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VegNews controversy offers creative opportunities

vegnewsThe recent revelation that US vegan magazine VegNews used stock photos of meat dishes for many of its recipes has caused a rift among vegans. But while the publication’s actions were unacceptable, the public controversy offers opportunities for positive change, writes Katrina Fox.

16 April 2011

I heard about the VegNews controversy recently from the number one source of news nowadays: a friend’s Facebook status update. Kelly Garbato, author of the Easy Vegan blog posted a link to the blog of Quarry Girl who ‘broke’ the story last week, which was then picked up by the New York Times and from then on went viral.

My first, knee-jerk reaction was ‘Oh horrible’. And I don’t even read VegNews. But like many vegans, I felt disappointed and angry that a vegan publication would use photos of meat dishes and pass them off as vegan, even going so far as to Photoshop out ‘ribs’ from one image.

As Samantha Cohen pointed out on Super Vegan, there were several issues at stake.

One: the magazine had been deceiving people over a 10-year period by not declaring that the images were of meat – despite a staffer apparently bringing it to their attention some time ago.

Two: comments left on the VegNews website drawing readers’ attention to the fact that the photos were not vegan were deleted by VegNews editors.

And three: VegNews, instead of apologising and promising to rectify the situation immediately, issued this response in which it bemoaned the lack of good-quality photos of vegan food on stock image sites and highlighted the challenges facing small, independent publishers trying to produce a magazine on a shoestring budget.

The vegan community’s responses ranged from vitriole to nonchalance and everything in between. Many people were worried that VegNews was giving fuel to meat-eaters by implying that vegan food was too horrible to be photographed, or that vegans deep down secretly desired to eat meat after all.

Erik Marcus wrote on that the actions of VegNews editors were the kind of  “sociopathic know-you’re-gonna-get-caught-but-do-it-anyway behavior you would expect from a Ted Haggard, a Larry Craig, or a Bernie Madoff” and called for the website to be called for the website to be taken offline until the offending photos could be identified and removed. Others, including Quarry Girl, rushed to cancel their subscriptions to the magazine.

More tempered responses included those of Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, who reminded vegans in her comments on the New York Times website: “Whatever the faults of a magazine, any magazine, let's not confuse issues: being vegan is better for your health, better for the environment, and much much better for the animals” and noted that: “It is only lazy meat eaters who will see in this issue a confirmation for their failure to deal with their rather large, cruelty-filled, carbon hoofprint.”

Marla Rose, author of the excellent Vegan Feminist Agitator blog, acknowledged on Facebook that while vegans should not be exempt from critique, the level of vehemence of comments aimed at VegNews was sad and unnecessary.

Many other vegans questioned whether the great work of VegNews in spreading the vegan message over the past 10 years should be wiped out by people cancelling their subscriptions and thereby contributing to the potential demise of the magazine.

As a journalist, former editor of a niche lifestyle print magazine and currently publisher of an unfunded online monthly magazine/portal, I understand completely the challenges facing independent publishers, especially those working to promote unpopular social justice issues that most people would rather not hear about as they carry on tucking into their hamburgers or chicken mornay. I use a cheap image subscription service and there are very few photos of vegan food (apart from the odd tofu dish), as well as Flickr images under a Creative Commons licence, which are of mixed quality.

Deadlines and pressure to spend as little as possible while still producing quality content for readers are constant challenges for any indie publication – especially full-colour print media (heck, it’s a challenge for big, mainstream magazines too, hence many of them going bust during the GFC).

I don’t agree with Marcus who said there’s no place for niche lifestyle magazines nowadays. When my friend and fellow journalist Peter Hackney went vegetarian a few years ago, I brought in copies of Vegan Voice to our workplace for him to read, and a few months later he became – and remains – an ethical vegan. I also enjoy reading vegan magazines for the interviews with interesting vegans, news, a heads-up on new shops or restaurants opening, books and more.

