A Pop Quiz about Staging Photos in Photojournalism


Now that everything has been said and written about the World Press Photo controversy, it’s time for a review. At this point, we’re all agreed that photographing your cousin having sex in a car is a bad idea, right?

But after having shot likely over 6,000 assignments for newspapers, let me humbly submit that reality is…complicated.  Anyone who says otherwise is guilty of oversimplification, lack of experience, or self-righteous mendacity. So let’s take what we’ve learned and apply it to mock situations in the real world, where you make ethical decisions about what it means to stage pictures, on the fly.

But before you take this pop quiz, make sure to go hungry for the whole day, pull an all-nighter, and promise delivery of images to a client within the next hour – just to simulate other factors in a photojournalist’s workday that can affect decision-making.

It’s only five questions. It’ll go quick. They seem exceptional, but every situation in the field is exceptional.

1. You’re in Honduras for a story about child labor. Your itinerary and transportation was set-up by the reporter, who had many situations to fit into a very tight schedule (frankly, you’re all just lucky to be there at all given dwindling budgets).  You finally find a family that is unafraid to speak to reporters. You learn that the child has to take a treacherous path to the job site. The path epitomizes the crazy risks affecting the kid. But it’s Friday, and for some odd reason the boy doesn’t work the day you’re there. You leave that night and absolutely can’t change the travel schedule. Frustrated, what do you do?

A. You refuse to have any part in showing a reality that was not normally happening in front of you. Tough luck, kid.

B. You walk with the child through his path, and see an amazing picture that demonstrates the danger to the poor child. You refuse to take the picture because you put the boy there and it’s not a true “found moment”.

C. You place the child in the path to make a portrait, and demand that the boy keep still with his eyes fixated on you, lest anyone think that a photograph of him looking around or walking down his daily path was actually a reality 6 days/week.


2. You’re given rare access to photograph a presidential campaign headquarters with a dozen other members of the media. Everyone there becomes hyper-aware of your presence, reducing your ability to get candid images. You also get the sense that just before you arrived, the organizers said, “Places, people!” The national campaign manager steps in for a few minutes and is mobbed by the media. A voice in the crowd calls out, “Hey, how about a shot at your desk?”

A. You refuse to take a picture that was prompted by a member of the media (…or was it prompted by an aide?).

B. You photograph the campaign manager at his desk but decide to say something in your caption like, “Campaign manager pretends it’s normal to have a dozen news media photographing him” and you tell your editor. Essentially, you kick the “ethics can” down the road to the photo desk.

C. You photograph the scene, comfortable that because you didn’t stage the photograph, it’s ok.

D. You agree to shoot in the office, but refuse to photograph anything but the mob of people, accepting that most every other news outlet will go with the video or still of him at his desk. Oh well.


3. You’re on the top of a skyscraper, looking down on window-washers for a story about their business. While rappelling down, one of the men says, “Wanna see something?”. He throws his arms back and lets out a howl.

A. You say, no thank you, that was posed for me and I refuse to take the picture.

B. You take the picture and then delete it, because people might think it was a candid moment and you can’t have that.

C. You take the picture because even if it was staged for the camera, he sometimes does do that, making it an honest depiction of the person’s life.


4. You’ve made an appointment to photograph a couple in another state for a story about their infant, who died during a measles outbreak due to lack of immunizations by other parents. You learn that the couple goes every single morning to the cemetery to mourn the child’s death. At the airport, you discover your flight is delayed and you can’t make it that morning. You call and they graciously and earnestly offer to wait for you before heading to the child’s grave. They want their family’s depth of pain to be shared. It’s Saturday and the story is running Sunday.  

A. You say, no thank you, I’ll just get a portrait of you at home.

B. You say, ok yes please wait for me, I’ll see you shortly.

C. You tell them, thank you but I’ll only go the cemetery to take a portrait and not anything that might look real because my concerns as an ethical photographer trump your hourly reality as bereaved parents.


5. You arrive to 30% of your assignments and the subjects ask you, “What do you want me to do?”

A. The documentary photographer inside of you screams inside, in multiple waves of pain that leaves you with an empty, shattered sense of the way journalism is supposed to be.

