On September 15 I responded to a blog post by City Pages music editor Andrea Swensson with one of my own: “The brave new world of online journalism and the harsh reality of concert photography.” In that post, I explained why I was continuing to remain open to photographing concerts by music artists who imposed conditions including preapproval and ownership of images.
The post became one of our most-read pieces published last month (Andrea tells me she saw similarly strong interest in her post), and attracted a firestorm of comments both on our site and on social media—with most commenters being critical of my position. As Andrea pointed out when I ran into her at First Ave a few days later, the issue is one that’s very emotional for a lot of photographers—who work very hard for little, sometimes no, pay. One photographer went so far as to write directly to Daily Planet editor Mary Turck and executive director Jeremy Iggers to express outrage over what the photographer saw as my severe breach of basic journalism ethics and my complete disregard of the value of photojournalism.
I hadn’t intended my post to be a statement of Daily Planet editorial policy; my post concerned my personal decisions as a photographer. Nonetheless, in the wake of the debate over my post, we had a staff discussion and collectively resolved that moving forward, the Twin Cities Daily Planet will not publish photographs that were taken under the condition that their subjects (for example, music artists) approve the images for publication. Our photographers own the copyright to their own work, so we are letting it remain the decision of individual photographers as to whether they will agree to demands that they allow bands to use their photographs without credit and/or compensation and/or consultation.
The entire debate has triggered my allergies to thou-shalt-nots, to claims that there are sacred practices of journalism that must never be questioned or changed. This isn’t the only controversy those allergies have pulled me into.
There was the controversy over my review of Jesus Christ Superstar: citing my “disrespectful manner” and “comments regarding souvenir water bottles and the wall calendar we included in your press kit,” the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres determined that my write-up “went beyond what would be considered material to be placed in a professional theatre review” and removed the Daily Planet from their approved press list. There’s no acid test for what constitutes a “professional” tone, but why does the world need yet another color-between-the-lines review? Some arts organizations—for example, the Minnesota Opera—have opened their arms to bloggers and non-traditional journalists, in the belief that encouraging a diversity of views and coverage styles will help them to reach new audiences. I agree.
Then there was the controversy over my review of Miranda July’s movie The Future—which was actually just a review of the first 40 minutes of the movie, since I admitted right in the headline that I walked out on the film. Many commenters both on our site and on social media were appalled. Representative quotes from the comment section:
• “If you’re going to review it, at least watch the whole thing!”
• “You are an absolute moron. You don’t deserve to review films.”
• “Either be lazy and don’t bother, or be thorough and honor the review-genre. I don’t expect Anthony Lane, but I do expect a professional treatment when weighing-in publicly—even in this attention-craving American moment, it would be nice to hold our public blatherings to some standards.”
My crime? Sharing my thoughts about a movie I didn’t finish watching; specifically, publishing those thoughts in an edited news publication. (As arts editor, in this case I assigned myself.) Really, do we have to “honor the review-genre”? I don’t think so. I shared my take on the film: I was very upfront about the fact that I walked out, and no one needs to read my review if they think that invalidates me. It’s in that same spirit that I said I wouldn’t be categorically opposed to allowing bands to approve my photos—or even, speaking purely as an individual and not on behalf of the Daily Planet, my review—so long as I was able to notify readers of that fact.
We published Mandy Dwyer’s photographs of Tiësto’s April performance, after submitting them for the artist’s approval. (This, to be absolutely clear, is a practice we have decided to discontinue.) In the fourth paragraph of that review—too far down, according to the photographer who wrote to complain—I wrote, “This is an appropriate point to disclose that our permission to photograph the performance was granted only under the condition that we allow Tiësto’s management to see and approve any photos prior to publication. The photos you see here were approved; vetoed were close-ups of Tiësto and a photograph of a reveler dancing in a bear costume.”
At least we told our readers about the approval process. Several other publications shot that show—how many of them disclosed the preapproval? In fairness, it’s beyond my knowledge whether any of those other publications successfully negotiated with Tiësto to remove that clause, but I strongly suspect that in the majority of cases where the artists are allowed to approve photos, the publications do not disclose that fact.
While I’m party to and support the Daily Planet’s decision to cease cooperating with such demands, I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that there’s a pure journalistic independence that’s somehow fatally sullied by the kind of arrangement we made with Tiësto. It’s routine for bands to tell photographers where they can stand, to tell them what songs they can shoot, and to forbid them from using certain equipment (most commonly, flashes). Do we need to disclose those conditions to readers? Maybe we should. As Mary points out in her comment on the debate, a White House practice of misleadingly staging photo ops was accepted by the creme de la creme of professional journalists for decades until the practice was exposed and ended—thanks to a tweet, natch. Few of those high-minded professionals ever felt the need to disclose their cooperation with the White House’s imposed conditions.
People who are in demand by journalists have always imposed demands and conditions; some have been met and some haven’t. As I argued in my post on concert photography, journalists have to decide for themselves where those conditions cross a line and compromise their independence too severely. I think that saying unambiguously that this is the line, and on this side you’re absolutely legitimate and that side you’re absolutely not, is simplistic and unconstructive.
At the Daily Planet, we want to open the practice of journalism to everyone: both to give everyone the opportunity to report, and to make plain what the nuts and bolts of the reporting process are. That’s one reason I’m spending so much time explaining my experiences with and views on this issue; in Mary’s blog and in our reporter Sheila Regan’s blog, Mary and Sheila regularly discuss issues of media, journalism, ethics, and access. We aim to win our readers’ trust and interest with honesty, openness, and the kind of perspectives that aren’t typically found in mainstream media.
One photographer I talked to recently at a show we were both shooting said that he agreed with me—that he would sign a rights waiver (that is, not necessarily allowing artists to approve photographs for publication, but allowing them to republish his work without compensation or credit) if that was the only way he could shoot a show he wanted to cover. “I just want the opportunity,” he told me. “It’s so hard to get opportunities when you’re starting out in concert photography.”
I want to give him that kind of opportunity—and I want to take that kind of opportunity myself. If an act like Foo Fighters or Ke$ha sees fit to open only a tiny little door to journalists, I think it’s important for us to show our readers the size of that door, and to let them know what we think about it, what considerations we make in deciding whether or not to walk through. But I don’t think that slamming doors is the best way to have a conversation.
Photo: St. Vincent at the Walker Art Center. Photo by Jay Gabler, not submitted to St. Vincent for approval.