Once Rich Lam's photo of a couple during the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver in 2011 went viral, its authenticity was questioned. Lam discusses the impact unethical photographers and editors can have on photojournalism as a whole.

Once Rich Lam's photo of a couple during the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver in 2011 went viral, its authenticity was questioned. Lam discusses the impact unethical photographers and editors can have on photojournalism as a whole.

 

Doubting the kiss

Introduction by David McKie

It was a photo that seemed too good to be true, a couple lip-locked on the ground, oblivious to the headline-grabbing madness around them. It seemed to be an odd punctuation mark on evening that began with the hope that a Canadian team would finally win a Stanley Cup, but ended with the Vancouver Canucks losing Game Seven on their home ice to the much rougher and hungrier Boston Bruins.

A riot ensued. The picturesque city turned ugly. Police clad in riot gear descended to regain order, and a couple had inexplicably decided to make-out in the middle of it all. Their image was frozen in time for the world to see.  It is an incredible image and a wonderful example of a picture telling a story.

When I found out that Rich Lam's photo won the NNA photojournalism contest, I was glad that he consented to explain how he got the shot. During our conversation about the piece, I asked him if people doubted the photo's authenticity. He sighed. Yes, they did. I asked him to include that feedback in his write-up, which he did.

The story of how he captured the kiss is intriguing.

***

National Newspaper Award winner for News Photography

Rich Lam, Getty Images

It was Game Seven of the NHL finals and I was a part of the Getty Images team covering the playoffs. This was it. Game Seven. During the hockey game, a riot broke out on the streets of Vancouver. While my main job was to shoot the hockey game, a piece of me also wanted to be covering the events outside.

When I finished what was required of me, I asked my editors if I should join the riot coverage. I went outside and shot several images of the mayhem and started to head back to the arena when a friend and colleague mentioned that the department store, The Bay, was on fire.

The crowd converged on the store, burning and looting, and forcing riot police on horseback to move in. At the main intersection, riot police on foot charged the crowd. People ran away.

After the police stopped, the crowd re-assembed. So the police charged again. The crowd once again dispersed. What instantly caught my eye was the once-busy street was empty — that is, except for two people lying on the ground.

At first I thought it was someone helping another person who may have been injured. I shot my pictures and stopped once others gathered around the pair. In my mind, the moment or the scene was over.

I quickly looked at the image on the back of my camera, noticed I had a couple of sharp images of the two people on the street and moved on. The last thing I wanted to do was stand in one place in the middle of a riot looking through my pictures. I thought to myself that I had a nice image of the two people on the street and tagged it so that my editors would notice it after I submitted my cards.

Looking back at the series of images, the moment the couple kissed was very brief. So brief that I didn’t even notice that they kissed when I made the images. The first time I was knew they were kissing was when a colleague who was in the editing room told me I had a nice picture of the couple kissing. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, so I ran back to the editing room and saw it on the screen for the first time.

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I honestly didn’t think much of it. As the clock approached midnight, I was tired and hungry. It wasn’t until I left the reception the NHL had hosted for the media did I consider that the image might be noticed among the hundreds of photos that were transmitted that night when a fellow photographer called it epic. I went home, had a shower and went to bed. It was 3 AM.

The reaction

Five hours later my phone rang. The person on the other end asked if I was the photographer who took the picture of the kissing couple. Still in a sleepy daze, I had to think for minute.

The next question the National Public Radio reporter asked was how I felt to be number three on the Internet. I was blown away and at a loss for words. After finishing the interview, I looked at my phone and noticed on the screen, there were more than 40 emailed messages. That is when I first thought this would be big.

There were many emails that I received about the image. Some people complimented me on the beauty of the moment amid the destruction and senseless violence. Others liked the photo’s artistic merits: the lighting, framing and subject matter.

Nice picture, but…..

However, with all the compliments, there were blog posts and comments on Twitter and Facebook regarding the image’s authenticity. Some people thought this moment was fake, staged, or created on the computer.

This troubled me. I took it as a personal slight that my credibility and ethics as a news photographer were being questioned. That being said, I accepted that we live in the digital age where anyone, anywhere can say whatever she wants and post it on the Internet.

It frankly got ridiculous. At one point, someone even suggested the woman in the photo was being sexually assaulted. It is also at this point I had to reflect on why this is happening.

The credibility of the photojournalist that we once had as chroniclers of what’s happening in the world, takes a big hit when people start altering images. I was also reminded of the cliché “one rotten apple spoils the bunch.” Once you fool readers, they wonder “what’s stopping this person or that person from doing it again?”

Now, it seems that the reader can no longer appreciate a good photo for just that: a good photo.

We now live in an age where the consumer of news doesn’t just consume the news that is presented, but questions it.

There are a number of blogs, magazines and newspapers in circulation and hopefully, news gathered and produced by professional journalists are the ones readers can trust.

That is healthy, in my opinion. What is unhealthy is that the reader’s first response to a good photo is that it is a fake. That is not good for the profession of photojournalist.

My only advice to any up-and-coming photographer is that before you decided to “make” your picture better on the computer, just think of not only yourself, but the profession as a whole.

If photojournalists stop holding true to our standards, we will no longer be trusted. If we are no longer trusted, we are no longer needed.

 

Richard Lam is a Vancouver-based freelance photographer. His work can be seen at www.richardlamphoto.ca.