Readers' Representative Journal

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Graffiti a blight in photos too

May 22, 2008 | 11:32 am

Sign_with_graffiti The story was about drivers, red lights and tickets, but the thing that irked some readers was the photo. From Walter Renzi of Los Angeles: "Attached to the story on right turns generating revenues there is a photograph that shows the back of a traffic sign with multiple graffiti inscriptions. I would like to know if in the future The Times would consider omitting any graffiti that shows up in photographs. I don’t think that it needs to be reproduced."

The story reported how cameras intended to catch drivers barreling straight through red lights instead often catch drivers turning right on red without stopping. The photo was taken where Garfield Avenue meets Via Campo in Montebello, whose cameras have resulted in the city's earning some $90,000 per month. The photo in the paper showed a car turning right as the traffic light glowed somewhere between yellow and red. The graffiti on the back of the traffic sign were ugly but not a prominent part of the photo, said Robert St. John, the senior photo editor who helps oversee photos for California stories. "Whenever we photograph graffiti we edit it carefully to avoid offensive words." Such editing, he emphasized, does not include changing what’s in the photograph. As The Times' ethics guidelines put it, “Photographs and graphics must inform, not mislead. …We do not add color, create photomontages, remove objects or flop images. We do not digitally alter images beyond making minor adjustments for color correction, exposure correction and removal of dust spots or scratches required to ensure faithful reproduction of the original image.”

Jeanne Parker of Los Angeles was another reader irritated by seeing the tags. Her message on the readers' representative phone line: "I'm appalled that the picture with graffiti was printed. People who put up the graffiti like the publicity. You just added to the problem." In a follow-up conversation, Parker said she keeps an eye out for graffiti on her commute from West L.A. to downtown, calling city officials to alert them to the need for a cleanup. Parker said the city spends a lot of money to keep walls and bridges clear of the stuff, so The Times shouldn't be providing what she calls "advertising." She added, "I live in a clean house, I expect to live in a clean city. Is that too much to ask?"

St. John heard that and wondered if she and other readers confuse photojournalism with movies, and commercials, and television, which he points out are edited and altered for their own reasons. "We're photojournalists, we're totally real. It's life, it's there." His point of view intersects with Parker's in this way: "Maybe by our publishing this, readers will push the city to do more to clean it up."

Colin Crawford, deputy managing editor for visual journalism,  agreed with the readers and with St. John. Of the readers, he said, "To be blunt, graffiti offends me as much as it offends them. But we can't go into covering something with a checklist of 28 things you want to avoid. We do try to keep it out of the paper when we can -- it is offensive, and also sometimes we don't know what the tags mean, what the gangs' signs are. But every assignment, every day, it's just not possible to avoid graffiti. And sometimes those things are relevant to a story." Much as he hates the tagging, Crawford said, "That small amount that showed in the photograph is sort of normal" when it comes to street scenes in L.A.

Photo by Gary Friedman /Los Angeles Times