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This is the second of a two-part series on Image Manipulation, where
I discuss the issues, ethical as well as aesthetic, of the practice of
digitally editing photos. In the other article, What is 'Pure Photography?', I
discuss the topic generically, and mostly address the issue as it pertains
to artwork and the grander public perception of photography. However,
one cannot escape the discussion of "pure photography" and manipulated
imagery without addressing the ethical role of photo journalism. If you
are presented with images from a war or other conflicts, or you are shown
images of starvation and disease from an impoverished country in Africa,
you may be moved to take action, or to support or protest a government
action. So, you would expect that the source that provided the images
has a baseline degree of integrity to base such important acts of civil,
democratic, and participatory government.
The wrench that's thrown into this idyllic utopia, however, is that
the laws governing "freedom of the press" means that people can say
(or show) whatever they like in order to persuade (or dissuade) your
opinions, because the notion of "truth" cannot be so easily or
succinctly defined. The task of "journalism" is to present facts
and information without the subjective slant of any point of view,
yet do so in a way that allows the objective observer to draw his own
conclusions. Note that the word, "truth" was never used in that definition.
In a society where freedom of the press exists, we expect the utmost
objectivity in the organizations that report news to be fair and balanced,
and from that we hope to derive truth. Of course, we all know that
fair and balanced is an expression whose meaning has been laundered
somewhat of late, so whether we get truth is no longer something the
individual can decide, but more for the society to decide as a whole.
In the end, truth is seen mostly in retrospect, after the complete story
is told and the bigger picture context has been revealed and analyzed.
Editorialized Writing vs. Photography
In the article, What is 'Pure Photography?', I proclaimed that I don't care
if a photo has been manipulated, but I was talking about artwork.
My feelings are not the same for news-related imagery. But then, my
sense of "manipulation" is quite different from the common layman.
Because I know the technical aspects of photography, and that
reasonable anomalies can exist, such as under- or over-exposure,
or parts of a scene being out of focus, or dust being on the film
or digital sensor, I expect someone to fix these things before the
image is "reported." These artifacts may detract from the general
nature of the scene, so I not only don't mind that an image may be
digitally manipulated to
correct these aberrations, but I hope and expect that those who present
imagery take all possible measures to assure that the image is really
portraying what it is that the photographer intended to show me!
Ah, and "therein lies the rub," as Shakespeare would say. Does the
photograph really present an objective portrayal of facts? How many
ways can the image be "manipulated" so as to slant those facts? Which
of those methods are ok, and which are not? Why? To examine these questions,
let's compare writing with photography.
People can report the news in writing using emotionally-charged language
so as to present a particular perspective. That's easy to see, of course.
If a story about a particular abortion uses language like "ruthlessly
killing an unborn child" instead of "terminating a fetus," it can have
dramatically different perceptions by the readership. While this technique
is easy to see, a subtler way to slant a story in writing might be to
report only those statistics that support the editorial views of the
reporter or the newspaper, rather than presenting a more complete set
of numbers. Is the story lying because it's incomplete? Is it slanted if
it portrays views you already believe in, or don't believe in? Who decides?
These are basic questions that any journalism major touches upon in
the freshman class, but the same questions are now being applied and
debated in the field of photography. In an era where digital image
manipulation is getting the spotlight, the groundswell of hype and
disinformation about the practice is making the question once again a
hot topic for students and industry veterans alike.
A classic example is the publication of a photo of an anti-abortion rally
at a medical clinic, where it appears to be well-attended, with a crowd
protesters with banners and signs are keeping people from entering the
clinic. Would it then be considered "lying" if it turned out that
the photo was merely cropped to make it appear by exclusion of empty space
that far fewer people were there than it appeared? What if the original
photo also showed that the handful of people were outside the side door
(a smaller entrance), and that they were oblivious to the fact that they
weren't getting anyone's attention?
If the editor cropped the photo to show this, is this image manipulation?
What if it was the photographer himself chose to frame the photo in such
a way to give this misleading impression? Is it still a form of
photo manipulation? Is it fair and balanced, or is it editorializing?
Do Photos Tell the Whole Truth?
These aren't questions that are easily answered because "the truth," in all
its glory, is not universal, but subjective by its very nature. There are
some universal truths that no one disputes, such as the Earth being round.
Oops... I guess that's not perceived as universally true either; the
Flat Earth Society in Chicago takes strong exception to that premise.
