A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words: Do a Vegan Magazine’s Meat & Dairy Photos Taint Their Reputation?

If you’re a vegan, or even if you’re not due to the mainstream coverage in the NY Times, CNN, NPR and others, you’ve probably heard about the VegNews scandal.  For those who don’t know, an uproar erupted on the internet last week when L.A.-based vegan bloggers Quarrygirl broke the story that the well-loved and respected vegan magazine used some very un-vegan pics to accompany vegan recipes in their magazine and on their website.

VegNews printed pics of hotdogs and veggie burgers that were actually meat-laden.  A photo of ribs had the bones airbrushed out so they could be passed off as veggie ribs.  In other instances, they showed a luscious plate of vegan mashed potatoes or vegan ice cream…that weren’t in fact dairy-free.  This photo kerfuffle caused a divisive split in the vegan community.

After Quarrygirl condemned their actions, VegNews quickly published a response to their readers, which felt a bit half-hearted and chock full of excuses.  They wrote,

“Yes, from time to time, after exhausting all options, we have resorted to using stock photography that may or may not be vegan. In an ideal world we would use custom-shot photography for every spread, but it is simply not financially feasible for VegNews at this time. In those rare times that we use an image that isn’t vegan, our entire (vegan) staff weighs in on whether or not it’s appropriate. It is industry standard to use stock photography in magazines—and, sadly, there are very few specifically vegan images offered by stock companies. In addition, it’s exceedingly challenging to find non-stock imagery that meets the standard necessary for publication. We would love nothing more than to use only vegan photography shot by vegan photographers, and we hope to be there soon.”

It seems like the only reason they addressed this issue is because they were caught red-handed.  But Michael Parrish DuDell at Ecorazzi rallied to VegNews’ defense, blaming Quarrygirl and calling it a “silly conflict.”   He writes,

“Instead of discussing the situation with the staff of VegNews in a thoughtful way (as opposed to leaving a comment on their website) or gathering enough information to fully understand the issue, the activist who broke the story chose to wage war, proudly canceling her subscription and enabling others to do the same. What’s more, a small handful of highly-regarded bloggers have jumped on board to reprimand and call into question the magazine’s editorial integrity. And this is where these particular activists are getting it dead wrong.  If the goal of the whole game is to celebrate and promote a vegan lifestyle, how does relentlessly bashing an organization that has spent 11 years championing our shared mission make any sense at all? That’s an easy answer: it doesn’t. What it does do is create the appearance of infighting that not only confirms but exacerbates the common stereotype that vegans are frustratingly rigid and ruthlessly pugnacious.”

Wow, silly conflict?!  While I totally understand Parrish DuDell standing by VegNews, that’s pretty asshole-ish to condemn other vegans’ concerns.  He’s perpetuating the same type of infighting he claims to be against.  But not everyone at Ecorazzi felt the same way.  Michael d’Estries at Ecorazzi was a tad harsher on VegNews, pointing out that they still posted a non-vegan pic even after the scandal.  While d’Estries agrees with many of the points his colleague raised, he finds the magazine’s apology lacking.  He writes,

“There’s another aspect of this issue that VegNews has failed to consider and that’s social media. Hell hath no fury like a vegan scorned and with every subsequent issue published, the magazine is risking a witch hunt over every photograph, posted on blog sites, Twitter, and discussed ad nauseum on the company’s Facebook page. In other words, this outrage will linger for a very long time the more VegNews chooses not to address it with more sensitivity.  I agree that they’re just photos and that these things are expensive – but I also understand the viewpoint of people who subscribe to a vegan magazine expecting vegan content. I guess my question to VegNews is: Do you really want people second-guessing your content all the time? Every month?  My suggestion is to open the doors of dialogue and invite the lashes.”

Doris Lin, an animal rights attorney, asserted,

“I’m finding it hard to understand why an ethical vegan magazine portrays vegan products with photos of nonvegan foods. And in at least one case, photoshopped the bones out, to make the dish appear vegan. I understand that good photography is expensive and you can’t rely on volunteers to provide quality photos in a timely manner, but your readers value integrity over photography… Even if other magazines used stock photography for their recipes, you are not just any other food or lifestyle magazine. You hold yourself out as an ethical vegan magazine, with a higher set of standards.”

Personally, I feel two ways about this.  I’ve loved VegNews for years.  With 210,000 subscribers and over 1 million monthly visitors to its website, it has a devoted fanbase.  While Vegetarian Times has tons of great recipes, VegNews truly caters to a vegan audience.  They go beyond writing recipes to publish articles on factory farming, the environment, how to navigate relationships and vegan travel tips.  I felt like it spoke to me and my vegan beliefs.  But I feel betrayed.  It’s pretty douchy for a vegan magazine to use stock photos of meat and dairy and pass them off as vegan delicacies.

When I first started blogging recipes for Meat-Free Mondays, I didn’t have a camera.  For the first couple months, I would use photos I found on Flickr.  I tried to use vegan pics when I could, but other times I didn’t know if they were vegan or not, although I certainly never used an image with meat in it.  And even though I would always attribute those images to the original creator and I never would claim the photo was vegan if I didn’t know for certain that it was, I still felt somehow dishonest.  So I soon invested in a fab camera so I could snap my own pics of my recipes.  But here’s the thing: this is a MAGAZINE.  And yes, they’re not as mainstream or best-selling as other magazines.  But they still charge for their publication.  Therefore, they could pay to have a food photographer.  And let’s assume for a moment that they’re correct in their assertion that they can’t afford to shoot all of their food photos.  Why the hell wouldn’t they reach out to food bloggers??  I would love to shoot a photo for VegNews free of charge for the exposure and the opportunity to be in the magazine!  And I’m sure I’m not alone.

Now many people may say, who the hell cares? They’re just pictures!  But as the NY Times reported, one very astute commenter declared,

“Any omnivore who catches wind of this will be left with the impression that vegan food must turn out so unappetizing that even the leading vegan magazine will not show legitimate photos of it.”

As in all cuisines, there’s awful vegan food and absolutely delicious vegan food.  But if VegNews can’t even show pictures of vegan food to accompany their vegan recipes, what kind of a message does that send??  It makes it seem that even a vegan magazine can’t stand behind the awesomeness of vegan food.

Luckily, VegNews issued a second official apology on Monday in which they admitted they screwed up.  They stated they will create a vegan photo bank and never use non-vegan images again.  Huzzah! I’m thrilled they apologized.  It’s an amazing testament to the power of voice; people spoke out and it made a difference.  While I believe you always should be critical of what you see, hear and read anyways, it’s unfortunate that VegNews risked sullying their reputation and almost pissed on their journalistic integrity just to save a few bucks.  But everybody makes mistakes; I applaud VegNews for admitting the error of their ways.  I just hope the magazine I love doesn’t break my trust again.

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