff happened and now just in time for Valentine's Day, I'll review another Christmas movie! Hey, at least it's a romance!

Anyway, on Christmas Eve my family and I once again got sucked into an Ion TV Original movie - A Christmas Wedding Date.

I wish I had as many fun observations of this one as I did for Christmas Twister, but sadly while the entire genre of "hilariously bad disaster movies" amuses me, the genre of "mediocre romantic comedies" isn't really entirely my thing.

See, I love comedies. I love romance. But somehow when you stick them both together I want to smack somebody. Probably because the premise of almost all of these movies is either a-rooted in a fantasy of what romance really is that is so unbelievable I'd rather watch a movie about massive tornadoes or b-designed around a hilarious misunderstanding that wouldn't be a problem if people got around to actually speaking for more than two seconds.

Listen, one of the first things I learned about screenwriting in grad school is that people rarely say what they mean. Okay, that's cool, that's probably pretty true. Except that the central conflict of this entire movie is that the main character left her hometown and her true love boyfriend to live a lonely career-woman life in the big city because she heard a rumor that he...did something with this girl she didn't like. I never figured out if he was supposed to have slept with the other girl, kissed her, or just was in the same room with her and that wasn't cool.

But anyway, this girl seriously gets up, ships out to another place, changes all her plans, and changes her entire life because she heard a rumor. If I recall correctly, she didn't actually see anything happen so there wasn't even a misunderstanding on that level. Maybe I should have said "spoiler alert" since you're probably not supposed to know that it was a misunderstanding until he explains that it never happened in the third act, but come on, was there any doubt, ever? Seriously? Then you've never seen a romantic comedy. When you base your entire story on something so weak and contrived, and something that could be cleared up any second by the protagonist just saying "I didn't appreciate you sleeping with/kissing/making eyes at that other girl" then your movie is shaky to begin with.

The hilarious thing though is that I haven't actually told you the gimmick. See, this is a "Groundhog's Day" story, only with Christmas! And a wedding! Every science fiction show since Groundhog's Day has had an episode with the premise so you're probably used to it: protagonist has to repeat the same day until they figure out why they have to repeat it, and fix the cycle in order to magically be freed to live a better life. If you're curious, Stargate SG-1 did it best in "Window of Oppurtunity".

You've got every single trope possible for this kind of story. The character first blows off everything and acts irresponsibly, says all the things she's always wanted to say, is rude, etc. Then she decides to learn new things since she has a ridiculous amount of time to spare, and when she advances quickly (in the eyes of the characters not aware of the loop) she can impress everybody with her newly honed skills. She even is a bit weird and familiar with people who don't actually remember her, which is just awkward every time she does it.

This is, of course, all because of a guardian angel played by George Wendt who sadly never eats any beans. He wants her to figure out what's important in life (don't they always) and it turns out it's slowing down, and finding twu wuv. Sorry, it's finally admitting to the boy that you thought he smooched some other chick and him going "wait, what?"

Really, I try to come up with something nice to say about anything I review here but I'm kind of stumped. It's a story that's so done that you really have to either be uniquely interesting or be playing in an established universe for me to care. The acting is so-so, the romance is pretty blah. The script feels ridiculously rushed, and honestly I can't really recommend it even for "bad movie" value.

But I can say you should watch that episode of Stargate SG-1, it's hilarious. Probably funnier if you already know the show though, you'll get more of the jokes that way. "Maybe he read your report?"

Book Review: Yesterday's News by Kajsa Ingemarsson

I actually got this book randomly because it popped up on the Nook blog and yes I know I'm linking to the Kindle version. Maybe you didn't realize, but I link to these products through an Amazon Associates link so that maybe one day somebody will click on one and buy something and then I'll get a little bit of money to help me run this little blog. As far as I know, B&N doesn't do something like that, so even though I have a Nook, I link to Amazon. Besides, I actually get Kindle books too, I just read them on my computer.

Anyway, my point was that this wasn't a book I sought out for any particular reason, it just kind of landed on my radar unexpectedly. The review said it was one of the most popular books in Sweden, and it was on sale for only $1.99 so I figured why not?

First off, I'm starting to think that books should come with warnings the way that fanfiction does. I thought I would read a happy, fun, happy ending-filled "chick lit" book (yes I hate the term chick lit as much as you do but what else am I going to call it?) and instead, well...I got kind of that and then got completely blindsided by an intensely tragic part in the middle that hit me on the wrong kind of day. But at least the tragedy in the middle is well written and more or less has a bearing on the overall plot, so that's something.

But in the end, I wasn't particularly pleased with Yesterday's News. It wasn't a terrible book by any stretch of the imagination, but there was so much that just wasn't all that great either. The central plot is that Agnes, who is the head waitress at a posh restaurant and good at her job, gets fired when she refuses to submit to the sexual harassment of her lecherous boss. When she calls her rock musician boyfriend to complain about it, he dumps her for another musician, all in the same day.

Eventually, Agnes gets a chance to help a friend open a new restaurant and she pins all her hopes and dreams on it's possible success. Mixed up in there is also the possibility of a review by the leading restaurant critic, and also a new neighbor that she doesn't particularly get along with because he's too boring, or something, I couldn't ever figure out what her real problem with him was.

Listen, I think we can all get from the beginning to the end of this story without a lot of trouble. We all know exactly where it's going to end up and the plot twist isn't even remotely surprising. What is surprising is the route the book takes to get there, which was a bit meandering, stopped off in a slightly preachy section with a subplot, and took a detour right through the "apologizing for the abusive ex while you're getting back together with him because he's totally changed" village.

And that was my problem with the story overall. If you plotted Agnes' growth and character development based on strength/empowerment and weakness/being manipulated then it'd be all over the map. It's not an arc or an orchestrated roller coaster ride, it's an uneven bouncy ball on cobblestone. And then, at the end of the story rather than resolving the questions that the author has set up, especially those about Agnes and her ability to not only survive by herself but also to stand up to being abused and manipulated, the author just...stops.

Listen, the book is absolutely worth the $1.99 I paid for it. And if you like this kind of story (I was reminded of No Reservations, the movie with Catherine Zeta Jones, on a lot of different levels, and that's a compliment) then it's probably well worth the money for the regular priced ebook as well, and the few hours of your time it takes to read it. I'm not saying it's a terrible book, I just really think that if they adapt it to a movie there's going to be a lot of scene rearranging and a few characters are going to get dumped so that the structure works better and we can be a little more forgiving when the main character reverses direction entirely 2/3 of the way through the book before getting back on the right track in the last ten pages.