When using a right may be wrong

Over the past week or so several of the photography forums I read have been abuzz over the story of Jill Greenberg’s photographs of John McCain shot on assignment for Atlantic Monthly magazine. As news of this story has crept into the more public realm I wanted to share some thoughts as a photographer. If I were in the position of a client hiring a photographer for an assignment, I’d want to know if this was the simply the case of a well known photographer’s approach to her ‘art’ or the wider perspective of an industry.

What concerns me as I read the some of the contributions to the discussion is that much of it centers on Greenberg’s ‘right’ to create and use images she made on assignment to photograph John McCain instead of whether she used her access responsibly. As professional photographers, we are given access to people and locations based on an unspoken, unwritten trust that we will use that access to do the job we were hired for without bringing a personal agenda into the situation, especially if it denigrates or endangers our client or the subject. I believe a fair question to ask is ‘Would I like what I’m about to do, to be done to me or one I love?’ If not, then I would need to question my motive and the consequences that may ensue.

A maxim I learned early in my career was ‘always try to leave every situation I work in better for the guy (or gal) who may come behind me on the next assignment.’ Having followed in the wake of a number of photographers who ran roughshod over the trust of the people they were working with I’ve learned that the additional effort expended to do ‘right’ by my clients and subjects brought a far higher return on my investment. The ripple effects of a lack of integrity can be far reaching.

I believe Greenberg’s decision to show John McCain in a bad light is a reflection of her poor judgment, lack of personal integrity and professional hubris. It appears she entered into the assignment with mal-intent. Just because one can do something – is it legal, is it a constitutionally protected right, will our contract allow it – doesn’t necessarily mean one should do it. Much of the impact of her decisions may not be apparent in the short term.

Our profession needs all the support and all of the friends we can muster on the corporate, editorial and political fronts. Many of the barriers and objections we must all deal with on a regular basis are put in place behind closed doors by powerful people we can not individually reach. APA, ASMP, PPA and other organizations are marshaling forces to ensure our rights and abilities to work in an unfettered manner.  When one of our colleagues fowls our collective nest in a high profile way, we all may have to deal with their crap. When a client – whether it’s a corporation or an editorial publication – calls upon a photographer to create an image on their behalf, they have a right to trust that he/she will do so in a manner that leaves them pleased, if not proud, of their decision to contract that individual to represent them.

I fully respect Greenberg’s right to disagree with and dislike anyone she chooses. But to denigrate any individual because their views are different exposes a fundamental fear that one’s own belief doesn’t hold up to scrutiny nor debate in an open discussion. I believe that when a person defines themselves by who and what they hate, it’s a good indication of their shallowness and ignorance. And fear. When a weak person doesn’t have a strong argument to back their view, they tend to make personal attacks as a means of diverting attention away from their own faulty judgment. Our profession, our economy and our nation are in dire need of workable solutions. Personal attacks at any level take our attention off the issues and possible solutions. If we allow that to be the case then we will find that in the famous words of Pogo, “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US”

The following site has a good explanation of the actions Jill Greenberg took and has all the images:

If you want discussions that might be relevant go to 

Photo District News article:


Charles Gupton


One Response to When using a right may be wrong

  1. cat says:

    In my opinion, Jill Greenberg can now to relegated to being a mere photographer.

    Not a professional photographer.

    Professional photographers are just that, professional.

    Jill, is not.

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