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Debating the Ethics of Those Creepy McCain Photos

by Miranda Trimmier 

Tags: Media, photojournalism, photography, journalistic integrity, media ethics, Jill Greenberg, John McCain, The Atlantic, On the Media,

the AtlanticWhen photographer Jill Greenberg’s editors at the Atlantic asked her to photograph John McCain for the magazine's October issue, she swallowed her distaste and delivered the benevolent-looking images they sought. But she couldn’t cast her disgust aside, so she snapped a second set of photos that better captured her own feelings for McCain. Compared to the warm, well-lit portraits that ended up in the magazine, her alternative shots make McCain look...well...kind of evil. Greenberg posted the photos to her website, and remained unapologetic when her editors freaked out.

Were her actions ethical? A recent episode of On the Media chats with Greenberg and other photographers about the often murky question of integrity in photojournalism. Greenberg suggests that in some situations, the most ethical way to portray her subjects may not always be the most flattering. Photographer Platon, who captured Ann Coulter on the cover of Time looking, in interviewer Bob Garfield’s estimation, "like a blond praying mantis," agrees. For him, a photographer’s duty isn’t to represent subjects as they’d prefer, but to interpret them, to “pull people out of their reality and into our reality.” Greenberg further justifies unflattering photos (perhaps less convincingly) with the contention that editors sometimes demand them, even asking photographers to deliberately mislead their subjects.

You can take a look at the photos in question, along with some other great (and potentially questionable) shots in a slideshow accompanying the episode transcript.