December 16th, 2013

We Know Africa Is Not a Single Country, Newsweek Says

© Newsweek/photos © Tadej Znidarcic/Redux Pictures

© Newsweek/photos © Tadej Znidarcic/Redux Pictures

Today Newsweek.com published a story about the increasing dangers that gays face in Ethiopia, where sexual activity among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people has been criminalized. The only problem: The story is illustrated with photos taken not in Ethiopia, but in Uganda. The portraits of LGBT individuals were taken by Tadej Znidarcic in 2009 as part of his project about anti-gay legislation that had been proposed in the Ugandan parliament. The photos appear in the Newsweek story about Ethiopia’s anti-gay laws without a caption or clarification about their subject  or location.

When we reached Newsweek for comment, we were told that, yes, the editors there do know that Ethiopia and Uganda are two different countries. Yes, there was concern at the magazine about using photos taken in one country three years ago to illustrate what’s happening in a different country today. But no, a caption won’t be added.

It wasn’t a simple error. It sounds like a tale involving limited photographic options, bad website design, a few bad choices and some embarrassment on Newsweek’s part.

The LGBT Ethiopians quoted in the story by writer Katie J.M. Baker had asked that their faces not be shown in the story, so options for portraits were limited. Baker  provided photos she had shot on a cellphone at a gathering of gay friends in Addis Adaba, Ethiopia, with their faces cut out of the frame, but her photos were small and pixelated. Wanting something more photographic, Newsweek photo editor remembered Znidarcic’s photos, which were exhibited in the Open Society’s Moving Walls exhibition in 2011 and shown on several blogs.

Znidarcic had photographed gay activists in Uganda facing a wall, their faces hidden, because at the time, the Ugandan parliament was debating a bill that would have imposed the death penalty for anyone convicted of “aggravated homosexuality.” Newsweek contacted Redux Pictures to license the photos, and informed Znidarcic about the subject of the story.

Though an editor at Newsweek was concerned that the images might be confusing or misleading, since they weren’t shot in Ethiopia, Newsweek ended up running them with the story anyway, above the words: “In many countries, it’s getting better for the LGBT community. In Ethiopia, it’s getting worse.”

That’s not the caption to the photo, a Newsweek staffer explained; that’s the deck to the story. The web page is designed with no caption. And for some reason, the writer or editors chose not to insert a photo caption into the text (for example, where comparisons were made to the 75 other countries in the world where same-sex sex has been criminalized). The lack of clarity about the photos mars a rare international story about topic under-reported in mainstream media.

Yes, we know that there are deadlines, and contingencies, and that web templates can be rigid and aren’t often designed with journalistic concerns in mind. But we have to wonder: Would the editors have illustrated a story about news in Germany with an image taken in Denmark?