June 22, 2018
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Negotiating news photo minefields

By Kent Ward

The retirement on Friday of veteran Bangor Daily News photographer Scott Haskell after more than three decades of outstanding work recording images of everyday life in Maine set me to pondering the photography aspect of putting out a daily newspaper.

Although improved technology has revolutionized the newspaper photography process, as it has so many other endeavors, one thing that technology seems unlikely to change is the potential for grief that can come with the publication of photos.

One does not have to be terribly swift to spot — before publication — the photo that will make the natives grow restless and result in a surge in the volume of letters to the editor. Which is why at most newspapers the decision to publish a controversial photo generally comes only after considerable discussion among editors.

Following the publication by the BDN of a photo at the scene of a fatal accident involving a teenage bicyclist, readers reacted swiftly in condemning the paper’s judgment. Mark Woodward, the paper’s executive editor at the time, wrote a column explaining the paper’s rationale for publication, and — as is often the case in these things — sentiment began to turn.

One reader who wrote to commend the decision to publish the photo said his young son — who had clipped the photo and taped it to the garage wall near his bike — had been taught an invaluable lesson about bicycle safety.

When Vice President Al Gore came to Maine in the wake of the 1998 ice storm that crippled the state for weeks, he was photographed picking up a downed power line in Auburn, thereby undoing decades of power company-sponsored public service announcements about the folly of touching any power line at any time and sabotaging the age-old warning to little kids not to try such a foolhardy stunt at home.

Resulting letters to the editor, although rich in snickering commentary about the vice president’s faux pas, included a fair number speculating as to who was dumber — Gore for picking up the wire or newspaper editors for prominently displaying photos of his klutzy performance on their front pages.

Those types of photographs — of accident scenes, Important People acting irresponsibly, dead game animals strung up with their tongues hanging out, kids playing with fire and so forth — have potential trouble written all over them and can elicit caustic reader reaction. By contrast, when a newspaper blunders into the misidentified species trap in publication of a photograph the reaction is usually less strident.

An eye-catching picture published in the BDN several years ago showed a dragonfly hitching a ride across the Androscoggin River on the back of a snake, which the caption writer had identified as a milk adder. When I picked up my copy of the morning paper at the post office and saw the photo, it occurred to me that if things held true to form, sure as God made milk adders to provide free taxi service across the Androscoggin for the dragonfly contingent, this wiggly old boy would turn out to be something other than advertised.

Sure enough, a couple of days later a letter to the editor from a reader identifying himself as a member of the Maine Herpetological Society — the snake people — ran on the editorial page. The reptile in question was not a milk adder, the expert explained, but a northern water snake. Close, but no cigar, amigos.

I laughed in remembrance of an earlier BDN newsroom in which it was a standing joke that if we identified a bird in a photo as a yellow-bellied sapsucker, some ornithologist would ring us up to tell us that the creature was, in fact, a ring-tailed fence bobber. If we labeled an insect an exotic humpbacked mosquito darter it would turn out to be a run-of-the-mill multitasking flycatcher. And so on. We seemed snake-bit, although we may not have known by which species.

The result was that we became temporarily spooked wherein it concerned our species-identification abilities, and for a while tended to stick to a simple generic labeling in our nature photo captions. Only gradually did we return to being more specific. But never without some uneasiness. And always with our fingers crossed for good luck.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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