minority reports

When a kiss is just a kiss — or barely even that

The truth behind that photo of Russian runners "protest" kissing
August 21, 2013

I was relieved to see this article from the Associated Press yesterday, which was carried in several outlets: “Russian Runners Say Kiss Was Not a Protest of Anti-Gay Laws.”

Why? Two reasons. First, the odd, breathless speculation over whether a Getty photo of two athletes kissing on the podium at the world championships in Moscow was a protest or not had been threatening to overtake the serious story at its core. Come on, people – we might not have known whether the Russian women were protesting, but what we DID know – what we do know – is that a new Russian law purportedly “protecting” minors from homosexuality is in reality threatening the rights and safety of LGBT people there. And that law might have additional ramifications for those athletes and journalists and spectators who attend the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. I was happy that this silly story was being put to rest.

Second – but very important – is that the story is about a kiss that never happened. The narrative was almost completely made up. Yes, there was a lovely photo by Getty’s Paul Gilham of two women kissing on the podium after the womens’ 4 X 400 meter relay. A photo, however, is not always the reality. In this case, it eternalized a moment that was in truth very, very brief.

Anyone doing a quick Google search can find the video from the event – because of course the track world championships were televised. In the video, you can see that each of the women shared a quick, social kiss with each other in the standard European way. There was nothing romantic or political about it – it was the equivalent of a back slap, over in seconds.

And yet outlets from CNN (“When is a kiss not a kiss? It’s not always clear.”) to Deadspin (“Kseniya Rzhova and Tatyana Firova joined an ever-growing list of athletes to extend a middle finger at the bigoted law Russia recently passed . . . .”) to Slate and the CBC took one single image and ran with it. They made it seem as if, with the Russian duo silent on the matter, it was impossible to know whether a protest was made or not. But it was not impossible at all. It didn’t require a statement from the women. It just required that the reporter or blogger watch 30 seconds of video.

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In defense of those journalists, there were other legitimate protests that week, like the two Swedish athletes who painted their nails in rainbow colors and the US runner who denounced the law from the podium and dedicated his silver medal to his gay friends. But journalists shouldn’t then start seeing protests everywhere.

Part of the trouble might be the demise of photo editors (the Chicago Sun-Times laid off 28 photographers and editors at its publications in May, for example), who help make sure that the photographs they run illustrate a story without editorializing or creating a false impression. In this brave new media world, we are all photo editors, and we need to remember that, when a picture tells its thousand words, they should all be true ones.

Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network’s LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women’s issues ran for 15 years.