DC at Night

DC at Night

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Photographers Fighting for More White House Access

Last year, 40 major news organizations filed a formal complaint with the Obama administration contending that officials were barring photographers from taking news pictures at the White House. Instead, on many occasions, the White House was releasing its own pictures of events, which the photographers say "smacks of propaganda."

Last weekend, two White House photographers appeared on an Inside Media edition at the Newseum to provide an update on the ongoing dispute.

"If White House pictures are only supplied by the White House, you (the public) should be concerned," said award-winning White House news photographer Charles Dharapak. "They want to manage the image; they want to manage the message."

Dharapak's colleague, Dennis Brack, a long-time White House photographer for Time magazine, said the issue isn't new. "It started in the Clinton years. We have been protesting this for a long time, but recently it's gotten to be more" Brack explained.

With the explosion of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, it is much easier for politicians to provide and disseminate their own photographs. "Who could blame a president for using these tools to get their message out. But this shouldn't replace news photography," Dharapak said. "You get to see only their version of these important events. It's great photography, but it's not journalism."

"We're not looking for a gotcha moment. We're not looking to make news, but the event is the news," Dharapak added. "The journalist's job in Washington is to hold our politicians accountable. When the independent press is shut out, journalism isn't happening.

Brack, who has been capturing presidents on camera for decades, provided a historical perspective on the issue. He said the idea of White House prepared photos dates back at least to the Woodrow Wilson ear, when Wilson wanted to disguise the effects of a stroke he suffered while president.

"The difference is everyone then knew the (Wilson) pictures were contrived," Brack said.

Brack said presidents have always been concerned about their image. "Now LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson), he was a photographer's dream," Brack said about the outgoing Texas leader. But even Johnson had his limits. Brack was one of the photographers who took the famous picture of Johnson holding one of his hound dogs up by the ears. That picture sparked controversy at the time around the country. Brack said LBJ called him in and said "You got me in a heap of trouble with that one."

Vanity can also play a role in presidential photography. John Kennedy dismissed his favorite news photographer when he took a picture of the youthful president with his reading glasses on.

Ironically, Obama. when elected, pledged to make his administration the most open in history. But that didn't turn out to be the reality. "I think the the administration thought they were being transparent, but really what they were doing was issuing visual press releases," Dharapak said.

The photographer said people ask what is the big deal about who provides the images. "People need to be conscious of where their news is coming from," Dharapak explained. "If only the White House provides pictures, there is a lot of information that is left out."

Both photojournalists acknowledged that recently the White House has been granting some more access and that trend should continue.

"This is probably an issue that White doesn't want to have keep dealing with right now," Brack said.

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