Editors in newsrooms around the world had something of a dilemma this week: which picture to run with reports about Chelsea Manning’s sentence being commuted by outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama?

Manning was a U.S. Army intelligence analyst who leaked hundreds of thousands of secret files to WikiLeaks. She was known as Bradley Manning at the time of her conviction in 2013, and was sentenced to 35 years in a military prison. Shortly after the sentencing, she changed her first name to Chelsea and announced her intent to gender transition. She will now be released from prison in May 2017.

There are virtually no photos available of Manning since she was imprisoned. The only file photos most media have are news shots taken at the time of the trial, and one very grainy head shot (see below) of her “en femme” from Wikipedia with the following description: “Manning sent this photograph of herself in a wig and makeup to her supervisor in April 2010.” Wikipedia’s main photo of Manning is one in uniform from 2012.

Chelsea Manning photo from Wikipedia.
Chelsea Manning photo from Wikipedia.

The grainy head shot is a small photo, with no higher resolution available, but media outlets have blown it up in size to fit their various needs, washing out the image even more.

Most print outlets that I have seen went with the grainy head shot photo this week even though, no doubt, all of them have pictures from the trial. But they wanted to be politically correct, and may have been afraid they might be seen as being transphobic if they ran images from the trial — which showed “Bradley Manning” in a military outfit.

Personally, I applaud editors for the respect they show trans people, but in this case, they need not have worried about running images from the trial. And in a way, they inadvertently discriminated against and stereotyped Manning — and all trans women — if they reasoned that the grainy head shot was more femme than pictures of her during the trial period.

After all, there are plenty of butch women out there, and the media doesn’t refrain from using their pictures because they are not femme enough. But there seems to be a belief among many that trans women should be ultra-feminine.

The fact is, Chelsea Manning came out as trans to the military in 2010. She chose to appear the way she did at her trial knowing full well that the media would be snapping tons of photos — she could have worn a wig and dress, if she wanted. But her appearance then made her no less trans.

And those trial photos are part of history. They will be around as long as civilization exists on this planet, the same way that photos of Caitlyn Jenner winning Olympic gold medals in Montreal as “Bruce Jenner” will pop up in the media time and time again.

So, the media should not hesitate to use photos of Chelsea Manning from the trial period in any news reports about the trial and Obama commuting her sentence — just as they wouldn’t hesitate to use trial photos of any other convicted individual years later. Trans people should be treated equally by the media; no special treatment, just equal treatment, objectively speaking.

(It’s worth noting here that some broadcast news outlets did run footage from the trial, including CTV National News in Canada, which also showed the grainy head shot.)

Of course, when we run stories about Chelsea’s, say, favourite recipes in a year or so from now, it would be entirely inappropriate for us to use the trial photos, even though we might mention that she was convicted of treason. We will be using current images — and who knows how Chelsea will choose to present herself to the world. Butch or ultra-femme, we’ll take the pictures and run with them.

— Jillian

Photo: Posters in the 2014 San Francisco Pride Parade. Photo credit: torbakhopper via Foter.com / CC BY-ND. The image of Manning on the poster is, according to Wikipedia, how she sees herself. The original sketch was done by Alicia Neal, in cooperation with Chelsea, commissioned by the Chelsea Manning Support Network, 23 April 2014.