The New York Times has up a story about distracted driving and cell phones. I only skimmed the story—I’m skeptical about the issue, but I don’t know enough to really have an opinion—because I was looking at the picture. Radley Balko had pointed it out in a passing comment:
I’m trying to figure out how the photo for this NY Times scare story on distracted driving was taken. I can’t really conceive of a scenario where it wasn’t staged. Which means the caption is misleading.
The picture is captioned “At 60 miles an hour on a Missouri highway, a 16-year-old driver texts with a friend as a 17-year-old takes the wheel.” It’s a view from behind and to the right of the driver, showing the him using both hands to key in a text message while another hand reaches in from the passenger side to hold the wheel.
So, how did the photographer get that shot? Did he tell them what he wanted or hint at the result? And wasn’t that a dangerous thing to be letting a couple of teenagers do while he got the picture? My guess was that this was either (a) yet another New York Times credibility scandal, or (b) a file photo.
I emailed the photographer, Dan Gill, and he responded with an explanation:
The picture went with a story I worked on last fall. The story was about social issues at a St.Louis high school; boys and girls…My assignment was to hang out with them and make pictures of how they communicated and tried to meet girls.
When discussing the story with my assigning editor we both agreed it would be…easier and better to ride with them instead of driving separately. By riding with them we could see into their world easier. The subjects were minors, however, the parents were aware we were doing the story.
As we drove around the students soon played their music and forgot I was with them. I looked back through my “raw” take; all of the pictures made on an assignment and found him driving and texting throughout the drive. He said he was texting his “girls”, girls he was interested in. I continued to make pictures of him texting, it was within the scope of the story. At one point, we were driving down an inter belt highway and he continued to text. After a few words with the front passenger, the front passenger reached over and steered the truck.
This makes sense. The picture was being used as an illustration, not as documentation of a specific incident mentioned in the story, so it’s acceptable to use a file photo.
Gill also addresses the danger issue:
Was this dangerous? Yes. Were they doing it for me? No. Was this common practice for them? Is this something they had done before? These are good questions. As a journalist I am here to describe what I witness with pictures. I am not their parent.
you are the kind of guy who would rather sit there taking pictures of an accident or some one’s house burning down rather than lend a hand or try to help people involved in the situation. the responce you gave when asked why you didnt say something to those kids or their parents shows your selfishness. if this world is to become a better place, it is certainly not going to be helped along by someone like you, dodging any responsibility toward others, as long as it benefits your needs.
The driver was 16-years old. Does anybody really think this was the first bit of bad driving Gill saw that night? If he had spoken up the first time the kid broke the speed limit or failed to signal a lane change, he never would have gotten the picture. And you know that if Gill hadn’t been there, they still would have done this, and no one would ever know. This way, we have pictures. We know something we didn’t know.
Gill went on:
After the evening was over, I looked through my pictures and picked out 12, three were from riding in the truck and two of those were of the texting/passenger driving scene. Two were published in the Times as part of the story.
Last week a photo editor called with questions about the texting photo. They were working on a story about cell phone use and driving for the Sunday paper and he thought the picture was important.
So, it was essentially a file photo.
As a photographer, I was curious about something. The dashboard has a washed-out blue look to it, but the needles stand out in bright orange. It looks a little unnatural, and I was wondering if it was just a trick of the color balancing or if the photo had been enhanced in some way so that we could see that, yes, the car really was doing 60 at the time.
As for the color of the needles on the dashboard and the color balance; it’s tough to properly set white balance in the evening in a moving vehicle. The driver’s hand is in direct sunlight and is a little warm color due to the time of day and the angle of the sun. The passenger’s arm and the rest of the interior was in shade and is cast blue by the blue sky. My camera was set for a manual color balance at daylight or 5500 degrees Kelvin.
As I look at the original or “raw” unedited jpeg there is not much difference. I make pictures in the “JPEG FINE” setting; there is plenty of resolution and tonal information to satisfy both newspaper and magazine clients with them. I would rather catch a moment than wait for a RAW file to write to the memory card.
As for post-processing, I don’t do much. A photographer needs to nail his or her exposure and composition the first time…there is no second take in photojournalism.