June 15th, 2012

The College Kid Whose Obama Photo Landed in The New Yorker

An article in the current issue of The New Yorker, about what President Obama might accomplish if elected to a second term, appears with a striking, double-page photo of the President standing alone and looking thoughtful. The photo was shot during the G8 summit last month by Luke Sharrett, a student at Western Kentucky University who has taken a break from his final semester in order to shoot on contract for The New York Times for 11 months.

Sent by The Times to cover the G8 summit at the Camp David presidential retreat, Sharrett was among roughly two dozen photographers who had assembled for a photo-op of the President greeting world leaders as they arrived. Sharrett recalls that the President had just walked out of Laurel Lodge, the Camp David conference center, and taken his spot on the edge of the sidewalk. “The first of the leaders hadn’t arrived yet,” he says. “It was an awkward, silent moment. It was kind of an in-between moment, and those are the pictures I enjoy photographing the most. My mentors [New York Times photographers] Stephen Crowley and Doug Mills encourage me to look for something different.”

He had little time to compose his shot, he says. The Marines who oversee Camp David had set strict limits on where, and for how long, the press pool could shoot. “We had to put surgical bags, like surgeons wear on their feet, over our lenses as we went to and from the photo-ops,” Sharrett explains. “They would not let us test, or check the frame until about two minutes before the photo-op, and then we could remove the baggies.” The long, dark shadows in the image were cast by the lights the White House Press Office had set up to the left and right of the press pool. Sharrett liked how his shot came out, but The Times ran other shots he took during the summit, showing other world leaders.

Sharrett, who enrolled at Western Kentucky in 2007, interned in the White House Photo Office in 2008, and in 2009 interned at The New York Times’ Washington bureau for what was supposed to be a three-month stint, but stretched to a year. Finally, he says, Michelle McNally, the paper’s director of photography, told him he had to go back to school. He had almost completed three semesters when, last fall, McNally called again and asked him to work for the Times on contract from January of this year through the election—though he’s still four courses shy of graduating.  “I split my time between Capitol Hill, the White House, and I spent some time with [candidate Mitt] Romney; I covered the South Carolina primary. That was a blast.”

During his Times internship he met Elissa Curtis, who is now a photo editor at The New Yorker, and she contacted him when his sports portfolio won honorable mention in the College Photographer of the Year competition last year.  When she needed a photo of Obama looking pensive, she called Sharrett. He was on the road with the President at the time, so she asked Redux Pictures, which licenses images by The New York Times photographers, to send a selection. Of the image Curtis chose, she says, “It was one of those [images] where the more I looked at it, the more I liked it.”

Sharrett (who addressed this reporter as “ma’am”) says he is glad an image he had liked is getting a second life, and was “floored” when Curtis told him it would run as a spread. “I’m just really happy to be there, and to make pictures for a living.”

(Image above: © The New Yorker/photo by Luke Sharrett/New York Times/Redux)

 

December 29th, 2011

Official News Agency of a Totalitarian Regime Doctored a News Photo. Imagine That.

© Korea Central News Agency

The photo of the funeral of Kim Jung-Il distributed by the Korean Central News Agency, the official news agency of North Korea, was stunning: Limousines driving in formation behind a giant portrait of the Supreme Leader, rows of mourners lining their route, snow whitening the ground, a giant North Korean flag billowing majestically at the top of the frame. It was picture perfect. Too perfect, apparently.

Today The New York Times Lens Blog compares the image from the official news agency with one taken at almost the same moment by a photographer with Kyodo News of Japan, and distributed by AP. Working with digital forensics expert Hany Farid of Dartmouth, they show that the image from Korean Central was Photoshopped. The Lens blog goes into lots of detail, showing (with several close ups) that some men standing on the sidelines with a camera were erased, replaced with cloned snow. (Read more about their analytical methods and see the photos here.)

Lens reports that the doctored photo had been distributed by European Pressphoto Agency, Reuters and Agence-France Presse (AFP) before the retouching was discovered by The New York Times (which had also, briefly, run the image on its Web site). Once Lens reported

Undoctored photo, © Kyodo News

that the photo was doctored, the three agencies issued kill notices, Lens reports. “This photo was altered from the source and not by AFP,” the agency noted.

Gee, if you can’t trust an official news photo from the government of a secretive nation with a history of repressing journalism, who can you trust?

Maybe the agencies can be excused for not anticipating that such a stage-managed spectacle would be doctored. The retouching doesn’t seem politically motivated, as in all those airbrushed photos from Stalinist Russia. Why would a North Korean photo editor go to the trouble of Photoshopping out a few anonymous figures?

The Lens blog offers one explanation: “totalitarian esthetics.”

“With the men straggling around the sidelines, a certain martial perfection is lost. Without the men, the tight black bands of the crowd on either side look railroad straight.” When it comes to stage-managed spectacle, symmetry is all.