Mag gets flak for altered photo of Obama's buff bod

Friday, April 24, 2009
This magazine cover released by Washingtonian magazine shows President Obama on the cover shirtless. (Washingtonian)

Here's the part that's NOT in debate about the May cover of Washingtonian magazine: Barack Obama looks pretty darned good in a swimsuit -- especially for a president.

What IS being debated are issues of propriety and ethics. Was it disrespectful to display the presidential pecs -- alongside a headline calling the chief executive "hot"? And, in a separate journalistic flap, was it wrong to alter the color of his swimsuit from black (or dark navy) to a bright red?

Before you ask the obvious -- why would they want to change the color? -- let's first recall the photo, one of those paparazzi shots that surfaced on the Web in December during Obama's preinaugural trip to Hawaii. The president-elect wore dark sunglasses as he strolled in his swimsuit, water bottle in one hand, what looked like a bunched-up T-shirt in the other.

At the time, some thought the photos from the Bauer-Griffin agency unseemly -- and wondered how the photographer managed to get them. But there was also plenty of praise for, well, the state of the presidential bod.

On Thursday, when news spread that the photo graced Washingtonian, a monthly geared to affluent residents of the capital, the chatter bubbled anew.

"I don't care to see my president in his swim trunks, any more than I would care to see my Senators or my doctor," wrote one reader, Amy, on the magazine's website. "I think it's inappropriate, and disrespectful to President Obama," wrote another, Kathleen.

"I think the photo is great," wrote another, Summer, from Germany. "Moreover it has to be mentioned that it looks sexy!"

The magazine's publisher said the whole thing was meant as a compliment -- and to capture a feeling that, she said, is sweeping Washington.

"Washington's in a golden age," Catherine Merrill Williams said in a telephone interview. "We thought this cover captured the energy this president has brought to the city."

It also hasn't hurt, Williams noted, that "our website traffic is through the roof. We love that!"

And as for that altered swimsuit color? "We changed it so it would show up against our dark background," Williams said. "Also, we were trying to convey the concept of love, and red is the color of love. And it's hot!"

'Where do you stop?'

That didn't hold water, hot or cold, with some commentators and academics, who felt the magazine should have adhered to a central tenet of photojournalism: You don't alter photos -- period.

"There needs to be integrity to a photo," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "Otherwise, what are your boundaries? Where do you stop?"

Williams argued that her cover was different from news photos that must document a specific moment in time. "We're a lifestyle magazine, doing a feature article," she said. "This is not adding another missile to a photo from Iran. We were trying to get across a bigger concept."

Williams was adamant that the skin had not been changed. "The color may appear different because of the background we used," she said. "But we definitely did not change it."

Jamieson, an expert in political communication, is troubled by the invasion of privacy. After all, Obama was in a private place, accompanied by his young daughters, who were also photographed.

Obama clearly didn't intend to be photographed in his swimsuit, Jamieson said. Otherwise, traditional news outlets would have gotten the photo.

"Where do you draw the line?" she asked. "If they had a lens trained on his private living room or bedroom at the White House, would editors use the shots?"

Williams, though, was adamant in her defense of the cover, saying in an e-mail to staffers: "I strongly believe that people, and especially our readers, are able to distinguish the difference" between a traditional news photo and a creative magazine cover.

And, she added in the phone interview, Washingtonian readers are able to understand something else, too:

"We believe they're capable of appreciating that our president is hot."

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