When Photos DO Lie: High School Student ‘Flip Off’ Photo Sparks Outrage


The photo above clearly shows star Stevenson High basketball player Jalen Brunson flipping off the crowd… or does it? The photo, which has caused an online firestorm and almost got the youngster suspended from a tournament, is being called into question after video and another photographer’s coverage show that it captured something that only existed for a fraction of a second — a moment that was gone before anyone present saw it.

Taken by Journal Star photographer Ron Johnson, this photo that seems to show an obviously obscene gesture captured something that another photojournalist from the game said happened for only “a fraction of a second.” What began as outrage about unsportsmanlike conduct has turned into a heated discussion on journalistic ethics.

Should Johnson have published the photo and captioned it “Jalen Brunson of Lincolnshire Stevenson makes a gesture to the Chicago Whitney Young crowd?” Opinions seem to be split half-and-half. Brunson, for one, denies having made the gesture intentionally, and the video seems to confirm that, at worst, he changed his mind quickly enough to make an intentional gesture unnoticeable:

Chicago Tribune photographer Scott Strazzante has come out in support of Brunson in a blog post in which he shares 20 raw images he shot at 10fps during the same moment. Of the 20 images, only three frames could be said to be showing Brunson flipping off the crowd directly. As Strazzante put it:

Seeing the play happen through my viewfinder, I was very confident that the gesture was not intentional. I felt the image could be misconstrued, so, I decided that it would be reckless of me to transmit the photo and take a chance that someone who didn’t see the play unfold would think that Jalen Brunson was flipping off the crowd or officials.

Even Brunson has come out to deny the allegations on Twitter:

It’s a complex situation that raises some interesting questions about photojournalistic ethics. Poynter’s Al Tompkins perhaps said it best when he wrote, “The Journal Star photo is accurate. It did happen. It was not manufactured. But accuracy does not equal truth. Accuracy plus context equals truth.”

Long after the context fades away the photograph will remain, which gives some credence to the seemingly paradoxical nature of questioning the veracity of a photograph that is completely, 100% unmanipulated.

(via Poynter)

Image credits: Photograph by Ron Johnson/Journal Star

  • Anonymoused

    As somebody who lives in an area where that gesture is very common, ESPECIALLY in sports, I’m going to have to say it was 100% intentional and he’s just upset that it was captured. Even in context, that photo is accurate. A photo is a photo. It freezes time, captures emotions and memories. To portray it as “inaccurate” would be a fallacy.

  • spiralphoto
  • Roberto Inetti

    Hmmm, looks intentional to me

  • photosforus

    Looking at Scott Strazzante’s blog post it seems even more obvious that it was not taken out of context, his middle fingers are up for 9 of the frames.

  • Mike

    I agree. I counted 10 frames from Strazzante’s blog that I could clearly see the gesture and it was also pretty clear to me in the video. Maybe that’s because I was looking for it, but then again, maybe not…

  • WillMonson

    Ladies and Gentlemen… Your attention please…

    Consider the matter resolved. It has come to our attention that Anonymoused possesses irrefutable proof of Jalen Brunson’s premeditated and cold-blooded double-bird.

    Given the fact that Anonymoused lives in a location in which the double-bird is a “very common” occurrence, and even more-so in sporting events, we have no reason to doubt Anonymoused’s expertise or knowledge of this particular situation.

    Case closed. Go home.

  • caltek

    Totally intentional. What a great role model. I wish my kids would grow up with his level of respect. *sarcasm*

  • marcusdiddle

    Absolutely looks intentional to me. I gave the kid the benefit of the doubt, thinking maybe he had just been stretching/flexing his fingers in succession, and the photo was ill-timed. But I don’t know how you “accidentally” close all the fingers on both hands and leave your middle fingers up, for any length of time. I’m sitting here trying it now, and I have to consciously keep those fingers up. Go ahead, try it.

  • fast eddie

    Got ‘em, son :D

  • Evan

    Have you ever seen a photo of someone sneezing? Your logic suggests the face they pull is intentional as it ‘freezes time’. Your logic is a fallacy.

  • Oli

    For those of you who do not know how it works, the gesture involves raising the hand and usually also arm so the middle finger is elevated to a level appropriate for the targeted viewer to see. It is weird that this has to be explained to people who think it was intentional.

  • IronMan

    Everyone’s at home trying to do what he’s doing. Play a full game of basketball and try do it yourself and then talk.

  • akaawol

    That moment of feeling so awesome and a fraction of a second where your body gestures what your mind is thinking. Perhaps he didn’t mean to get caught, but no doubt he threw them birds up in the air.

  • Carsten Schlipf

    On his right hand he’s raising the forefinger, not the middle finger. Or am I seeing it wrong?

  • mthouston

    I don’t believe he intentionally flip off the crowd, if he did, he is doing it all wrong. Take a look at the video, it happens so fast. Now the attached photo show the proper way to do it.

  • Kevin

    It’s basketball, its an emotional game. He caught himself right away. Everyone is so damn sensitive.

