Reuters, AP photojournalists describe staging of Obama photo

Editor's note: On May 12, news broke that the White House had decided to stop its practice of re-enacting photos for still photographers. Our story on that decision is here. Below is's original story on this issue.

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.

Reed writes:

"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.

This is the cutline transmitted with this AP photo: "President Barack Obama reads his statement to photographers after making a televised statement on the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday, May 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)"

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 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.

The AP's Pablo Martinez Monsivais, who took this photo, told Poynter, "What was very unique this time was that the White House actually allowed the still press photography pool to photograph the president's 'walk in' so that images could be distributed prior to the late, 11:45 p.m. address."

"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.

The blimp is a hard case with a cut-out for the camera and a remote control that allows a photographer to capture images while the case mutes the sound of the camera. Harrington says other photographers have customized still cameras to make them quieter. In fact, a camera was customized to take an unusual photo of Obama during his inauguration.

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)

But this practice of re-enacting a historic speech flies directly in the face of the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics, which includes this relevant passage: "Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities."

Harrington says, "I know we are splitting hairs here, but the White House photographers covering those re-enactments did not stage, request or direct them. They are covering an event. They photograph what they are presented with."

Harrington says the re-enactment is an alternative to just handing out a White House photo. "Obviously you should refer to it as a re-enactment in the cutline of the photo; it does need to be disclosed."

Both Reuters and the AP did disclose the re-enactment in the cutlines they transmitted with photos. For example, the AP cutline reads:

"President Barack Obama reads his statement to photographers after making a televised statement on the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday, May 1, 2011."

However, not all newspapers reprinted those disclosures.

Some newspapers disclose

Poynter's Library Director David Shedden searched 50 newspaper front pages from Monday morning to see if papers that used the staged image disclosed it. Keep in mind, newsrooms were scrambling to create new front pages late Sunday evening.

This cutline was transmitted with this Reuters photo: "U.S. President Barack Obama is pictured after announcing live on television the death of Osama bin Laden, from the East Room of the White House in Washington May 1, 2011. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed on Sunday in a firefight with U.S. forces in Pakistan and his body was recovered, President Obama announced on Sunday." (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Some newspapers that we viewed used both the AP photo and its cutline, which disclosed the image's origins.

The Wausau Daily Herald, Wisconsin State Journal, Biloxi Sun Herald, Lodi News-Sentinel, Yuma Sun, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, The Detroit Free Press, The Wichita Eagle and The Orange County Register used the AP photo and its cutline (or a variation).

The Orlando Sentinel page simply states, "President Barack Obama is shown after his announcement about Osama bin Laden Sunday." The San Jose Mercury News had a similar caption with a Getty image.

Thirty other front pages we reviewed used an AP, Reuters or Getty photo, credited appropriately, with a caption that implied or strongly suggested it was an image of the live address.

The remaining nine front pages don't say where the photos came from; although several look like the re-enactments, they could be screen captures from the live address.

What should happen next

It is time for this kind of re-enactment to end. The White House should value truth and authenticity. The technology clearly exists to document important moments without interrupting them. Photojournalists and their employers should insist on and press for access to document these historic moments.

In the meantime, anyone who uses these recreations should clearly disclose to the reader the circumstances under which they were captured.

Kenny Irby conducted interviews with David Ake, Pablo Martinez Monsivais and Doug Mills for this report. He also received the photos we used and obtained permission to reprint them here. David Shedden researched front pages. Thanks to Charles Apple, whose post on this subject inspired our reporting.

To learn more about making ethical decisions on deadline, take this free, self-directed NewsU course.

  • Profile picture for user atompkins

    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon