Obama Reenactment of bin Laden Speech for Press Photos Stirs Controversy

You might not know this, but virtually all of the still photographs you’ve seen in the press showing President Obama announcing the death of Osama bin Laden are staged photographs. Reuters photographer Jason Reed wrote an interesting behind-the-scenes blog post on Monday, explaining:

As President Obama continued his nine-minute address in front of just one main network camera, the photographers were held outside the room by staff and asked to remain completely silent. Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of that teleprompter and the President then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.

Apparently this has been standard practice during Presidential speeches at the White House for quite some time, and is meant to prevent the noise of camera shutters from interrupting the televised address. Despite the fact that news organizations try to disclose the nature of the photos in the captions, the fact that these photos are staged doesn’t sit well with some folks.

Photographer Chip Litherland writes in a post titled “history or his story?“:

I know this is a long standing tradition in the White House as to not let the camera clicking interfere with the message. It isn’t President Obama, and it dates back decades. Unfortunately, the message that is being sent when the cameras are clicking is being interfered with.

That is no longer an acceptable answer in my mind. It is falsifying history. What if – and just imagine – what if something were to happen during the re-enactment? Any slip of the tongue, a trip on the red carpet, a glance or subtle expression change all can dramatically alter what is real and what is news. It is going to take that kind of moment to change all of this staging of events. Essentially, the White House is determining what is history. What we see. What is real.

It is not history. It is his story.

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute shares a similar point of view:

It is time for this kind of re-enactment to end. The White House should value truth and authenticity. The technology clearly exists to document important moments without interrupting them. Photojournalists and their employers should insist on and press for access to document these historic moments.

The “technology” could be anything from shooting on the other side of a window to using a sound blimp on a camera.

In response to this ongoing debate, the editors over at the MSNBC photoblog have actually taken the bold step of refusing to publish reenacted photos ever again:

Having been prompted to think about this issue this week, our point of view is that there’s no reason for us to show pictures of a re-enactment when we can show you screen grabs of the actual address, even if we won’t have as much choice or image quality. Yesterday, we replaced still photographs we published from Sunday’s re-enactment with frame grabs from HD video, and will not use photographs of re-enactments on our site in the future.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

Update: The White House has announced that it’s putting an end to this practice.

  • Anonymous

    The whole ‘history vs his story’ argument is not that strong since we do have ‘history’ on video, so it’s not like Obama can reenact something different for the stills.

    I think MSNBC way is quite smart – full HD frame can be printed 4″x6″ at 300dpi and that should be more than sufficient for a news story and definitely more than enough for blog.

  • Seven Bates

    They don’t sit well with people who are opposed to his politics. Period. Any other claims are complete hypocrisy.

  • Bob Avo

    Falsifying history? Like the photograph of soldiers planting the flag on Iwo Jima? Come on!

  • Persio

    Really? I mean, there’s actually people debating over this? History is going to be the exactly same on these situations, regardless of the pictures being taken live or shortly after. If the media conglomerates don’t like it, they can go photograph birds or something else that won’t stage.

    Like mentioned above, is not like they are trying to create a factoid.

  • Scotty K

    If the photographers want to continue to whine about this, then why don’t all of the “media conglomerates” just use the video screen grabs and never have to pay photographers again. Problem solved, right?

  • Scotty K

    If the photographers want to continue to whine about this, then why don’t all of the “media conglomerates” just use the video screen grabs and never have to pay photographers again. Problem solved, right?

  • Fred

    The press has been doing this for decades… altering the way they present the news to better suit the executives and sponsors… or for ideological reasons. The facts themselves are not altered, just the way in which they are presented. In fact, this article does it too, in the way that the author words the title. The people who are quoted in the article — that is, the ones in the position to know — all said this has been standard practice in the White House for decades. Nevertheless, the article’s title says “Obama’s reenactment of bin Laden’s speech,” not “Presidents’ reenactments of speeches.” Biased? Maybe. The facts are not altered, but it gives the impression only President Obama does it. If one considers the big picture, this is a petty issue to worry about.

  • Bob Dunkin

    I understand the argument, and would agree if this was happening all the time, or at other events. Based on this, it doesn’t seem to be the case. I do agree that the media should try to point out (when possible) that the photo is not ‘from’ the press conference. Since it really isn’t. But that’s just being accurate.

    If this were happening at events, then I’d be concerned… or, you would be in Canada.

  • victormoreno

    its interesting this practice is being framed as a one off occurrence based around the OBL press conference; as noted this has happened forever. and a still photographer speaking out against it comes across as asinine to me, since all he’s done is cost himself and his colleagues work – in the age of HD do we need to even have photo ops for press photographers anymore? way to speed up your profession’s extinction

  • Happy Tinfoil Cat

    I think it’s a waste of Presidential time to do it twice. The holier-than-thou photogs can get frame grabs off the video. I think the official video should be bumped to a 2K or 4K since these speeches are history in the making. Exceptions could be made for photogs willing to forgo flash and use mirror lockup or other silent methods. Permanently punt any photog that does a burst mode pap style.

  • ranger9

    So a presidential speech is “real” if he gives it in front of a TV camera, but “staged” if he gives it in front of still cameras? I’m calling shenanigans on that one… He probably rehearsed the speech a couple of times before he gave it for the TV camera — so doesn’t that make the TV version “staged” as well?

    It would be different if this were a “live” interactive event, but a speech is a scripted performance. Suppose he did the TV speech straight, and then during the still-photo version he grinned and gave a thumbs-up… would any news organization in the world refuse to use that photo because it was not the same thing people saw on TV?

  • Tatyana Skymyrka

    Everything, including the video address is taking place in the controlled environment. I honesty don’t believe that authenticity should be questioned. The reasoning that shutter clicks interfere is valid and true. MSNBC didn’t accomplish anything really, except taken away a paycheck from a photog.

  • ScottKDC

    I agree, I want photos of the original speech, when the words were coming out of his mouth, and millions were watching. That’s the point, right? This is supposed to be a snapshot from a moment in time when people were hanging on every word. If we wanted a generic shot of Obama talking, they could take one pic from his inauguration and keep running it for 4 years.

    And I disagree with the poster who said this is about politics. I voted for Obama and would do so again, but it’s silly and disingenuous to stage these pics to avoid shutter noise–I don’t care how long the tradition is. The media used to cover up when politicians and celebs did unsavory things, wildlife photogs used to stage wild animals hunting other animals, then someone said “Wait, this is wrong, we should stop.”

    Oh, and if the reason is shutter clicks, isn’t everyone shooting digitally these days? It’s pretty easy to shoot silently with a digital camera.

  • Avaviel

    Have any of you seen the movie The King’s Speech? They did this in the movie, he says the speech, and then the photo is taken.

    I really don’t see this as an issue.

  • Tom

    @Avaviel:disqus says it all. They did it in 1939, and still do so now. No big deal…

  • Mic Cullen

    It’s not a press conference, which is kind of the point. It’s just a speech.

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  • Happy Tinfoil Cat
  • James

    Sounds like a good excuse to fire a few professional Photographers.