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THE OMBUDSMAN

Photos, art that offend or confuse

WHAT DO Boston Globe readers do when an arctic blast makes it too cold to set foot out the door? Many sit at their computers and e-mail this office about the paper's shortcomings. Critics who zeroed in on the Page 3 photo in the Jan. 15 Calendar section got no argument from me.

 

It wasn't that the photo's adult subjects were four scantily clad women from the Texas Bikini Team in a cheesecake pose. The unsettling part was the 5-year-old boy sandwiched between them, posed with thumb up and a caption suggesting he was "the envy of all his friends (maybe dad, too)."

Huh? What, readers demanded, was the point of photographing a child in such an inappropriate -- and, if I read the look on the boy's face correctly, uncomfortable -- sexual context? Was this supposed to be amusing? The photo sparked more outcry than anything else on readers' complaint list (which is interesting in itself, given the political events swirling around us).

The photo "fits at least one definition of child pornography," wrote Richard Hoffman, an author and writer-in-residence at Emerson College. "It depicts, for the pleasure of adult viewers, a child in a sexual situation . . . "

He added: "What if the genders were reversed? How about a picture of a 5-year-old girl surrounded by adult men in G-strings?" Point taken.

"The photo is offensive enough, but the caption with its `nudge, nudge' tone just compounds the offense. He's the envy of all his friends? What assumptions are being made about 5-year-old boys here?" wrote Kathleen Aguero, a mother.

"If you don't think this is a form of exploitation of a child, think again," wrote Mikele Rauch, who works with male survivors of sexual abuse. From a grandmother came this simple protest: "He's a kindergartener, for goodness sake!"

Amy Graves, the acting editor of the Calendar section, approved the use of the photo, and signed off on the caption. "Although it was never our intention to portray anyone in a sexual light, upon further reflection I can see that readers might have gotten a different impression," she says.

She adds: "I think it's safe to say that I would never run a picture like that again."

That's good. Although all editors have an occasional lapse in judgment on deadline (I've had them myself), the photo and caption were in bad taste and did not belong in the paper. Open box

Speaking of photo problems, it is Globe policy never to alter a photo -- unless, of course, it's done as part of a "photo illustration." Confused? Let me explain. Globe ethics policy forbids altering a news photo in any way, and the photo boss strictly enforces the policy. But the Globe does allow photos to be used as part of an artistic creation -- think collage or montage -- and when that happens the photo is necessarily changed in the process. To let readers know this, the words "photo illustration" must be attached to the final product and it must be obvious to readers that the altered image is not real.

The problem is that sometimes the "photo illustration" label (which usually appears in type roughly the size you are reading now) goes unnoticed. At the same time, the image fails the "obvious" test, and is too easily mistaken for real.

Two recent illustrations posed such a danger. One, on the Dec. 18 Business section front, was a "Massachusetts Welcomes You" billboard adorned with the Linux penguin that is the operating system's trademark. It ran with a story on the Linux trade show coming to the state. The second and more notable example, on the Dec. 21 Ideas section front, was a historical photo of the Nuremberg trials with Saddam Hussein in the witness box. The "photo illustration" label appeared below both, a bit larger under the second than the first, but some readers were still fooled, at least temporarily.

"At the least, such a photograph needs to be accompanied by a clear and obvious disclaimer that it is art, not photography. Fine print saying `illustration' doesn't count," said reader Gregory Moulton, who was left "wondering how many photographs in recent Globe editions that I accepted as real" were not.

He was not the only one upset with the Saddam Hussein photo illustration. When Globe director of photography Catie Aldrich saw it, she winced. It was, she says, a "horrible mistake" because, contrary to Globe policy, it was too easily seen as a real image. Such mistakes make readers feel deceived and undermine the credibility of all photos in the paper.

It is with that in mind that the Globe will discourage photo illustrations more than it already does. "We expect to allow few, if any, in the future," says Dan Zedek, who directs the editorial design staff.

And that should help the Globe live up to its own ethics statement on photos: "We should never do anything that might raise questions among readers about the fundamental honesty of the paper's visual images."

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is ombud@globe.com.

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