As journalists reported on Gen. David Petraeus’ resignation from the CIA, photos spread over the weekend of the women involved.
Petraeus resigned after the FBI learned he had an affair with biographer Paula Broadwell. The affair came to the FBI’s attention when another woman, Jill Kelley, complained to an FBI agent that Broadwell had sent her harassing emails.
All three people are married, and there have been no allegations that Kelley was romantically involved with Petraeus.
But in photographic coverage, context is king. And the images of Petraeus and Kelley appear to tell a different story.
The Gasparilla photos
The photos that would define Jill Kelley started making their way to the world around 3:15 p.m. Sunday, when Tampa Bay Times Senior Photo Editor Patty Yablonski arrived at work. (Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times.)
Yablonski “walked in the office and had Veterans Day to deal with and football. It was not a normal Sunday afternoon at all,” she told Poynter by phone.
Times staff writer Amy Scherzer had taken the photos of Jill Kelley with her husband, her twin sister and the Petraeuses nearly two years ago when Scherzer was covering Gasparilla, an annual Tampa social event. Scherzer had filed the photos to the system previously and alerted Yablonski to them Sunday.
Yablonski said she got calls from every newspaper on the east coast and Great Britain; the Daily News was the first to request the Gasparilla photos.
The Daily News photo
The main photo used by the Daily News was taken Sunday by Bill Serne, a former Tampa Bay Times editor and sports photographer who now operates his own independent company.
When he got the call from Daily News Picture Editor Kevin P. Coughlin, Serne was on a shoot at Dinosaur World in Plant City, Fla., about 25 minutes away from Kelley’s “Bayshore Boulevard mansion in South Tampa.”
Serne, who accepted the stake-out assignment to go to Kelley’s house, told Poynter by phone: “Funny thing is, this is not the kind of paparazzi coverage that I normally do, it just fell into my lap.”
The Daily News texted Serne a blurry, out-of-focus, over-exposed source image and offered little concrete information. Serne was told to look for “kids and moms at a birthday party, and the key lady was 37 years old with dark hair.”
Coughlin, night photo editor at the Daily News, stayed in touch with Serne via cell phone.
“Serne went to the home and we thought that this was a high rise of some sort,” Coughlin says, but as soon as Serne got there he saw it was a house. Serne knew that he had the right place when the officers in brass showed up, he said. “It keeps getting better and better, now there is an attractive woman in red,” Serne told Coughlin. That woman was Jill Kelley.
Coughlin worked with Serne from the Daily News’ makeshift newsroom in New Jersey, where they relocated after Hurricane Sandy damaged their Manhattan offices. Coughlin’s home was also destroyed by the storm.
Serne, who was laid off from the Times about a year ago, used a Canon 70-200mm lens and a 5D Mark II to capture the photo.
Alexander Hitchen, Daily News managing editor for photos, told Poynter by email that Serne “got a fantastic set of photographs at the Kelley residence. They were obviously important because it captured the minutes just after Jill Kelley was named.”
The problem with file photos
The challenge that picture editors face in breaking news is that you don’t always have recent, relevant photographic material to use in reporting major developing stories.
Though there are multiple images of Petraeus available, which show him in a variety of military, professional and social settings, the photographs of Kelley are more limited. The only immediately available images of her were file photographs from a social occasion.
The images of Petraeus in his dress military uniform juxtaposed against the informal images of Kelley set up a false impression. They show the general as an authority figure and imply Kelley is a party girl.
The Times cropped the Gasparilla photo for space, Yablonski said. In the process, Yablonski removed Kelley’s twin sister and Kelley’s boots and skirt length from the image, which was made available to Zuma Press and then the AP.
Making visual choices
Editors and producers must be sensitive to juxtapositions and cropping, and how the images might be interpreted. Photos tell a story, and not always the one we intend.
Monday morning, the Associated Press captured a more contemporary photograph of Kelley. It shows her in an everyday, contextual moment, not at a social event. She is leaving her house, aware that the media is following her.
Correction: This story originally misspelled Alexander Hitchen’s name.