Photographers debate what should replace staged photo opps now that White House is ending the practice

Calling it a "bad idea," the White House has decided that it will no longer re-enact speeches for still photographers, as it did the night President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. That re-enactment was the subject of a story that sparked industry conversation about the ethics of staging photos, particularly one of such a historic event.

Photographers take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama after he announced live on television the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2011. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

On May 1, continuing a practice in place for decades, the White House barred still photographers from photographing the live presidential address because of the disruption the still cameras would cause. After the speech, President Barack Obama walked down the hallway toward the microphones for a second time and spoke for a few minutes, just so still photographers could capture what they missed.

Photojournalists defended the practice to, in part because captions disclosed that the photos were not taken during the live speech. But the captions weren't all that clear that the photos were staged, and our audit found that in many cases those captions didn't run with the photos.

The question now is what will take the place of the re-enactments. Kenny Irby, Poynter's visual journalism faculty, said the easiest option would be to move to a single-camera pool. That means one photographer, from a select group of news outlets, would document the event, and those images would be shared with all the news outlets that cover the White House. The easiest option, though, is not the most inclusive, Irby said.

Photojournalists who spoke with on Thursday evening oppose that approach for still images, saying it limits photographers' storytelling options and creativity.

If the White House moves to a pool, said Doug Mills, White House photographer for The New York Times, "we are taking one step forward — we get live coverage — and four steps backward — we will lose four photographers from the room. “

He continued, "We clearly lose out in terms of perspective. There will be no wide shots or risk-taking, for that matter.”

A meeting is scheduled for next week between the White House and the White House Correspondents' Association to discuss a new approach. Mills is the representative to that group, which is separate from the White House News Photographers Association.

Photojournalists lobby for more access

Photojournalists who spoke with Poynter on Thursday night expressed concern that a new arrangement might be even more restrictive, forcing them to become more reliant on pool photos or worse, photos supplied by the White House.

"Any decision that leads to greater transparency is a good decision," said Santiago Lyon, director of photography for the Associated Press. "What remains to be seen is what level of access we will have."

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), along with the White House News Photographers Association, has complained about access to presidential events before. Sean Elliot, NPPA president, said the Obama administration has a history of "pushing the press to take handouts from the White House photo staff."

"The simple reality," Elliot said, "is that the official White House photographer is a staffer and any photos they produce are essentially PR photos. Coverage of the White House and of our government need to be done by an independent press — not by handouts."

A technological solution?

Harry Walker, director of McClatchy-Tribune Photo Service, thinks there are alternatives to going to a single-camera pool or using handout photos. Still photographers could use blimps (cases that help to quiet the noise of SLR cameras) or set up farther back with long lenses so the photographers don't ruin the live event with their actions or mistakes, such as dropping a camera. (An NPPA story on the White House decision describes one such incident that happened this week in Austin.)

A couple of weeks ago, Walker said, he saw plenty of great images of the royal wedding that were documented with long lenses. “I think we know that everyone can pull back 20 or 30 feet and still get a very good image, both video and stills.”

Other possibilities include using "frame grabs" from the high-definition television feed, but wire services resist this because, they say, the frame grabs would not be of high enough quality.

Another option: using a still camera with the mirror "locked up," so the camera can operate almost silently. One of the official White House staff photographers captured still images during the president's speech this way, according to a story by Don Winslow on the NPPA website.

NPPA's Elliot says without a doubt, the technology exists to quiet cameras that would allow photojournalists to do their job without interrupting a speech. "Still cameras have been working on movie sets for decades," he said. "It is about time for this staging to end. Arguably there have not been enough protests to this for a long time."

Pool photography limits competition

And while television often uses a pool camera — and did that night — Elliot opposes pools for still photojournalists. “Pool situations often don't work because of the competitive nature of the industry,” he said, and because multiple still photographers can capture different angles and elements of a news event.

The competition that photojournalists spoke of is journalistic, but it's also financial. The few news organizations that got access to the re-enactment on May 1 are part of the so-called "tight pool," which has five slots: AP, Reuters, AFP/Getty (the two have a partnership), The New York Times, and a rotating independent photographer. These news organizations commit to covering the White House at all times, at great expense. They have access to scenes that others don't. And they can sell and distribute those images.

A single-camera pool "limits the amount of images and competition," Mills said. He said he would fight to prevent this from becoming the "precedent for other sensitive and intimate situations."

If the White House moves to a single-camera pool, that could mean that the photographer who captures a particular news event will have to share those images with all members of the White House press corps. Any of those news outlets could use and sell the images, which decreases the benefit for the few that follow the president's every move.

It's also possible that the five members of the "tight pool" could come up with an agreement with the White House that enables them to share images only with each other. "It is not fair [that] the people who don’t commit to covering the White House consistently will be able to sell those pictures via the pool," Mills said.

Donald Winslow, editor of NPPA's News Photographer magazine, told that he believes wire services' resistance to a pool approach is less about journalism than it is about competition and ownership of content.

“Is this really about the principle of having an independent journalist in the room?” he asked. “Because if it is, a pool journalist is acceptable and ethical. If they want an AP byline in the room, a Reuters byline in the room, an AFP byline in the room, then that's about pride – and it's not about principle. Pride or profit?”

Al Tompkins, Poynter's senior faculty for broadcast and online, interviewed Sean Elliot for this story. Kenny Irby, Poynter's senior faculty for visual journalism and diversity, interviewed Doug Mills and Santiago Lyon. Steve Myers, managing editor of, interviewed Harry Walker and Don Winslow.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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