Clearing My Name (A Media Drive-by Crossfire Casualty Story)

When reality fails to conform to your thesis, invent an alternative reality.  

I mean, it’s anathema to the very soul of journalism, but the Op-Ed pages have always been a bit more lenient when it comes to these things.  Things like facts, context and legwork aren’t quite as important, I suppose.

I write now because on July 3, I received a Google alert for my name.  These alerts are usually my byline, but that particular morning I saw that I had been quoted in a Politico Magazine article by Sarah Kendzior.  This surprised me because I did not recall speaking with her.  I’ve actually never met her in-person, on the phone, or online.  Ms. Kendzior wrote a piece for the magazine titled “The Princess Effect- How women’s magazines demean powerful women- even when they’re trying to celebrate them.”

I blog about most of my photo shoots as a matter of transparency, education, and self-promotion.  I’ve had the opportunity to photograph a number of powerful women in DC and Ms. Kendzior zeroed in on my blog post about former White House deputy chief of staff for operations Alyssa Mastromonaco.  I photographed her for Marie Claire last winter and you can read my original post here.

I described how we had to schedule a portrait shoot instead of the preferred option of reportage, but the magazine still wished to convey a day-in-the-life feel.  In this case, the “extended action portrait session” took place in an office building across from where Alyssa actually works.  She did have work she needed to be doing, so I let her do it while I quietly photographed until it was time to do formal portraits. When the end of our session neared, I ran ahead of her in the hallway to capture her exit.  I describe this as “fake-walking” because I kindly request that the subjects wait for me to run ahead and then walk a bit slower than they normally would.  My take on the extended action portrait is that you want it to approximate the reality of a subject’s life given the constraints placed upon the shoot.  Because I am a journalist first, I always disclose the nature of my shoots when I write about them later.  This kind of shoot is the photographic equivalent of a lunchtime interview/walk through the park with a celebrity whose entourage is hovering nearby.  It may be inherently contrived, but there are still insights to be gained from the conversation.

Here is a screenshot of the original text from the article as I read it on the morning of the 3rd.  Original

-Kendzior writes that I described the shoot as uncomfortable.  

I wrote no such thing and that is some pretty fantastic extrapolation.

-She writes that I had Mastromonaco lay “out her papers in a stereotypical image of ‘work.’”  

When the subject asked what she should do (as is normal in a portrait session) I suggested she work if she had any to do.  She did and she laid those papers out in the manner she required to actually perform the work she needed to do.  I suppose you could characterize splayed papers as a bit stereotypical when it comes to visual shorthand for working, but putting the word work in quotes suggests Alyssa was pretending to work and that was just not the case.

-She quotes me, but truncates the quote. 

This turns my original “I think she was thrilled to end the shoot.  Believe it or not, DC is full of people who genuinely want to stay out of the lime light. I consider it part of my job to make their brief moments in it as painless as possible” into “I think she was thrilled to end the shoot.” Not only does this dramatically change the tone of what I wrote, it makes me look like I disparaged my subject.  This is something I would never, ever do.  

I’m not interested in discussing the actual thesis of “The Princess Effect.” While the portrayal of powerful women in women’s magazines is worth discussing, I had a hard time parsing the article. My head scratching, however, centers upon the question of why Ms. Kendzior wrote about Mastromonaco as she did, abused the hell out of my source material, and never reached out to either of us for comment or perspective.  I would have been delighted to give her a play-by-play of the shoot and my detailed impressions if she had called.  I also would have been happy to provide my insights as a photographer doing the very work she claims demeans women in power.

Instead, I found myself on the defense.  I immediately reached out to an editor at Politico Magazine.  I figured a cursory glance at my original blog post would be enough to prove that my shoot and I had been portrayed inaccurately and in such a way that damaged my reputation as an editorial photographer and had potential to adversely impact my work in DC.  I explained that the writer had never contacted me.  I recall using the phrase “journalism 101” on the phone with this editor.  Politico’s response was to add a parenthetical which failed to capture the number or essence of my grievances.  I also feel it gave the impression that Politico had reached out to me for comment, a concern validated when I showed the article to colleagues.  See below.

Revised

I took time to recover from the initial shock of being on the receiving end of media unpleasantries before writing this.  I’ve been turning it over in my head for ten days.  I feel like I got caught in the crossfire of some strange media drive-by.  As a member of the press, I have an inordinate amount of faith in our ability to tell it like it is and correct our mistakes when we get it wrong.  The cognitive dissonance I’ve been experiencing since this story ran is pretty unsettling.  

All I can hope is that this response clears my name and maybe reminds those in the media that we are all in positions of great power and responsibility. Playing fast and loose with facts and context, even in an editorial, can have injurious consequences beyond the scope of one of our very basic ethical precepts: minimize harm.  

It would be one thing if I had written anything that actually disparaged the subject or described the shoot as uncomfortable- but the subject herself graciously reached out and, in our discussion, confirmed that the Politico Magazine piece mischaracterized my blog post and the shoot.  That I called to set the record straight and was dismissed by Politico Magazine as another angry subject is disquieting.  You can take my word for it, Politico, I make my living as an old-fashioned j-school-educated photojournalist who conducts interviews, collects facts, and does the legwork required to ensure to the best of my ability that I’m presenting the truth.  Believe me when I tell you that your writer got it wrong.

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