Distorting the news and the well-rehearsed smile

120-year-old photo of the Hembree family

Bear with me. This winding road has a destination.

I regularly share my photography on my personal Facebook page. Sometimes I’ll write a paragraph or two about the subject or experience, sometimes only a title, and sometimes I’ll simply put ‘[untitled]’ in the description. The latter is used because I don’t want to frame the image with a preconception. I prefer viewers come to their own conclusions about what they’re seeing.

Often, what people perceive is very different from what I witnessed when taking the photograph. They only see the moment captured, not the before and after, and not what’s outside the image borders. This is especially true with animal and human photography. For animals, both for wildlife and domestic, I try to capture moments that personify them with human characteristics. They’re often humorous or endearing because of this. This is not their normal state.

Photographing people in their natural states, unposed and off-guard, presents different challenges. Truly photogenic people are rare. It has little to do with attractiveness or having a fabulous smile. It has more to do with the natural and consistent state of their faces.

I’ve taken many posed photos of friends and family members and, for the most part, they all have the same exact smile in every photo. It’s a well-rehearsed smile reserved for photographs and greeting people.

I’ve also taken hundreds of photos of our city leaders and citizens of Page for the Chronicle. These are usually at events, meetings, or workplaces. For news stories, I try to avoid posed photos. I don’t want the rehearsed smiles, preferring their natural state, a moment of seriousness, attentiveness, or joy. This is rarely found with a single shot.  My sideline is taking group photos for tour companies. The groups ranged from 25 to 60 people. I took 15 shots per group and prayed I’d have at least one with everyone’s eyes open and no facial contortions while smiles were adjusted. It’s the same with news photos. I have to take several for one usable photo.

There’s a lot of good-looking people in Page, but I’ve only encountered a few I’d consider naturally photogenic. Although I’m the opposite of photogenic myself, I’ve had a little experience with the subject. I used to photograph professional boxers in and out of the ring and was an official photographer for Hawaiian Tropics Beauty Pageants (I was also a judge for ‘Miss Photogenic’ at the events).

I have photos of people in Page that would horrify them, photos I will never share (so be nice to me).


We’re almost to our destination.

Photos can say what we want them to say. I think most know this by the photos used in social media memes and political attack ads. A photo captured at the right moment and lighting conditions can reverse impressions. Let me give an example.

When I studied photography at Old Dominion University, I traveled with a professional boxing team as a class project. It was fun having an all-access pass. It allowed me to roam freely in large stadiums with a camera, ringside, in the dressing rooms, wherever. I had more access than the Showtime crews and announcers televising the events. One of the best photo ops was weigh-in.  When the opposing fighters got off the scales, they would stand nose to nose, snarl, and stare each other down. A photographer’s dream.

Aside from the boxers’ dramatic in-your-face moments, I noticed something else. And this became the focus of my class photography project. I saw how the lighting changed the looks the fighters were giving each other.

Since my photography course was an art course, getting focused photos wasn’t enough. The images had to say something out of the ordinary. They had to reveal something and highlight new connections. 

To help preface my example, I should mention I was also studying journalism ethics at ODU and was managing editor for the school newspaper, Mace and Crown.

This is how the two connect:

The photo was a tight close-up of their faces, two dangerous-looking men standing nose-to-nose, barely an inch between them. The original image, as it was developed, showed the killer instinct in their eyes. These two would be in the ring shortly fighting for a title. It’s what they both lived for, and both were willing to brutally beat another man to get it.

Once I was safely hundreds of miles away from the brutes, I began changing the color temperatures of the photo. I had two versions.

One leaned toward the cool blue hues, the other toward the warmer colors, the red hues. The cool colors brought out the coldness of the moment, but surprisingly, the warmer colors made them appear to be leaning into each other for a kiss. The exact opposite of what everyone there witnessed.

I never showed the boxers what I’d done. I have no idea how they would have reacted back in 1995. It was a different, less tolerant time. Only my art professor and fellow students in the class saw the photos.

The perception partially relied on which image was shown first, the cool or the warm. If the warm image was shown first, it would set the mental frame as two men preparing to kiss. If the cool image was seen first, you knew a fight was about to happen.


There’s a thin line between love and hate.

In the two photo versions, the difference between love and hate was about 5,000 kelvins, the temperature used by photographers to adjust for light conditions. Sunsets and sunrises give a 3,200-kelvin glow, while overcast skies are about 7,500.

There’s also a thin line between biased and unbiased journalism, something all responsible journalists struggle to keep in check. It’s not always easy, especially in times when more and more people would rather deny than accept a truth that doesn’t fit their politics or worldview.

Frankly, journalism needed criticism. It was getting lax. Much of it went against what I learned studying journalism ethics. When the term “fake news” was used to discredit news, whether accurate or not, it forced professional news organizations to tighten up. It’s not only the content (which few read completely) but the way it’s introduced.

The headline and photo set the stage and frames the way news is read.  It’s the first impression. Sometimes, a photo will misrepresent the subject, either intentionally or unintentionally. This puts a ‘slant’ on the story, a bias. Readers with good critical thinking skills will catch this, but many won’t. And sometimes, if a well-known person is disliked by the reader, it doesn’t matter how good the photo is. They will perceive them as ugly and wicked. Ask anyone who dislikes Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnel.

If Nancy and Mitch weren’t high profile politicians and were checking my groceries out at Safeway, I’d say they both looked fine.

Last week I was looking at old family photos, some were over 100 years old. Nobody had a rehearsed smile. Few had smiles at all. The modern smile is a strange phenomenon. No doubt, social media has helped elevate it to new levels, but it began much earlier with Hollywood movie stars. Everybody wants to be a star, and it’s made it more difficult to see and represent the truth.