Earlier this year, the news about the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) altering a photograph used to promote an exhibition, left me puzzled and incredibly disappointed. I couldn’t stop thinking about their reasoning, and its implications – still relevant today, as the world questions what to trust. Here is an article I wrote about it, published in Medium by the News Literacy Project.
The commotion was about a photograph of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington taken by Getty Images’ Mario Tama. It was enlarged and installed at the entrance to the “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote” exhibition, showing a sea of marchers with their protest signs. Here’s where things get hinky: the National Archives staff altered the photograph to remove the president’s name along with all readable references to women’s genitalia, from some of the signs.
As explained by Washington Post reporter Joe Heim, who spotted an issue with the photo while at NARA for an unrelated story, the decision to alter the photograph was made to avoid causing offense or being perceived as making a political statement. But by doing so, NARA catapulted the issue into the spotlight as a symbol of erasure, an obstruction of a view of history, and a violation of the ethical standards of photojournalism.
As a documentary photographer, I believe a photograph can stand as evidence of a particular moment. It is a visual record and, like written news, and is part of journalism’s role as the “first rough draft of history.” Context matters and ethics apply. Visual journalists and documentary photographers work hard to provide the full story, precisely caption what is happening and provide as much context as possible. We are accountable and responsible for accurately representing the world around us.
Censoring signs from a women’s march, to promote an exhibition celebrating a century of women speaking up? Interesting choice to say the least. But regardless of content, I keep coming back to visual and news literacy issues and the critical importance of standards-based journalism.
We move through our lives informed by vastly diverse backgrounds, but strive to recognize and set aside personal biases, holding fast to a set of standards and ethics. As Nicole Frugé, director of photography at the San Francisco Chronicle, said at a recent News Literacy Project #NewsLitCamp, “Captions are journalism.” Photojournalism is journalism.
The National Press Photographers Association’s reinforces this view by explaining that our chosen medium “can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated.” In addition to mentioning accuracy, respect, avoiding one’s own biases and treating all subjects with respect and dignity, the Code of Ethics also states that “editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context.”
Another issue to consider is NARA’s intent. Were their actions an act of censorship? What are the implications, especially for a government institution charged with preserving historical documents?
In a Jan. 18 statement, NARA noted it did not hold the photo as one of its archival records but had licensed it from Getty Images to use as a promotional graphic. If the photo were on a different wall, NARA’s policies would have prohibited censorship. Getty’s policy states that it will never censor its editorial coverage, and that “post-editorial licensing of photos will be in accordance with news-industry standards.”
The Washington Post reported that Getty Images was still determining whether it had approved the alterations. We can look at documentary photographs as a slice of history, but NARA says it did not consider this image a “historical document” and it was treated differently than a photograph from its collection.
The purpose of this photo was absolved from the constraints of photojournalistic ethics as well as the ethics of archivists, historians and librarians. Did anyone from NARA pause to ask whether this action would tarnish the values it seeks to uphold? Its justification for altering the photo may have done little to erase damage to its reputation. It makes us wonder — are there more altered images or documents?
Could NARA have chosen another photograph to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage, perhaps one from its own holdings? I would imagine so, as it has some 25 million photographs and graphics, thousands of which are digitized and searchable on its website, archives.gov. Museum exhibitions take months — sometimes years to curate — and a centennial shouldn’t be a surprise. It is likely there were multiple opportunities to select a photo that wouldn’t raise concerns of being partisan or too graphic for younger audiences.
To its credit, once the backlash began, the first words in an explanatory tweet from the official NARA Twitter account @USNatArchives were, “We made a mistake.” NARA also stated in its Jan. 18 press release that it has always been “completely committed to preserving our archival holdings, without alteration” and reiterated that the altered photo was not among those holdings — a small relief. But how can you be “completely committed” to accuracy when something like this happens? With a mandate to “be a transparent, truthful guardian of our nation’s history” as pointed out in a Forbes article by Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, these values are part of enriching and preserving our democracy.
While perhaps not enough for some, NARA removed the image, leaving in its place a statement about the incident until an unaltered version of the photograph took its place. Three cheers to journalists everywhere (print, digital or visual), for uncovering stories that hold people accountable and for ensuring that first rough draft of history is accurate.
In case you missed the controversy and want more details, here are a few of the articles:
My goal was to flip the narrative of exhibition curation, placing the power of choice in the hands of the viewers that might feel inimidated or even alienated by art. Heck, many museums and galleries often show work that is so ‘out there,’ one feels that a PhD is needed in order to understand it. The fact is, artists need viewers to engage on a deeper level, but sometimes the institutional systems muddle things along the way. My experiment was to see if I could help bridge that gap.
To keep the process as approachable as possible, I randomly selected 60 prints from my instagram feed and printed them (actually, CPW did – thank you Michael!!! Also, thank you Ben for helping me with set up – you guys rock!). Granted, I am working from my own images so there is some unavoidable input by nature of how I see the world. Willing participants perused said bin of prints and made a selection of what moved them, to “exhibit” on the #HFA shed. Conversations ranged from what they find meaningful in art, to composition of images, art in general, landscapes, politics, you name it. At the end of our interaction, I made a portrait of them along with their selection.
