A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott and Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page)
The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana

When Does a Kiss Become a Kiss-Off?
Sometimes It's a Matter of Taste

We're sure it seemed like a classy idea--make a golf trophy out of crystal that has a long vertical base with a golf ball on top. But when you see the picture, you have to ask yourself, as we did, "What were they thinking?"

What were the trophy maker, the organizers of the tournament, the winning golfer, the photographer, and any editors who used the image of LPGA champion Christie Kerr kissing a crystal edifice to excellence thinking?

We may never know the answer. Even fewer than usual principals were willing to talk with us about this one. But thanks to, we have the chance to ask the question. It's a question worth pondering, if for no other reason than it demonstrates that this column doesn't have to be devoted exclusively to pondering the fundamental ethical questions of the photojournalism profession. Every once in a while, a matter of taste falls in our lap, and we decide that we are up to the challenge.

In the old days (before the World Wide Web), one of the perks (or perhaps burdens) of a photo editor's job was to get an exclusive, non-public look at all the day's images available from wire services and staff and free-lance photojournalists. If a picture was deemed unsuitable for publication because of its graphic content, but worth saving, it would receive an editor's special treatment. He or she would pin it to the photographer's bulletin board or file it away in the bottom drawer of a desk. In one newsroom, such photos became the decorations on the staff Christmas tree. One chief photographer who had worked as a shooter for the city's coroner had a 500-sheet box filled with the most gruesome black and whites you could imagine.

It's natural that visual communicators like visuals, even when they are not likeable. That enjoyment extends to pictures that have unacceptable content or irony as well as those that are gruesome.

Now, thanks to and other similar sites, anyone with a modem and a browser can have a peek inside an editor's drawers.

On occasion, some of these pictures do make it within the pages of a city's daily newspaper or nightly news program. Every semester in his visual journalism class at Indiana University, Will Counts would show a newspaper clip, without comment except for his trademark cackle, of a young man running a race. Students who looked closely would notice the runner's penis flopping out of his shorts. Counts' lesson was that these future photographers and editors should be careful to scrutinize everything they shoot and edit BEFORE it gets into a newspaper.

Streaking--running naked through college campuses and other locations-gave editors interesting choices of how and what to crop. However most decisions were easy based on the "what is news" criterion. When Kenneth Lambert, then with the Washington Times, won a White House News Photographer's Association award for a picture of a man in full-frontal glory, the tradition of the contest demanded that President Reagan receive a copy. There's no word if he put it in his bottom drawer of the Oval Office. Occasionally wet T-shirt contest participants made it into a college newspaper, but those pictures are thankfully rare. But then, so are the contests.

When Hal Buell was with the Associated Press, he once admitted that nudity is a delicate subject with readers. "We will not carry full frontal views of nude men or women except in a most extreme case," wrote Buell. "We will transmit pictures of bare bosoms when such pictures are pertinent to the story." No boy over the age of 12 need be told that the same kind of pictures found within the vertical fold-out of Playboy magazine would never be considered by an editor of a "family-oriented" newspaper.

But the sports section of Yahoo! is not a newspaper. It's a regularly updated compilation of the most popular sports stories and pictures. Popularity is determined by how many times a viewer sends a story or image to someone else. In the previous six hours for the week we visited the Yahoo! site, there were several photographs displayed with the number of times each one was sent to others. For example, a pleasant enough image of Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova returning a backhand volley was sent a mere three times. In second place was a picture of New York Islander's Shawn Bates celebrating at the end of his team's victory. It was sent 25 times. The first place picture of Kerr smooching the Longs Drugs golf tournament trophy was sent 642 times. We guess that it is just a matter of taste.

But that number only describes the times it was sent from the Yahoo! site. The chain for our viewing of the image went something like this:

* Associated Press photographer Rich Pedroncelli took the picture in Lincoln, California.
* It was sent through the AP's network.
* Yahoo! personnel loaded it onto their site.
* Somehow, Andy Rhinehart, the New Media Editor for the Spartanburg (SC) Herald-Journal received a copy.
* He sent it to his friend Dan Conover, City Editor of the Charleston (SC) Post and Courier.
* He sent it to his friend Dr. Susan Ross of Washington State University.
* She sent it to Lester.
* He sent it to Elliott.
* She sent it to her mother who lives between courses #1 and #4 of the Pinehurst (NC) Country Club.

Why was this image so popular and why was it far more likely to be put in an editor's bottom drawer than to appear on the sports page? Beyond the obvious, our enquiring minds decided to look for academic justification.

One answer can be found through the study of semiotics and how that field relates to taboos in society. Semiotics is the study of signs. A sign is simply anything that stands for something else. Any physical representation, from a gesture to a golf tournament trophy, is a sign if it has meaning beyond the object itself. And most everyone in this society understands the unintended meaning of the Kerr image.

The academic study of semiotics attempts to identify and explain the signs used by every society in the world. Although semiotics has gained popularity only recently, it is an old concept. In 397 C.E., Augustine, the Greek philosopher and linguist, first proposed the study of signs. He recognized that universally understood entities afforded communication on many nonverbal levels. For Augustine, signs were the link between nature and culture.

One aspect of signs is called a code-a collection of signs. One type of code is called displaced. Displaced codes are those that transfer meaning from one set of signs to another. Images of penises are not acceptable pictures for most members of society and so are displaced by other symbolism. In the movie Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (directed by Stanley Kubrick), rifles, missiles, airplanes, and other phallic shapes were photographed purposely to communicate the idea of sexual tension among certain military characters. Liquor, lipstick, and cigarette advertisers commonly use phallic imagery in the form of their products' shape in the hope that potential customers will link the use of their product to possible sexual conquest or satisfaction.

When a displaced code makes it into the mainstream as with advertising, there is a tendency toward nervous tittering when the taboo is openly recognized. Taboos have been called the oldest human unwritten codes of laws. Sigmund Freud suggested that taboo restrictions are distinct from religious or moral prohibitions because they date to a period before religion existed. Consequently, taboos call to mind the archetypal and unspoken fears of all people while identifying the prohibited and disturbing.

In an earlier column, we discussed that sometimes dilemmas that visual journalists face are not ethical concerns at all, but rather issues of etiquette. This case is one of etiquette. Simply put, the publication of the picture as intended--as a celebration of Kerr's conquest--shows disrespect to the naive golf professional. But having said that, we are at a loss how someone could shoot this trophy and not grasp the phallic connotation. (We excuse our publication by an appeal to our educational purposes).

A photojournalist's outfit should provide guidelines of what to shoot and what not to shoot as well as what to present for public viewing and what not to. Everyone has had unattractive moments when eating, walking, or kissing. Rarely does an embarrassing picture escape the darkness of an editor's bottom drawer. But as we are all learning, the Web often plays by a new set of rules.

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