B. You don’t respond because anything you say would be directing or leading your subject. You engage in a staredown and wait for them to take the next step.

C. You say, “What would you be doing if I wasn’t here?” and they say, “ Normally I would be in another part of the state. I’m only here for you.”

D. You say, “OK, let’s do a portrait”, your fifth one that day.


Please share all your answers in the comments, as I’m sure everyone will have different answers. I’m guessing, however, that many won’t. In this debate, I haven’t seen a lot of candor about how difficult it can be to uphold ethical standards in the myriad of situations that photojournalists face.

Besides for the fact that you could get flailed online for saying anything that could impugn your integrity, this is somewhat understandable. Artists and others who see no problems with staging are using these gray areas as a wedge to push manipulated imagery into the world of photojournalism.

It’s maddening and an insult to the photojournalism community as a whole, because once you reject any ethical standard in journalism, you’re on a slippery slope to propaganda.

But fifty shades of grey suits some people just fine. As Pontius Pilate infamously said before washing his hands, “What is truth?”

With an ethics discussion planned at World Press Photo’s Awards Days to add to a previously released report, hopefully the organization will arrive at a clearer standard of picture ethics, and on the honesty of the photojournalism process.

Truth, it appears, needs an ally.









Alex Garcia


  1. What a wonderful way to put the ethics of a photojournalist in perspective. In a some cases I might choose to take all the options you laid out, and decide later while editing. If reality happens at a different time than normal is it still real? Perhaps just the presence of a photographer at all makes scenes not normal. But then where do you draw the line?

  2. Truth has an ally. But even it’s ally needs an ally. Words we publish with our pics are the tellers of truth. And even though words can be misinterpreted. It’s our best way to say ” yeah the kid has a dangerous path to walk, but luckily for him, he doesn’t have to walk it on Friday.” Cut to family shot. Not gonna win us any awards, but the story gets told. And maybe we capture the genuine family shot when their thinking, “don’t die”.

  3. Thank you. One of the best responses I’ve seen yet. I actively prefer to shoot portraits and its mostly what I do, so I don’t find myself in these binds as much as I used to. But this highlights how you can’t always do the NPPA thing if you want to keep your job. There’s no right answer much of the time. I think much of the furor is misplaced and petty and overlooks larger issues at play, which gets at the core of what roles photography plays in our lives and what the expectations are compared to just 10 or 20 years ago.

  4. Having worked as a photographer with a few newspapers and magazines over the past couple of decades, I understand how this can create a dilemma for the photographer who is put in the position of getting “the shot”.

    For what it is worth, C, C, C, B, D.

    Photographs tell a story, rarely does that mean telling the truth. We determine not only what is shot, how it is shot, what we include or exclude from the shot, it only tells our side of the story.

  5. As you say, reality is complicated, and it is refreshing to see concrete examples instead of abstractions — this helps to clarify things greatly. However, there is an anti-intellectual tendency in some of these arguments of late, whereby people feel free to write off genuine questions and speculation as mere claptrap. One PJist writes, “To overly intellectualize photojournalism with post modern talk is usually just noise made by people who lack the ability or talent to be an influential photojournalist.” Not only does this skirt the issue with its ad hominem strategy, but it attempts to forestall any discussion by dismissing objections as “overly intellectual” “post modern talk” (=meaningless or irrelevant). There is no attempt to confront and analyze propositions that run counter to one’s dearly held beliefs. We get nowhere with that kind of myopia. Even if, as you say, people are using grey areas as a wedge, a fearful, dismissive attitude is not the appropriate response, because in fact when it comes to ethics there is indeed a lot of grey, and we have to be flexible dealing with that greyness, or else we risk shutting down potentially innovative and imaginative solutions, new ways of seeing, new ways of communicating. Those new ways are not synonymous with Troiloesque misrepresentation. But that is what some people appear to think.