  • Renato Murakami

    It kinda looks like he did it, yes, intentionally, then immediately regreted. Like it was sort of an almost involuntary reflex so he pulled it as fast as he realized it.
    But really? Whatever. The half gesture or the fact that the frame went out there are both not relevant enough to warrant discussion.

  • Rodney

    The gesture is clearly there. I’m no expert lip reader but if you look closely, I think he said “F*** that!”.

  • Joshua Morin

    Agreed. Like no one here has lost it and dropped an F&*^/….

  • Stephen

    I’m torn between what’s more amusing: (1) the fact that multiple newspapers find this interesting enough to discuss but you, a random Internet commenter, doesn’t see what the fuss is about; or (2) the fact that you consider the whole thing not worth discussion and yet here you are, discussing.

    Gotta be able to chuckle at yourself sometimes, friend. :)

  • Jonas Downer

    he is a kid.

  • Jonas Downer

    this is the comment that gets closest to correct in my little world. i percieved that he got pissed for a second, reflexively raised the fingers, remembered where he was and immediately stopped. so, this kid has a mixture of passion and self-awareness. let’s crucify him.

  • iam3x

    it was very intentional, an intentionally uncommitted gesture with a clever well calculated sustain. similar to how someone calls bull@#$t and coughs at the same time which is exactly what i would do for that fake @ss twitter denial

  • Andrew Kandel

    Put me in the unintentional category. To me it looks too fast and I don’t see why somebody would publish the image, effectively throwing the kid under the bus, with it being at best in a very gray area.

  • Woody ONeal

    eye contact is very important.

  • Rob S

    Um….thats the “Hook um Horns” sign the University of Texas uses. Every team in the old South West Conference had a unique hand signal.

  • Rob S

    Good call on the lip reading.

  • Rob S

    So the real question – did Stevenson win the game?

  • Wodan74

    Even if some gestures are not polite, people should not make a big fuss about it. I mean “outrage”, isn’t that a little bit over the edge?

  • ugh

    Everyone’s a critic, and often in Petapixel comments — everyone’s an expert.

  • OtterMatt

    “But accuracy does not equal truth. Accuracy plus context equals truth.”
    I think I might get this tattooed on my body. Glad to see at least some journalistic photographers have a brain and can show restraint.

    If it was intentional, it would have been pointed at the ref, not the crowd. Context, people.

  • Brian Zuzulock

    Yes, you are seeing it wrong, both middle fingers are up.

  • independentskeptic

    Who the f*&k cares? It’s not a big f*&^in deal?

    Now this is how you flip someone off without video:

  • Chris

    Who knows what the fans said to deserve it. I think its insane what some fans say to these kids at these educational sports games. The fans may have very well deserved the bird. And if thats the case. Good for the kid.

  • chudez

    you can ask me to believe he accidentally extended one middle finger while making a different gesture. you can even ask me to believe he accidentally extended one middle finger after another. but accidentally extending both fingers at the same time stretches my disbelief. my two cents: he reflexively gave the gesture out of muscle memory then his conscious mind took over and realized he shouldn’t and controlled himself from there.

  • Anonymoused

    A sneeze is an involuntary action. Flipping people off is not.

  • Anonymoused

    It’s a cultural thing, and it’s very hard to describe unless you are a part of the generation (and it seems you aren’t).

    The double-flip isn’t necessarily a gesture meant to offend; it’s used more for an, “awh yeah!” or even, “suck on that!”-type of meaning. It’s not meant to offend those around you but kind of raise yourself up, like people taking selfies that make them look better than they normally do. It’s NOT the same as the “f you” gesture that a single flip denotes.

    There’s nothing wrong with the gesture, it’s used to give off a “look what I did (and you didn’t)” vibe, but to deny that he did it intentionally is ridiculous and immature. He’s just upset that it was captured.

  • Anonymoused

    It seems the problem with those of you who don’t believe it was intentional is that you don’t understand what the gesture means, or why it would be almost a reflex to this player. The double-bird is NOT the same, or more offensive, than a single bird. In fact, it’s the opposite: flipping someone off directly, pointing your middle finger directly at them, is definitely meant to be insulting. However, the double-bird isn’t pointed at anyone; it’s a gesture more for the self (vs everybody) than something rude to one person.

    It’s VERY common to flip the double-bird after doing something you felt was awesome. For example, two friends have a light-hearted debate about a topic and one of them is proven to have been right. The person who was right, in jest, may flip the double-bird with an “aha, told you so!”

    Or if people are playing a competitive video game together, somebody who has just beat the others in the room may double-flip it up and tell everybody to bow down to them.

    This DEFINITELY was an intentional gesture, and if you don’t think it was, it’s because you don’t understand the gesture.

  • caltek

    Still someone younger kids would look up to hence the role model comment. Also a kid that knows better.

  • spiralphoto

    Maybe so, but you will always have to explain that to people who don’t know that, right?

  • dangeorges

    Looked intentional to me. No one raises their middle fingers without purpose.