The Tale of Two Photos

The Tale of Two Photos

Why did MSNBC find it necessary to use a generic image of a Black man in cuffs for an article about a white embezzler?

Published May 2, 2011

I’m trying to give MSNBC the benefit of the doubt here, but really?


Friday morning, a co-worker forwarded me a link to an article about New York City Department of Education consultant Willard "Ross" Lanham, who, by overbilling the system, “took $3 million out of the mouths of schoolchildren to help fund a ‘lavish lifestyle’ on Long Island replete with a sprawling mansion and a self-described ‘cougar’ wife, investigators charged,” The New York Post reported that morning. Included with the article is a apparent photo of Lanham walking in cuffs.


That’s pretty infuriating in itself, right? Well just wait.


My co-worker also included a link to’s version of the story. In their article, instead of a photo of Lanham accompanying the story, there was a stock photo of Black hands in handcuffs. (Many hours later MSNBC swapped out the image.)


The thing is, Lanham is white. See a problem there?


Since photos of Lanham obviously exist (as they were included in stories on other sites), one can only wonder why the person who posted the image for that particular MSNBC article would choose to use a Black person’s photo to signify jail, arrest and alleged wrongdoing. Did the person attempt to search for a photo of Lanham? Or did they just assume that the criminal was Black and go with the stock image? Either way, it would have been best to leave the article photo-less.


This example brings to mind another racist photo incident. During Hurricane Katrina, an Associated Press photo caption described a Black person wading through water with bags as “looting,” while in a separate photo, the AFP described white residents appearing to do the exact same thing as “finding” food. Totally different situation, but the negative African-American stereotype still pervades.


But back to the Lanham story. There are a disproportionate percentage of African-Americans in the nation’s prison population. I get it. But does that mean Black people should now be cast as the standard image of crime on a national, high-profile Web site? Whether the reasoning behind the stock photo was pure prejudice or laziness, it’s just not acceptable.

Written by Hortense M. Barber


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