Maryanne Golon on Photography as Journalism - from Iraq to Ann Coulter

Maryanne Golon

Maryanne Golon is the picture editor at Time magazine. She joined Time in 1983, left briefly for US News & World Report in 1996, and came back to Time in 1999. Golon has overseen coverage for every Olympics since 1984, was the on-site photo editor during Operation Desert Storm, and directed the photo spread for the 9/11 issue of Time.

Thomas Lang: Ann Coulter is reportedly unhappy with the way her cover shot came out, telling Matt Drudge that Kim Jong Il was portrayed in a more flattering manner. She has even gone as far as to mock-up a parody Time cover of you, supposedly using the same type of fish-eye camera. How come you went with the photo that you did?

Maryanne Golon: Number one, it’s not a fish-eye lens, if that makes any difference to anybody. It’s just a slight wide-angle portrait lens. The photographer’s name is Platon. Platon has a book called Platon’s Republic. He has spent the last five or six or seven years photographing different members of the American political scene — everybody from Bill Clinton to now Ann Coulter — on both sides of the fence. This is his style. This is the way he photographs.

One of the things I find really amusing about this whole situation is that Ann Coulter sat in his studio looking through his book that has all these pictures with very similar technique. It’s sort of his style — a la a photographer like William Coupon, who photographed everybody against a brown model background with the same lighting — Platon shoots everybody from a low angle with a wide-angle lens.

So I was very surprised that she was surprised at the results of her photo.

Why we chose Platon was for many different reasons. He’s never shot a cover for us before, but he has shot a lot of political figures and done really interesting photography, so we thought he’d be an interesting choice for Ann Coulter.

Also, could I add that I think she looked stunning? I think that the pictures were very flattering. I don’t understand her rage. I actually even question whether it’s just to call more attention to the cover package.

TL: The Ann Coulter photo spread included a picture that Time originally identified as “Protesters blast Coulter at the GOP convention in New York City last year.” The photo, which actually contained pro-GOP protestors mocking liberals, has since been corrected in the online version. What’s the vetting process for including photos and their accompanying captions? How did a mistake like this happen?

MG: It was a simple mistake. Everybody makes mistakes, and we made a mistake. The pictures came in from the photographer Katja Heinemann from Aurora. When the high-[resolution] files were sent to us the captions weren’t attached … They weren’t actually blasting Ann Coulter as was said in the magazine … [In fact] they were mocking the protest by the liberal side. So, it was just an honest mistake.

TL: Are the captions fact-checked?

MG: Yes, they are fact-checked. But, in this particular instance, erroneous information was provided to the person doing the caption fact-checking. So, if you look at the image, there is really no way to determine that it’s a counter-protest. It’s still a protest … If you actually look at it with a simple eye, it does appear that they are blasting Ann Coulter and they are using irony, which is a fine line. It was a mistake, and we know it was a mistake, and it was an honest mistake.

TL: With all the advances in digital photography, how do you guard against being duped by a fake? This, perhaps, is a far more serious issue than the captions.

MG: It is a far more serious issue. To begin with, I think that Time magazine has an excellent reputation, in terms of correcting errors, if we have had a problem with a photographer or something being altered in an image. But also, we identify it as such. Instead of saying it’s a photograph, we’ll say it’s a photo illustration if it’s been altered in some way. Or we’ll identify it as a photo montage.

Actually, the editor of the magazine, Jim Kelly, has run several letters explaining to our readers that, while we are willing to take responsibility for making sure there is truth and accuracy in our photography, that also it is a reader’s responsibility to take note of how these photographs are identified. There are at least three different instances where the editor of the magazine has directly addressed the readers in terms of how we handle these things. We tend to work with such serious and reputable journalists that we have not had a problem.

If there is any suspicion, there are [technological] ways now to find out if a image is a original image or if it has been doctored. You can actually take apart the file. You can see if it’s an original file or not — especially files that have been shot [digitally] because they literally have the time stamp, date stamp and everything from the actual camera, so if that information is missing you can already tell that something has been changed.

TL: Have you ever had to look into a photo that you were curious about?

MG: No. We’ve looked into several photos that we did not publish that other publications published that we were convinced were inaccurate documents. But it hasn’t actually happened to us. [First], we’ve never published a doctored image, to my knowledge, that was represented as a news image. Two, when these pictures come out and people go, “How come you didn’t have this?” we say “Well, that’s not real.” We’ve had to look into it and actually show [that]. Nine times out of ten it comes out relatively quickly because we have such a great set of watchdogs on, especially, big media journalism, that they can’t get away with it. Doctored images don’t last out there as fact for very long at all anymore.

TL: Of the ones you’ve looked in to, have any of them ended up being doctored?

MG: Oh yeah, a couple have ended up being doctored. We were very suspicious, for instance, of the photographs published by the London tabloid allegedly showing a British soldier abusing Iraqi prisoners. We were very suspicious of those from the first time we saw them because they didn’t have the ring of truth to them. It ended up very shortly that we found out they were actually staged.

