04 May 2011

VegNews photo controversy painted veganism into a corner

VegNews recently caused quite a storm of controversy in the Vegan community when it was discovered that they used stock photographs of meat-based dishes to illustrate recipes for Vegan dishes. This caught the community by surprise, but what upset matters more was the original reaction to this revelation. Simply put, VegNews declared that use of such photos was a budget issue and would continue. Wow! Take that Vegans who demand consistency or ethics or even truth in publishing. Pow! Right in the kisser!

But first, a disclosure. I am a subscriber to VegNews. It was gifted to me by my Vegan mentor last year and I recently renewed my subscription. So, I am writing not only as a Vegan but also a subscriber to the magazine. Know that, it is important. And I'll come back to this in a minute.

When I first heard of this controversy, I assumed that the magazine needed a photo quickly and couldn't find someone to prep the dish or something to that notion. Little did I know that they had used stock photos of meat-based dishes more than once. Several bloggers exposed them for this, most notably Quarry Girl. Wow. Not only did they regularly use photos of meat based dishes, they did it while telling us in photo captions that they devoured some of these dishes. To paraphrase the character played by Richard Dreyfus in "Jaws": "this was no photo accident."

VegNews eventually, and in the face of a large Vegan outcry, apologized for using the photos and promised never to do it again. They were defended vehemently, shortsightedly and quite ham-handed (pun intended) by PETA Vice-President for Policy, Bruce Friedrich, who in sum, told Vegans to grow up, get over it. He called outraged Vegans irrational and instructed them to worry about larger issues and not this "absurd affair." His defense of VegNews not only was misguided, it also missed the point--and badly. (I'll refrain from comment over PETA's own ethical issues of late, too. That would be to easy.)

The point is, what VegNews did was to paint Veganism into a corner. It made Veganism seem like a fringe lifestyle and not one worthy of every human. It said to readers "we haven't the creativity or wherewithal to create our own dishes and photograph them, so we're going to take the easy way out: photoshop. And then we'll lie to our readers." VegNews forgot the best thing about Vegans: community and compassion. They forgot that ethics is also the heart of being Vegan: the ethical and moral and "humane" treatment of all earthlings equally and without prejudice.

Oh, but G, Vegan food photos don't exist in ready-made magazine form. True. But as I understand it, the mag is produced in the Bay Area, and I am told that there is a pretty vibrant Vegan community in those parts. I may be an Alabama yokel, but I'm pretty sure they could find a great Vegan cook who would love to prepare authentic Vegan dishes. I would even go so far as to say that they might even be able to find a photographer or two in the Bay area. Just speculating. Or how about incorporate the blogosphere. Have you seen the plethora of wonderful Vegan cooking blogs recently? Funny thing is, they take REAL photos of their REAL Vegan food--and they look wonderful!

Community. I hear that word a lot. Vegans are an amazing group of people. A wonderful community to which I now belong. Would it have been so hard for VegNews to act less like a magazine and more like a community leader and put out the call for people to create dishes and send high resolution photographs? To foster the very community spirit we share as a people committed to a noble and worthy cause and lifestyle?

We say we are a people with a special and needed message, yet sometimes we act just like the world around us. What does this tell the non-Vegan world? Our food isn't good enough to be photographed professionally? That to make Vegan dishes look scrumptious, we will used photos of meat-based dishes? That our ethics do not matter when it comes to profits? That we may say we are "different" but when it comes to money we act like the rest of the world?

I need VegNews. That's why I didn't bail on them. I resubscribed just before this incident occurred, but I never thought about canceling. First, I believe in compassion and second chances. If I am not willing to offer compassion to this magazine, then I am not a man of my word or my belief and in my mind, I'm not worthy of calling myself Vegan. Second, I need this magazine in my small Alabama town. I need that link to the bigger Vegan world. I need this resource. So I am willing to forgive and move on. But I'll never forget the immortal wisdom of Gomer Pyle from the "Andy Griffith Show" from the 1960s: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!"

Gordon Harvey | @VeganG26_2
Gordon is a college professor, marathoner, and vegan. He is a strong believer in the power of exercise and smart food choices for healthy and compassionate living, and in education for enlightening us as a society. Gordon hosts "This Running Life" podcast and co-hosts "The Country Vegan, City Vegan" podcast. He also publishes the "Vegan in the South" blog.

Photo credit: VegNews screen capture