By Peter Smith
Is it okay to set up a feature photo? No!
Feature photos should speak truth about the world we live in. To set something up and pretend that it happened is not truthful. Are there unethical photojournalists who cut corners by staging a photo instead of doing the hard work of shooting something real? Sure, but that is a dangerous game to play and can end an otherwise illustrious career.
Feature photography can be difficult documentary work to undertake. You need to deal with real people in real situations, not actors or pretenders or art directors. It’s not rehearsed or faked. It takes talent, patience, and a good eye to capture. And like all works of journalism, it must be truthful. Few journalists have the ability to produce a wonderful feature image that amuses or informs about the world around us.
So for those who do not have the time or the talent to find a real situation, why not fake it? Why? Because feature photography is not conceptual art, it must be truthful or it will damage the brand of journalism. Readers are smart and can tell when something doesn’t smell right.
I see no problem with using a stock feature shot with a photo credit from a reputable news agency that is accompanied by a full caption to contextualize the moment. However, I would never endorse using a commercial stock photo as a standalone image or to accompany any story if it does not follow the rules of journalism.
Photographic illustrations can be useful unless they are not well-labeled to point out that it is a constructed moment born through imagination and never happened in real life. Again, it is not a good idea to mislead the public with what’s real and what isn’t. It’s better to not use a photo than to use one that misrepresents the truth of the moment.
The only time that it is ethical to shoot a constructed situation is to make a portrait or for an on-camera interview. And even then, it is important not to misrepresent your subject, the story or the situation.
See Poynter for more on ethics.