    Your approach here is sound, particularly because it seeks to identify what is meant by the ethics of photojournalism. Much of the discussion has centered on technique, which fails to embrace the full dimensions of reportorial ethics. Your discussion demonstrates very keenly just how complicated, given all the overdeterminant circumstances that attend any given photo shoot, it can be to deal with even a fairly simple facet of our practice: staging. My only reservation, both here and on various Facebook threads, is that any discussion of ethics will ultimately have to deal with consequential questions concerning, for one thing, those implicit “rules” that Donald Weber cited (and everyone gnashed teeth over), and the ways in which the industry constrains what we report, how we cover it, how it is presented, the “spin” that accompanies imagery, and so on. In other words, beyond the question of the photographer’s faithful representation, there is also the question of editorial and managerial constraints, slants, and presuppositions that have profound ethical consequences. I have no doubt that the WPP at its imminent meeting will be able to pin down some useful guidelines for our practice in the field, but the larger questions are beyond its scope, and yet those are the most pressing questions. The issue of staging is a relatively minor problem when it comes to the slippery slope of propaganda — the corruption of the Fourth Estate and our lack of credibility involve factors that go beyond our strict technique. And that is where we are compelled, willy nilly, to confront such matters as the economics of our industry and, yes, those “postmodern” criticisms involving things like the politics of representation.

  6. Brilliant!

    I will probably be exiled even further than I already am by saying this…. but unfortunately lets face it WPP has had its day. I am sure that in the halcyon days of James Natchwey et al, the competition was meaningful because the winners were photojournalists whose work was extraordinary and in fact it WAS actually REAL and fabulous.

    No longer is WPP about the working stiffs in the field.

    There are over 100,000 easy upload entries so how on earth does someone get a verifiable winner out of that? In the old days you used to have been working for a publication and your editor had to vouchsafe your work before you could enter… if you examine the backstories of some of the people who have won categories recently you can see that the only way their work would have been noticed is because of the connections they have made over a workshop or two.

    So why would the ethics of journalism apply to WPP?

    This is not about working on a story with an editor or a publication that employs you anymore… nor is it about judges that are at least reasonably independent from the outcome because they have solid and secure jobs in the industry. In fact it would be an interesting thing to compile the statistics on how many of the entrants and winners had ever really worked as professional photojournalists with an overseeing editor, for a real publication that sells it wares publicly.

    When stories are run in publications published by people who don’t give a damn if you win an award or not unless it increases the circulation of the paper you are working for, people actually look at images completely objectively because they are not vested in anyway in the outcome of winning a prize. Simply they are honest and have integrity because they are not interested in the next rising star unless they can come up with a cover when the situation is batshit boring and its a struggle to get anything even vaguely useful. They only want whats possible. Not what is a complete fabrication.

    Like much of the industry World Press is a dinosaur and should be relegated to where it belongs OR It should completely revamp its terms to include photographers who take photos of their cousins having sex in the backseat of cars. At least then it would be transparent and honest in its lack of integrity.

    Quite frankly I would be out on every level..I am not careerist nor am I politic AND you should see my cousin!

  7. I think those were good questions. I think in most cases a photog has to decide what is PJ and what is not and edit for publication accordingly. There will always be non PJ images that are made by request (hey can you take a photo of X & I together?) There will also always be times when the subject(s) are aware of the camera. Sometimes they will play to the camera. How often have we seen images that the subjects knowing there was a camera, did things differently that if there was no camera? – a lot I think. Also most Presidential shoots (and other notable people) are set up by someone, and POTUS is always playing to the camera. Does the caption need to note that? In most cases I think yes, but in other cases such as POTUS, it is a given there is a pool of photogs and the event itself is a photo OP. So what about ordinary people that are or become aware of the camera? I think you shoot anyway, that is part of it, you can’t be invisible all the time, hopefully your around long enough that they ignore the camera. The hardest one for me was #1. Hopefully I would be able to say, dang – I missed the flight, sorry, here are some great shots. please come get me …. lol.

