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?

August 14th, 2013

Newsweek: An Autopsy (And an Ex-Photo Editor’s Lament)

Newsweek-Autopsy-CoverA new exhibition co-curated by Marion Durand, a Newsweek photo editor and James Wellford, former senior photo editor who left Newsweek last year, celebrates some of the magazine’s achievements in visual storytelling, and also features images that were never published.  On display through September at Cortona on the Move, the photo festival in Tuscany, Italy, “Newsweek: An Autopsy” mixes magazine covers, framed prints and layouts from both the US and international editions of Newsweek from the past 12 years, and offers a window into editorial decision making. In a very candid interview, published in www.emahomagazine.com, Wellford talks about the exhibition and the “painful experience” of being unable to rally interest in serious photo essays. He says he was frustrated by the lack of support even before Newsweek became what he calls a “pamphlet” that covered more personality journalism than hard news. “There’s a lot of compromise,” he says.

Wellford says the problem was partly due to the downturn in print advertising, and Newsweek’s lack of subscription revenue, which meant  “the ability of the magazine to produce pages…and support writers and photographers went down the drain.” But he also talks about much earlier incidents when, according to Wellford, Newsweek failed to support photographers in the field.

In 1994, when Wellford was freelancing for the magazine, for example, he says the magazine supported several photographers who were covering the genocide in Rwanda, including Gilles Peress. “But the fact that you support it doesn’t mean that the magazine is going to run it, because remember the appetite for showing harshness constantly compromises the conversation in the newsroom.” He notes that at certain moments of history-making news, “It’s embarrassing what they were putting on the covers.”

He says, “The biggest regret was not being able to support people in perilous situations.” When photographer Laurent Van der Stockt, who was then a contract photographer with Newsweek, traveled on his own to Fallujah, Iraq, the site of two bloody battles of the Iraq war, Wellford wanted to “make sure he was secure.” However, he says, “someone came up to me at Newsweek” and asked first if Van der Stockt was there on an assignment from Newsweek, and was then “relieved” to learn he wasn’t – so Newsweek didn’t act to ensure his safety. When Teru Kuwayama, working in Pakistan on assignment for the magazine, was injured in a car accident in which the driver was killed instantly, Wellford says only people he knew in Pakistan and “friends of mine at The New York Times and CNN…kept an eye on him.” Wellford still doesn’t know what money Newsweek gave to the driver’s family. “I have never forgiven them for that,” he says.

Wellford connects the lack of concern for the welfare of magazine contributors to a lack of regard for journalism in general. “It was about morality and ethics,” he says.

“That to me has been lost, narcissism and the self seemed to take over. Of course you can’t generalize, but there seems to be no cumulative sense of making statements that in time, historically, will reflect on genuine concern for the world.”

The interview on emahomagazine.com includes a slide show of images by Alex Majoli, Paolo Pellegrin, Charles Omanney and other photographers in the show, as well as Wellford’s explanation of how he chooses to edit and assign photojournalists.

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