No photo of the Dalai Lama at the White House? Here’s why

February 18, 2010 at 3:25pm
Here, Associated Press Director of Photography Santiago Lyon explains AP's decision not to run a White House photo of President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama — the only photo available of the event.

You won't be seeing any images of the Dalai Lama and President Barack Obama on the AP photo service today.

The Dalai Lama (AP Photo) © 2010 AP
The Dalai Lama (AP Photo) © 2010 AP
They met at the White House this morning, but no independent media were allowed to witness the meeting. Just an official photographer.

This isn't the way it usually works. But in this instance, the Obama administration — mindful of offending China, which has a very tense relationship with the Dalai Lama over the question of Tibet — stopped it from happening. Instead, the White House offered us a handout, or official photo, taken by its own photographer.

Here’s what we told our subscribers:

AP Photo Advisory: The AP will not be distributing an official White House photograph of today’s meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama. The AP declines to accept or use handout photos when we feel access would have been possible by the media, either as a group or through a pool photo arrangement.

So why the fuss? Isn’t a photo just a photo?

In our constant striving for media access, we often encounter cases where access is denied and handout photos are offered. That’s the visual equivalent of being fed a completed news story by PR firm or official as opposed to reporting it ourselves.

We won't accept or use handout photos if we feel access would have been possible by the media, either as a group or through a pool photo arrangement. This position is particularly important to us when covering government activities in democratic nations where we believe an independent view is important.

True, we often accept handout photos from governments or states where media freedoms are not as developed as they are in most democracies. Ignoring those handout photos would deprive our readers and viewers of a unique source of information.

Santiago Lyon
Santiago Lyon
We also sometimes accept military handouts from situations where access is not possible or has been denied. Recently, we accepted military handouts from the Sri Lankan army because it was a rare source of imagery from a war all but closed to media access.

There are a few other cases where we might accept handouts:

—from activist organizations, if their activities are particularly compelling and in the news or we are writing about them.

—from manufacturers and other business entities promoting new products, but only if there's news value.

—from sports and entertainment event organizers, depending on the circumstances, the access and the interest.

There could be other exceptions on a case-by-case basis, but the fact remains: We want to use handout photos as little as possible.

Access to the public activities of the president of the United States, we believe, is a fundamental right of the media. Government-controlled coverage is not acceptable in societies that promote freedom and democracy. As a result, we don’t distribute official images of events we believe should be open to the press.