TL: You were the on-site photo editor for Time during the first Gulf War. What has changed in photojournalism between the two wars, and do you think the changes, if any, have altered the way the public perceives this second war in Iraq?

MG: I think there is definitely a different perception of the second war in Iraq, but it’s for a million reasons. I don’t think it’s strictly journalistic coverage or certainly not just photographic.

During the first Gulf War there was utter clamp-down — it was lock-down control. The photo editors of all the major news organizations, including the wires who were members of the Department of Defense pool, had to pool all of their photography and anything, before it was transmitted, had to be approved by the American military. [That was a] case of complete censorship, during 1991. There were people working on the outside of the pool corps who were attempting, as hard as they could, to do independent reporting or independent photography. There were a reporter and photographer from Life magazine who got a lot of attention because they did some independent reporting that were stories that a lot of people hadn’t heard. This team from Life magazine — Tony O’Brien was the photographer and Ed Barnes was the correspondent — actually had Iraqi prisoners surrender to them during the first Iraq war. That was because they were alone. They weren’t with American military. They were working outside the pool system.

Now during the second war, the thing that amuses me so much is that there is so much vitriolic debate about whether embedded journalists’ or photographers’ work is really journalism. I find this incredibly amusing. There was a photojournalism festival held last August — it’s held every year and is called the Visa pour L’Image, and it’s one of the largest photojournalism festivals in the world — and they refused to show any photographs by embedded photographers. So [you had] these guys who were in Baghdad before the fall of Baghdad and were being loaded onto buses and shown [by Iraqis], “Look what Bush has done.” Their photography was supposed to be legitimate. And the photography produced by the photographers and journalists who were working from embedded U.S. military positions was somehow not.

I actually thought it was the opposite way around. Once a photographer got into a unit or place, they were not censored. They weren’t told what they could shoot. The only restriction that they agreed to was not to release pictures of anybody that was dead or seriously wounded before their families could be notified. That was the only restriction on the embedded photographers. So I’m not saying that I think embedding is the perfect solution. [But] it’s certainly better than it was 1991, and I certainly think there is legitimacy to the work that was produced by the embedded journalists, at least as much as the people who were being tended by minders in Baghdad by the Iraqi government.

On both sides, in a war situation, you are going to have propaganda. I just think that in 1991 what Americans saw was a very clean, very precise [war]. There were no mistakes shown until well after the war, when people were able to release the pictures of friendly fire killing American soldiers, and dead Iraqis in the desert who had been cremated by smart bombs, and things like that. Because none of that was released while the war was actually going on.

When I was in Europe this past summer I got all these really provocative questions about how we could think embedded journalism was legitimate. I said, “This is an incredibly interesting topic that I, of course, don’t have all the answers to, but let’s compare it to other stuff.”

If you look at even the work by David Douglas Duncan from Vietnam or Larry Burrows they were, for the most part, embedded with U.S. units. They went out with the military.

TL: And their work is celebrated.

MG: Yes, that work is very celebrated. They’re celebrated not only for their quality of their photography and journalism, but also for their bravery for accompanying these American units to very dangerous areas. How does that differ from an embedded journalist of today? I don’t understand the argument very well. I keep trying to break it down when people ask questions. And I realized they don’t really understand what embedding means. It basically just means you have to stay with that unit. It’s certainly been very much the same case in many other American conflicts.

TL: You once told CJR Daily’s parent publication that print editors view photographic editors as “necessary evils.” How do you view the print editors and explain the interaction between the two positions?

MG: I said it tongue-in-cheek.

In the year 2005 at Time magazine, the editor of the magazine, Jim Kelly, absolutely embraces photojournalism and believes its legitimacy is equal to that of other types of journalism. We’ve had absolutely — from the photography department’s point of view — one of the greatest runs ever with Mr. Kelly. Because Mr. Kelly really respects the work that our photojournalists are doing. James Nachtwey, Christopher Morris — you’ve seen in the magazine essays by them that are primarily photographic and [Kelly] has been willing to give over space in the magazine to these very legitimate journalistic works that just so happen to be photographic.

TL: Of all the photos you’ve signed off on in your career as an editor, what was the most difficult?

MG: I go immediately to recent memory. It was the photograph that Yuri Kozyrev took of a little boy named Ali, who since has become a little bit famous, who lost both of his arms and was severely burned in a war incident in Iraq. And we ran a picture of this child in a hospital bed, [which was] shot — with great sensitively — by the Russian photographer Yuri Kozyrev, who also happens to be a contract photographer for Time, so he works with us all the time.

We were having all sorts of editorial discussions at the time about the child’s dignity and we were talking about whether or not they were using the child as a propaganda device. We couldn’t get at the details of how he was actually injured. There was a huge debate at the magazine about whether or not to use pictures. But it was so moving and so important, in terms of showing the seriousness and horror of war, not so much to be using it as a propaganda tool or anything, but just to balance our coverage. To show that here’s a kid who lost his mom and his brothers and sisters and both of his arms. It sort of gives you the reality of war. But it was a very difficult decision and a very difficult picture, to both look at and to decide to run with that kind of display in the magazine.

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.