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Monday, August 30, 2010

Who's a photojournalist?

Nineteen years ago a young co-ed named Gwen Jacob strolled topless down the streets of Guelph, Ontario. That hot summer day was destined to become even hotter for Jacob as her simple, impetuous act landed her in hot water for years to come.

The issue of public nudity raised by Jacob's actions, and how it is covered by the media, was revisited in a recent article written by Stephanie Dearing. Dearing posted a story to the Digital Journal, complete with photos, from a recent Guelph celebration honoring Jacob's walk. Some photos from Dearing's report were taken down by DJ editors due to their frontal nudity. Other less revealing images were left to illustrate her story.

Jacob may have run afoul of our prudish laws in 1991 but it was not until 1996 that the charge against Jacob was overturned by the Ontario Court of Appeal ending years of legal wrangling. It was a decision that put the events of 1991 in the proper perspective. It is too bad that all Canadian media didn't handle the story and the verdict with the same maturity as the courts.

When the verdict was announced, excitement rippled through Canadian newsrooms, "Women have the right to go topless!" Photographers, they like to be called photojournalists in the newspaper business, were dispatched to pools and beaches across the province to bring back shots of the hordes of bare breasted Canadian women now released upon the nation.

Even the respected New York Times noted the shock waves reverberating through the far north as Canadian moral standards were reportedly shredded, left in tatters by legions of half-naked women. The caption under their art read:

"In Ottawa, women are allowed to go topless at beaches and outdoor pools. At a beach, Lisa Regimbal walked by a topless Connie Morden. (Canadian Press)"

I have a black and white copy of that picture and Lisa looks properly put off by the chance encounter. The iconic image was shot by an award-winning Ottawa Sun photographer who later moved it to The Canadian Press. It was through the Ottawa Sun photos the world discovered Ottawa women go topless.

A year later the Ottawa Sun ran another shot from the same staff shooter's topless-on-an-Ottawa-beach assignment, but there was one big difference: The blonde woman, so aghast at encountering nudity on a local beach in the first picture, is quite relaxed as she chats with her half naked friend in this second image. Here are the cutlines used by the Ottawa Sun under the second picture:
"Last summer, Lisa Regimbal, left, bear (sic) it all while chatting with Connie Morden."
(Yes, that is the quote. Bares is spelled incorrectly and the young ladies have had their names switched.)

Why the confusion? Why did the women display such different reactions to toplessness as depicted in the two pictures? The answer is simple: The pictures were set-ups. It was so difficult to find naked women on the beach in Ottawa that the Sun used models. I contacted the mother of one of the models and confirmed  the Ottawa Sun topless-at-the-beach pictures were fake and taken at an arranged photo shoot. (At one point in my career, I actually worked with the shooter who took the shots. I got the impression from talking with him that the shots were bogus.)

The Toronto Sun moved a lot of images of topless lasses that summer, mostly to other papers in the Sun Media chain, and I know the editors at The London Free Press were duly thankful -- at least many of the male editors. But, after careful consideration, all these images were rejected for publication. And it was not just for the front nudity.

The London Free Press editors always decided there were enough incongruities among the photos to cast doubt on their veracity. It was decided that these pictures were all illustrations and not news photos.

It is interesting that the Digital Journal pulled the first pictures posted to their online newspaper from the topless event held in Guelph celebrating Gwen Jacob's triumph. Naked breasts may now be seen in public but naked breasts are still not going to be seen on the electronic pages of the Digital Journal.

DJ replaced the offending images with honest, if standard, photos showing naked backs suggesting naked fronts. These pictures still told the story but in in a muted tone. The Digital Journal editors may be conservative but, unlike their Sun Media counterparts from the past, they were honest.

Look at these two pictures running side by side. The young woman on the left was posing for a Sun Media illustration to accompany a news story. The image on the right is from the DJ article.

One picture is definitely honest and the other is highly questionable. Which picture was taken by a photojournalist and which picture was taken by a photographer. I say the image on the right from the Digital Journal was taken by a photojournalist and not the trumped-up one on the left from the Ottawa Sun.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting with regard to photojournalism but it still leaves me with one question - what the hell is the world's problem with breasts!

    Half the population have them (actually, given the levels of obesity, rather more than half seem to be getting them!), and in plenty of tribes, the woman still only wear something from the waist down.

    I'm not suggesting that we should all parade around topless, but I simply can't get my head around how anyone on a beach or at a swimming pool can be offended by the sight of breasts. Let's face it, we all have them, it's just that women's are bigger than men's!

    Do these puritanical killjoys really not realise that there are more important things to worry about?

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