An unauthorized photographer was at GW's inaugural ball

On Friday, Jan. 20th The George Washington University hosted an inaugural ball for its students at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. This event was explicitly just for students and alumni, and only press with pre-approved credentials were invited, but MediaFile reported that this didn't stop an unauthorized photographer from sneaking into the event and taking suggestive pictures of students there.

The photos, published in photo journal form on the site of a French newspaper called Libération, made the students out to be risqué Trump-supporters, and some are downright dirty.

This is fucked up.

The article caption, as translated from French, reads roughly:

"Just as millions of Americans marched Saturday to protest against the accession of Donald Trump to the White House, others had, in contrast, celebrated his victory. Matt Stuart, a photographer, went to the George Washington University ball in the American capital, given in honor of the “power of democracy.”

In interest of the students' privacy, The Rival decided not to publish the photos in this article since they were taken without GW's permission.

Sofia Oliveros, a senior, was one of those pictured and was quoted in the MediaFile article. She spoke with The Rival about how she and her friends were dancing at the front of the dance floor, while Stuart stood by the DJ. Oliveros said he took some pictures of her group, but was focused on another girl featured in such photos. She thought the photographer was hired by GW for the event. The music was so loud that he didn't ask for consent to take the pictures.

She reflected, "I think the article is completely misleading. The title is completely off, I personally wasn't celebrating Trump's victory." Oliveros pointed out the fact that many students bought their inaugural ball tickets before they knew the results of the election. She doesn't believe the majority of attendees were Trump supporters because GW is so liberal.

Another subject of these photos was Gabrielle Parkhill, a freshman who also spoke to The Rival. Like Oliveros, she thought Stuart was affiliated with GW when he was taking pictures of her. "I am frustrated because I do not appreciate having pictures of me put online without my permission," she said.

So obviously this is not right - but how is it exactly unethical?

A good way to think of it is as if you were a journalist and you interviewed someone on the street. If they didn't know you were a journalist, that's fundamentally bad journalism ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists lists "Seek the truth and report it," "Minimize harm," and "Be accountable and transparent" as three of four sections in its Code of Ethics - all of which the photographer clearly ignored.

Journalists and the media should care about truthfulness, transparency, and respect. Private individuals have a right to not have their words printed or aired without their permission with their identity attached. It's also unethical journalistic behavior to change the meaning of someone's words by framing them differently. One could argue that was also done with these photos.

According to his site the photographer in question, Matt Stuart, is primarily a street photographer. The Rival reached out to Stuart for comment, but he has yet to respond to our request. One troubling line from his FAQ page, however, details his thoughts on the problems of taking street photos whose subjects weren't aware he was using them.

"Do you run into any trouble taking photographs of strangers?

Very rarely. I have learned to be quick and discreet photographing in public. If I am ever stopped or asked about what I am doing, I try to be polite and move on as quickly as possible."

The Rival also reached out to Libération, the newspaper which published this article, on whether they thought their framing of GW students was fair and transparent given that they were taken by an unauthorized photographer. Libération has not yet responded to our requests for comment.

These photos quickly gained traction on social media and were weighed in on by viewers worldwide. Those who read the article were led to believe GW's Inaugural Ball was a celebration of Trump's presidency, rather than the inclusive celebration the University made clear it wanted to encourage. People online accused GW students of being everything from fascists to racists. Stuart himself posted some of the photos to his Instagram, and many of his followers insulted and ridiculed his subjects.

Post this.jpg
Translated: A good example of WET, White Educated Trash. Photos of the student ball for the victory of @realDonaldTrump

Translated: A good example of WET, White Educated Trash. Photos of the student ball for the victory of @realDonaldTrump

The University responded to our request for comment, and Kurie Fitzgerald, from the Office of Media Relations, issued the following statement to The Rival regarding the incident:

"GW's Inaugural Ball has been held every four years since 1993 and it is a tradition that celebrates GW's politically active campus in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Media were invited to the GW Inaugural Ball, as in years past and as part of a series of Inaugural related activities on or near campus. Media interested in attending were required to RSVP and were given a press credential at the event. There was a press table with a visible check-in sign at the main entrance of the event where media were required to check in and receive a credential. This photographer did not RSVP, and he did not have a credential for the event. Other media outlets checked in at the press table and received proper credentials. We contacted the publication that posted the photos and the photographer and asked them to remove the photos."

In an age of fake news, media bias, and "alternative facts," it's scary that there are people out there who are augmenting the problem at the expense of innocent young people.

Just a few days into his administration, President Trump has already waged war on the media. Misframing these photos is just another aspect of a greater problem with trust in the media.

What this photographer did was take a celebratory event (regardless of support of lack thereof for Trump) and frame it as immoral wealthy kids celebrating an unpopular presidency. He not only entered an event illegally, but contributed to larger issues of journalistic integrity in an era of fake news, and could have harmed the reputations of those students whose photos he published.

This article has been updated from its original publication to reflect the inclusion of further interviews with those involved.

Originally published by Courtney Buble and Savannah Sheppard on on 1.24.17,

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