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Time to Retire Staged Presidential Photos?

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, May 4 2011

White House photo by Chuck Kennedy

Widely-seen wire photographs of President Obama appearing to deliver his Sunday night statement on the death of Osama bin Laden might well have captured re-creations of the speech, reports Poynter's Al Tompkins. The AP and Reuters tagged their staged photos with captions indicating that they were taken after the speech, but dozens of papers ran their own versions that hinted at a live event. Staging presidential photos in situations like this isn't a new practice, says Tompkins, but it's an outdated one:

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.

Tompkins highlights the possibility of using high-resolutions screen shots instead. And, of course, there are high-quality official White House photos. (Though the one above appears on WhiteHouse.gov without a caption indicating how it was taken.)

There are echoes here of last week's spat between the San Francisco Chronicle and the Obama White House's press shop. The White House objected to a "print-only" Chronicle reporter making use of a handheld video camera during an Obama fundraiser. Among the reasons for restricting video cameras in smaller events is that the bulky equipment is too cumbersome to allow into the room. But there's nothing bulky about a video-ready iPhone or Flip cam, and digital cameras don't have the mechanical shutter noise that could be distracting during a speech.

In both the wire photo case and the Chronicle case, the rules and practices of political media may well be persisting even when we've innovated beyond the initial justifications for them.