This was a fun concept to explore. Most of my weekend’s participants happened to be artists that loved the process and sequencing. Others seemed to have a connection to art and I’m not sure if that’s just because Woodstock is a very artsy town to begin with, or if we just needed different signage (“Don’t Get Art? This is for you!”); perhaps this is what makes me want to try this again. Being able to understand what moves someone and makes them tick is an always-present curiosity for me.
And bonus – I have new work that might just end up in an upcoming exhibition!
Upcoming HFA projects:
July 21-22: Get on the Bus with Roger Lazoff
July 25-27: Mileage Allowance with Barbara Loisch
July 28: Yoga & Photography, with Juan Giraldo
Summer is here and what better way to enjoy the outdoors, than with art, music and great food. Come on down to Beekman Street Art Fair in #Saratoga, we’re here till 5pm (June 10, 2018). You can find me around the corner from The Local, and across from Kraverie!
photo: a few new pieces on steel, each 10×10” (the cat mural already sold, but is available at CPW’s Woodstock Squared exhibition!)
About a year ago, a friend told me that I am a seeker. There is some truth to that, as visual storytelling is a combination of looking for something to share, and the other part is adventure. Two things I love deeply.
This exhibition involves a seeking of sorts, as I meandered my way through Southern Brazil reconnecting with family, lost memories, new friends and sights I knew as a child.
If you happen to be upstate New York, take a trip to Saratoga Springs Station and check out Memory Travels: a Journey Through Southern Brazil, on view through March 26.
This exhibition is through Saratoga Arts Art in Public Places program, and prints are available through them for the duration of the exhibition.
HERsteading is on view, this time at Brookside Museum, part of the Saratoga County Historical Society through August 1st.
OPENING RECEPTION: Friday, July 7, 5-8pm
Brookside Museum, 6 Charlton Street, Ballston Spa, NY
Brookside is a little gem of a museum upstate NY and it feels really right to have this show there. The more I mull over this series, the more I want to dive in deeper. For now, I added more captions, excerpts from Jenna’s writing that I feel reflect her life and message: find a way to live the life you desire most. Then, shine bright and strong. Don’t surrender or settle.
…We need to help each other shine. We do it through memory and kindness, second chances, love and forgiveness. You don’t have to believe in anything to be part of those things. All of us can take a moment to think about what inside us needs to change, and who we love that we don’t want to let down, and to be grateful we’re still alive to do those things.
–Jenna Woginrich, excerpt from Luceo non Uro, Cold Antler Farm blog)
I am so pleased to exhibit at Brookside Museum, thanks to the Saratoga ArtsArt in Public Places program.
The museum will be carrying the exhibition catalogue and the large gift cards from the series which are signed on the back by Jenna (Cold Antler Farm) and I! They are also available here if you can’t make the show in person.
Sunday, June 11, is the Beekman Street Arts Fair in Saratoga (NY) and I’m really excited to be there again, sharing some brand new artwork.
Here are a few finished photo transfers of my work at Cold Antler Farm (on wood)
I’ve been experimenting with photo transfers on wood thanks to an upcoming public art project for LARAC (nothing like the incentive of a deadline to get you moving), and am having so much fun with it, i decided to just keep going.
…and a few photos from the Women’s March in Washington DC (fittingly, transferred onto boards broken at our Tae Kwon Do tests)
If you happen to be Upstate NY on Sunday, come one by (10am-5pm)! I could hug the organizers for putting me in between my two favorite food/libation places in town: Kraverie and The Local – I’m a lucky gal!
There are over 50 artists with vendor booths (be sure to check out Grace Gunning‘s boxes and fellow photographer Greg Cuda); awesome food, music and great camaraderie. See you there!
I love the title of this article by Christopher McDougall. I also love that images from my series Hersteading: Cold Antler Farm were chosen to accompany his words in the New York Times. It is a short and insightful article with depth–not easy to do because Jenna Woginrich, the girl that hunts with hawks, is such a complex renaissance woman.
Yet he managed to capture her humor too. For as serious as she is with caring for her animals, there is always laughter and a bit of the absurd. For example, her last two hawks were named after actresses she admires, Anna Kendrick and Aya Cash:
“I have got to stop naming hawks after people,” Jenna says. “It’s really going to mess up their Google results. Someone out there is going to find my stuff online and think the star of ‘Pitch Perfect’ killed a mouse in my living room.”
So grateful to Jenna for letting me photograph her world; there’s never a dull moment.
To read Christopher’s full article in the NYT (you should), click here.
If you would like to own the book from the Hersteading exhibition (you know you do!), click HERE or the button below. It’s 38 pages of strength, struggle, sass and dedication.
If you prefer smaller and sharable images, Jenna and I partnered on this set of giftcards, here. But by all means, if you love to read be sure to check out Jenna’s blog, as she is also the girl that tells stories.
One of the most common comments I hear about my Hersteading: Cold Antler Farm series is:
Is that a REAL HAWK?
I need that photo!