  8. I thinks it is a very complicated situation, different in every scenario. Fabricating the entire shot, eg the sex in the car, I find clearly unacceptable and not ‘photojournalism’, but taking ‘inappropriate’ shots on a legitimate assignment which might encourage more legitimacy is acceptable. The test of authenticity and appropriateness occurs at a later editing stage, when editorial decisions are made and ‘padding’ images forfeited. To suggest that photographers always make clearly defined editorial decisions in rapidly changing or pressured situations is altruistic; people take what they are given or what is possible. Again staging shots which would reflect activities occurring on a different day is acceptable as long as there is clarity that what is being portrayed is behaviour rather than an actual event and I realise the line can be a fine one. Working in 3rd world countries where cameras are a magnet for interest and requests to be ‘photographed’ would be impossible without some flexibility and leeway to dispel anxieties, reduce camera enthusiasm and lead on to a more accurate and honest portrayal. No-one is morally or ethically whiter than white – but truth is important and there is a million different ways to obtain truth/partial truth/hint of truth and an accurate portrayal of an idea/principle/story.
    My answers – a less authoritarian C, C, C and edit later, B, D

  9. 1C
    We tell our stories through our own lens as a journalist. How we make pictures is often our perception or interpretation of the truth because we have individual bias, perspective, life experience or knowledge that often colors how we make pictures that tell stories. We are hired for that experience, integrity, vision and technique in making the pictures that work to solve editors’ needs and fulfill our professional and creative desire to make compelling or at least story-telling images. When all is said and done, our job is to make pictures. The ‘honest’ picture is a very subjective concept because a lot of what we document is there because we are present with cameras, thus our own presence impacts what happens in front of us. The bottom line is, ‘Does the picture work to tell XYZ story or not?” I can’t get too bogged down into super-deep ethical questions. My focus is to make pictures that make readers want to read the story. Outright intentional deception or misrepresentation is flat-out wrong, but adapting to circumstances while keeping your eye on the goal of making strong pictures is often what describes what we do on a daily basis.

    • Robin, this debate arose in part because beyond the question of technical manipulation, staging, and misrepresentation through deceptive captioning, there is the larger question about what Donald Weber called the “Rules” of photojournalism and the extent to which our putatively “honest” pictures serve ends that also manipulate their meaning. It simply isn’t good enough to argue that “our job is to make pictures” and be satisfied merely with whether or not the pictures work to tell the story. The problem is not the photographer’s “subjectivity” (a word that is misunderstood and thrown around all the time as if this were somehow the crux of the issue); the problem is that first of all your subjectivity is not a free agent — it is already policed, defined, and manipulated in ways that require every story teller to ask him or herself about the editorial and managerial agendas that determine which stories are given to work on and how those stories are presented. If you define this merely as “solving editors’ needs,” then you are effectively skirting the whole issue of the politics of the representation being made and in which you collude without reflecting on the attitudes and ideas behind it. The moment you assert that you are telling a story, you take on a host of responsibilities that go beyond the mere making of an “excellent” picture. This is not about getting “Bogged down” in “super-deep ethical questions” (which is just a way of absolving yourself of responsibilities you’d rather not assume); it is about trying to comprehend how the stories that are chosen for you, and “acceptable” ways of telling them, are used to serve agendas that do not originate with your “bias” or “subjectivity,” and how those agendas in turn unwittingly derive from master narratives guiding the industry as a whole. Quick example: take a look at Howard French’s critique of the way in which 60 Minutes consistently represents Africa in its reportage there (in CJR: http://www.cjr.org/analysis/60_minutes.php?fb_action_ids=10101758250284132&fb_action_types=og.shares). Let’s say you have an “honest” picture of yet another starving child with the obligatory flies on its face. Sure, that picture is a transcription of a real event, but is it entirely honest? It’s a cliché, for one thing, an overused trope that simply reaffirms tired old notions about Africa; and, for another, once it gets circulated in the usual organs of journalism, it becomes contextualized in a predetermined narrative about Africa (never mind that “Africa” is itself a bogus concept), regardless of the meaning of the specific event. There is no easy answer for all this, but we cannot afford to ignore it all either.

  10. I think sometimes we think too much. Working a story involves a lot of intuitive vision yet always open to unexpected pictures. Experience comes by making mistakes over the years and learning what didn’t quite work. My career is close to 35 years old. What I’ve learned is that a lot of the ethical choices we make are usually quickly decided while on the story. There isn’t always a lot of time to dissect and postulate so we draw on the sum total of those years of making pictures to guide through the mushy aspects. That’s not absolving ones self of ethical reSpobsibility but it comes with experience.

