Playground Shenanigans

May 10, 2012 

When I last wrote on dealing with public relations, I was heaping praise on Jim Hall and his crew at Kadlec Regional Medical Center. As I mentioned before, I've been lucky and enjoy good working relationships with most of the media handlers I work with around here.

But a recent interaction with a seldom-seen agency was a funny reminder of how different my priorities can be from people who want to control their organization's public image.

Last week, the Department of Ecology held a training day at Columbia Point Marina Park in Richland. About 50 agents showed up to run through various scenarios and practice using their bags of tricks. I made a bee line when I saw a group setting up near the playground, wanting to juxtapose the disastrous scene setup with family fun.

As I tested out what depth of field I wanted to use, somebody came up to me somewhat sheepishly, saying something about how he saw a potential problem with the angle I was exploring.

Because the playground is in the background....

"That's the only reason I'm here," I replied.

Well, maybe you could photograph from that side, so the empty field is behind them....

"Nah. That's boring."

He explained that people might get mad if they see kids playing in the background of a fake toxic spill.

I countered that it would be pretty obvious that it was just a drill.

"Besides," I added. "It doesn't matter what we do. People get mad all the time anyway."

He walked off and I thought that was the end of the passive show of power.

I chatted with Mark Layman, response supervisor for Eastern Washington, and photographed him leading the briefing:

Then the worrier came back, motioning for Layman to join him for a private conversation 15 feet away. He had them turn their backs to me for a brief talk before Layman came back to relay his concerns. It was a strange interaction, as Layman played medium in this third-person bout of déjà vu.

I pointed out that they had specifically invited media to attend this training exercise and that Curt Hart, who was the actual P.R. contact, had not placed any restrictions on what I could photograph. I didn't even need to mention that we were in a public park and they really had no right to restrict photography of what they were doing in plain sight.

I explained that the juxtaposition would help show that this was not a real spill because of how close children were playing. Obviously, nobody would be allowed near a real toxic threat. He talked about their protocol and how the entire park and parking lot would be cleared.

I offered to include that information explicitly in the cutline and Layman, who was very understanding the whole time and said he had no interest in trying to tell me what I could and couldn't shoot, took that offer back to The Disapproving Ecologist 15 feet away.

Thus ended the pointless negotiation carried out in a middle-school-esque, Bobby-wants-to-know-if-you-like-him manner.

There were plenty of photos to choose from and it's hard to go wrong with guys in crazy suits,

but none come close to the frame that combines the disparate scenes:

Since it's training, I think it's also important to make a photo that communicates that and this frame does that best. Without that element, I probably would have worked a scene like this a little more,

to make sure readers weren't misled into thinking a real toxic spill happened.

I'm sure the worrywart thought I was being a brat or purposely trying to make them look bad. And though I was really annoyed when he tried to tell me how to photograph the event, my goal never changed. Spiting him and his unreasonable request was just icing.

There's an old saying in news, that if you don't want it reported on, don't do it. The funny thing is that the concerned ecologist could have easily avoided this whole awkward situation by asking teams not to run drills near the playground.

Speaking of recording in public...

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has blocked enforcement of the Illinois Eavesdropping statute that would have restricted audio recording of police in public places. On the other side of THE MAN, the "Black Bloc" occupiers have vowed to keep attacking photographers.

A post on Anarchist News ends ominously with:

To our enemies: if we won't hesitate to directly confront hundreds of cops and to destroy property, what makes you think we hold the lens of your camera to be sacred? You want to preserve your four thousand dollar camera to watch us break everything else? We are not doing this for you, and this is not a game. You clearly do not understand that there is no exception. We feel nothing but contempt for you cowardly spectators.

You'd better watch your necks next time.


the “did you know that a photographer's camera could pay your rent?” collective


Martin Schoeller's provocative photo on the cover of Time magazine is blowing up news feeds around the world. Florida photographer Chip Litherland pondered whether a documentary image of attachment parenting would have stirred up as much controversy as the cover shot that was "sexed up in studio." See some behind-the-scenes stuff over at Time's Lightbox while you worry about that boy revisiting his moment of fame once he hits adolescence.

Check out some sweet shots from last weekend's Supermoon at In Focus.

This touching piece about Michael French frontotemporal dementia and his wife Ruth's struggle with caring for him is worth watching.

And PDN has a nice little feature on Eric Kruszewski, who recently left his job as an engineer in Richland to pursue a career in photojournalism. I look forward to seeing the projects he's working on.

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