Well folks, here’s your chance. Jenna (Cold Antler Farm) and I have joined forces again this Solstice to create a new set of 5×7″ gift cards. It’s a limited edition, and last year’s sold out fairly quickly, so go ahead and peruse your options in my new STORE.
If you are looking for framed prints or want to see your options in person, head on over to LARAC, where I’m part of the Holiday Shop through Dec 24th (love how they take us procrastinators into account! Evening hours on Dec 22 too). I have work there ranging from $5 (cards) to $200 for larger framed photos.
For matted prints, check out the Gift Shop at Saratoga Arts, also carrying my work – AND, the framed prints on view at Saratoga Springs Public Library are also available for purchase through them until December 31st. Oh, and I’m not done yet! The exhibition Sul do Brasil at Berimbau in NYC was extended until the end of January (and yes, you can have one of those too).
Happy holidays to all!
PS – and speaking of Holidays, Jenna is also featured in the Holiday issue of Simply Saratoga, along with some of my photos (p68-71)
In October I received a call. Would I be willing to create a two-minute speech to introduce a Lucie Award recipient? Having collaborated with them before, I didn’t hesitate. And then I learned who the awardee was. The incredible Tsuneko Sasamoto. I am so humbled.
How on EARTH do you compress an entire life of photography (102 years to be exact) into a two-minute speech??!
Panic ensues. Nail biting. I admire her moxie and persistence, but more than anything want to share a tribute that will honor her and everything she has worked hard for. Holed up in my mom’s office for two days researching and writing, I’d like to share my speech:
“Trailblazer. Pioneer. Non-conformist. Independent-minded. Ambitious. Infinitely curious. Dedicated. Driven. … and full of hope.
It takes all sorts of moxie to believe you can accomplish something when the world around you tells you, what you want is not a choice. Tsuneko Sasamoto is such a person. Born in 1914, she knew from a young age that she wanted something different for herself – and for all women. As a child, she wanted to be a painter. As a teen she wanted to have a professional career – perhaps a writer or journalist – while her classmates wanted to be brides. I can imagine her teachers frowning, her determination so unheard of in an era where marriage and motherhood are synonymous, and expected. Her chosen path, one against her family’s wishes.
She was often told, “you’re just a woman, how could you even think of becoming a photographer?” And yet she created a career in photography that spans most people’s lifetimes.
Can you think back to your 20s, and what you were doing? In her 20s, she became Japan’s first female photojournalist – which was around the same time WWII started brewing. The things she has seen, and photographed – from daily life to documenting pre-war preparations. The pain, destruction, political and economic turmoil and then rebuilding. Women gaining the right to vote. An evolving shift for her nation and culture. All this through the eyes of hope, dignity and joy for life. She felt compelled to share what she saw in the world.
She had no issues of carrying her camera equipment and all the bulbs necessary for each shoot – but hated having to do it in a skirt and high heels, because it got in the way of climbing ladders and always looking for better vantage points, and different angles. To make a point, she opted for bigger cameras, fearing that if she used a smaller leica, people would think its a toy and then not take her seriously.
Determined. Breaking barriers.
The thing with trailblazers, is they are so busy doing, they don’t realize what a path they have carved for the rest of us. Ms. Sasamoto turned 102 last month and is still just doing her thing. She believes gender and age should have no bearing on a person’s capabilities – she didn’t let the fact she was a woman get in her way, and today she is not letting age get in her way either.
“If I tell people I’m 100,” she says “they’ll ask if i can still press the shutter, or still see ok – but I don’t feel any change in me, even in getting old – probably because I keep photographing. I see the movement of the world, and want to see that all the time.”
I’ll admit to being a giddy 5 year old holding her prize afterwards. I am half her age, and still working on having at least half of her persistence and grace.
Check out Holly Hughes’s follow up article in PDN here. Take a moment to google Sasamoto and while you’re at it, look up other amazing women around the world making a difference in their communities. We can be humbled, but stay inspired to keep doing good.
Meet the Artist Receptions:
Tuesday September 13 & Friday October 14, 2016
“I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” – Mary Anne Radmacher
With Brazilian Independence Day around the corner (Sept 7 but in NYC we’re celebrating on Sept 4), it is a great time to share my exhibition at Berimbau again, along with the photos from the first opening reception on July 26 – thanks to the amazing photographer and friend, Fernando Navarro. I’m grinning like a fool in most of them; could not be helped… I was surrounded by family and friends and loving every second of the gathering.
I’d like to have another reception or two before the show closes (happy-hour get togethers), so be sure to follow my photo page on Facebook for the latest announcements (@miriamromaisphotos).
About the series: Sul do Brasil is a personal journey through southern Brazil, where my family still lives. Even though I lived there as a kid, the series is still a process of discovery for me and a somewhat nostalgic one at that. The images show the southern countryside of Brazil as I criss-crossed my way to visit relatives, bringing up long forgotten memories and making new ones.
Berimbau do Brasil is worth the trip (brazilian food, caipirinhas & art!); it’s located at 43 Carmine Street (bwtween Bedford & Bleeker). Tel: (212) 242-2606 firstname.lastname@example.org