    • I hear you re: intuition. On the ground, that is what counts most. But outside of that moment, there can never be too much thinking. Thinking, real thinking, is always profitable. It is what allows you to transcend the limits of your practice as a photographer. It suggests new avenues for the imagination. And it compels you to question the underlying assumptions that guide all narratives. Yes, certain ethical issues are decided in the here and now, the moment you snap the shutter. But others require reflection about the larger dimensions of the work, where it fits into the media’s pre-existing agendas. The Family of Man, to take a notable example, which was emblematic of a certain naive humanism that came under fire from postmodernists, was rife with assumptions about human relations (power relations) that no longer bear up to scrutiny. And yet, our industry still employs some of these tropes and ways of thinking. I guess we can say there are two sets of interlocking ethical problems — those we encounter in the field, and those that send us there in the first place and determine how what we find there is to be used.

  11. I don’t care how you present this, every one of us comes to stories with a bias as do the writers. There are stories that present themselves and we have to photograph them as best and truthfully as we can. But in all the years I have shot editorial and journalism images, there are a lot of images I had to set up to get a photograph that drew people in. In all those situations though, I had sat down with the individual(s) involved to find out what the situation or actions were that were common to the actual situation that would help illustrate the story. With the ‘dwindling budgets’ photojournalists face (over the decades), one most often cannot hang around till something interesting happens that will have a graphic face to it. In reality, the very minute a camera shows up, the situation changes completely. Two cases in point: I recall an event that had international implications that I covered years ago that had some 150-200 journalists and photojournalists camped out to cover it. It was a circus that newspapers and magazines were desperate for any kind of image, and the players knew it and paraded for those cameras and images. The other was a story I did on foster care in America and one of the mom’s I photographed was an extraordinary foster parent who I realized needed to be portrayed in a good light. So I did.

  12. As I recall, the bigger issue with WPP was actually CHANGING the mood or meaning of a photo with excessive burning to something different from what existed and that is flat-out wrong, whether or not burning is an accepted technique. Our goal should be to reflect reality and if (as in some of the examples) that can be accomplished only with a little involvement, why shouldn’t that be OK, If someone walks on Friday where he usually only goes on other days, the cutline can say ‘walks where he usually does most days” or some such. And if your camera causes someone to react differently, that is still what is happening and the cutline can cover that, too.

  13. Some of your “choices” were dishonest. Eg., in #1, most photojournalists would not only have set up the shot, but done their best to make it look “real.” Your choices pretend an ethical consciousness that simply doesn’t exist. To see unethical behavior at its worst, look at the BBC and Reuters coverage in the Middle East. They routinely set up staged photos, fabricate photos, carry props around, transport actors (Eg., women to weep over ruined buildings). For many photojournalists and pretty much all of them in the BBC and Reuters, “ethics” simply are not a concern. For them, the only concern is “getting” the images. Or more likely, fabricating the images.

  14. Your “question” #4 is dishonest because it misstates the facts of immunization. There is no such thing as “herd immunity,” only immune or not immune. Whatever photo the shooter takes, the context would be dishonest because it is in service of a biased article and a crooked angle.

  15. #1: A
    C is OK, except the example notes that there will be other opportunities to illustrate the assignment. I’d go on to those.
    #2: B
    Except I would not specify that the shot was ‘pretend’, just note that the shot is a set-up of normal activity. Also possible to shoot showing the other media around him in the shot.
    #3: C!
    Of course you take the shot! Just as Alex did!
    #4: B
    Do they always go only at 8am? I don’t see how altering the time that they go to the cemetery changes the truth of the action.
    #5: none of the above
    I’d talk to the subject, break the ice, get her feeling more comfortable — then go to work.

  16. Wow. I was completely stumped on the first question! I would never want to put someone, especially a child who is already at risk and being taking advantaged of in harms way to get a natural pic. That’s how my nurturing mind thinks. I would probably start troubleshooting on how I could reduce harm for the child and get pic. Dam these questions are hard!

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