So, while I get the anger at the deception of VegNews, I’d hate to see it fold. Even though I haven’t read it, the feedback I’ve had is that it’s spread the vegan message for a decade and is a well-produced publication. Here in Australia we’ve just lost two magazines: Vegan Voice (our only vegan magazine) and Natural Health & New Vegetarian Life (not vegan but included a lot of vegan material and was stocked in major newsagents).

The wonderful Satya closed down a few years ago, so there doesn’t seem to be much to gain by yet another magazine promoting veganism disappearing.

That doesn’t mean VegNews should be let off the hook. The editors need to cop to their mistake and deception, apologise and start making changes immediately to the sourcing of images.

And this is where something positive can come out of this whole situation.

Opportunities for positive change: Let’s do it!

The online world has been a major game-changer in terms of information sharing and publishing. Every publisher has to constantly examine their policies and try to keep up with the latest developments in digital media.

Ten years ago VegNews would have had few options for photos other than staff members or professional photographers supplying images. Nowadays the options are much greater. So many people have digital cameras which – set to the highest resolution in reasonable lighting conditions – can take a picture of decent enough quality for print magazines. I’ve done it and I have absolutely no skills as a photographer, just a nice little camera with a fully automatic function.

Vegan food bloggers are aplenty and – armed with aforementioned digital cameras – are already taking photos of their culinary creations.

And of course there are vegan freelance photographers out there who would no doubt be keen for their work to be featured, even if they sell them at a discount rate to vegan magazines.

There’s been some talk of creating a Vegan ‘Istock’ website. This is an excellent suggestion, whereby photographers (good amateur and professional) can upload images for free or cheap download by publications. Flickr Creative Commons is another option.

So, to people who create vegan dishes or eat out at vegan restaurants: Take photos of vegan dishes, upload them to Flickr, drop an email to VegNews and other vegan publications offering your photos.

To photographers (vegan or otherwise): Ditto above.

To VegNews editors (and other vegan magazines): Post information on your website about specs for photographs: what you need to be able to include a good photograph of print quality. Put a callout to your readers, to photographers (vegan or otherwise) to take pics of vegan food.

Vegans are fantastic at galvanising into action. So, let’s flood Flickr with images of delicious vegan food.

Let’s make sure that vegan publications no longer need to use stock images of meat, dairy and egg dishes.

Let’s take this unfortunate incident and turn it into an opportunity that will benefit everyone – most of all the animals we seek to protect from suffering.

Update 16 April: The domain for a new vegan stock photo site has been created.

Update 19 April: VegNews has issued an apology and vowed to only use photos of vegan dishes and to build a vegan stock photo bank. Great result!

Katrina Fox
is editor-in-chief of The Scavenger.




0 #6 Carolyn Field Pandis 2012-11-11 23:34
Well written! I'm glad to see you refer to the "excellent Marla Rose" and her fabulous Vegan Feminist Agitator blog. She is amazing!!!
0 #5 Benjamin Buchanan 2011-05-15 18:28
I'm Carol J. Adams' son, Ben, and I thought this was a great article and I'm happy to see that positive change has been brought about because of this incident. Keep up the good work!
0 #4 Jane 2011-04-20 21:52
I love your constructive suggestions Katrina! On my way to uploading some vegan food photos right now. And veganstockphoto is a great idea.
0 #3 john calabria 2011-04-18 12:34
Thanks Katrina,

Yeah, these days with the resolution of digital cameras, why not make the dish for real and
take a pic. then you get to enjoy the meal as well.


0 #2 cattiva 2011-04-17 19:21
You're busted, VegNews, time to remedy the situation! How difficult is it to say, "we're sorry... here's how we're going to change"?
0 #1 Jim 2011-04-17 13:25
This all makes sense, except for the fact that I don't buy the response. I think their actions were deceitful and their response was a lie. I can't them skate on that. They need to come clean with an honest, open, and up front response and apology.

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