A story told by John Glenn, on his first space flight circling the Earth,
tells how he took a picture of our planet, showing that it was indeed round,
and sent it to the head of the Flat Earth Society with the inscription,
"See?" Later, he got a letter back saying, "We never said that the Earth
The point is, you can't always win in the "truth" department, and at some
point, one has to draw the line as to just how "unbiased" to make a story.
You can't always present both sides to a story, or you may just lose
credibility yourself. Imagine how many people would be gripped to their TV
to watch a debate about whether or not the Earth is round. Of course, we
now see heated debates on TV all the time on subjects that would have never
made it past the news department's receptionist 20 years ago. But, people
love to watch people argue on TV, so these "news programs" show them now.
But, I digress. My point is that people will make up their minds about
what is "truth" before they get all the facts (if any), and then filter
everything through that lens in order to further support their preconceived
notions. Their truth and your truth are not always going to meet.
Which truth is right?
This leaves a lingering dilemma: is "truth" equal to "unbiased reporting?"
One can tell both sides of the story and be "unbiased," but where's the
"truth" in that? One would like to assume that the reader makes up his own
mind about what's going on, so as to ascertain his perception of truth.
If that's the case, one might argue that the job of journalism isn't
necessarily to tell the truth, it's just supposed to report as much
as it can so that the reader is fully informed. As you can see now, this
is starting down a downward spiral of tail-chasing. Remember, our basic
question is, Is photo manipulation a distortion of "truth"? We're getting
to that, but as you can see, it's hard to establish what is, in fact, "truth."
Rather than try to solve the chicken-and-egg problem of "truth" and "unbiased
reporting," let us instead choose organizations whose job is to establish
norms by which reporters and journalists follow so as to increase the
credibility of fair and balanced coverage. This follows the logic, "if we
can't figure it out ourselves, let's appoint others to do it for us."
(Almost sounds like Dave Barry.)
Actually, this isn't such a bad ideaorganizations that have been in
the journalism business a long time came up with really good ideas, such
as the concept of a reporter having "multiple sources" and using only
"credible of witnesses." Without getting into the details of such things,
it remains as much a problem with photography as it does with written
journalism: who makes these decisions? Or, put more directly, who guards
"Art" vs. "Photojournalism"
Recently, photographer Patrick Schneider had three prestigious
photojournalism awards rescinded because it was revealed that he'd
altered images that were the bases for his prizes. (You can read
the story here.) He had darkened some areas
of one photo, brightened areas of another photo, and simply added contrast
(adjusted both highlights and shadows) to a third. Unlike the anti-abortion
examples illustrated above, where images were altered for editorial purposes,
Mr. Schneider's offense was that he altered his images mostly for artistic
effect. No one claimed that he'd intended to alter facts about the stories
he was covering, nor was he accused of editorializing his images. He merely
did it because they "looked better." This begs the new question: is artistic
editing the same as editorializing? And is it therefore less offensive?
Let's take a similar example:
during the O.J. Simpson trial, Time Magazine displayed a photo of
Simpson altered to make him appear much darker than most pictures you see
of him. Such editorialization, it was claimed, made him look "blacker,"
hence, making the act virtually racist in nature. Editing the image
for this purpose does smell of editorialization, but what if that was
how the image looked, simply because it was under-exposed? Would it then
be racist or "editorializing" if the staff chose it over more conventional
pictures of him (that they already had)? If you say "yes," then answer this:
would it be editorializing if the staff edited the darker photo to
lighten him so as to look less "black?" If you said yes to that too,
you are where the rest of us are: confused about what's unbiased reporting
in the photo department.
Where's the Pendulum Now?
The nature of image manipulation is questionable in some cases, but
the questions become muddier when the industry reacts in ways that are
inconsistent with past standards. "Image processing" has been in use in
newspapers for about a hundred years, since it was impossible to get a
print into the newspaper without developing and processing the film in
the first place. Photos that have won international media awards had
been "edited" for technical aberrations, as well as for artistic effect,
but, today's world of digital imaging has caused the pendulum to swing in
the opposite direction. Now, any kind of editing may be cause for a
photo to be "biased."
My feeling on this is not so simplistic. That is, since someone that
wants to misrepresent a story, can do so without having to doctor an
image, it is too simplistic to state that any image that has been
doctored is now discredited. What's more, some photos must be enhanced
so as to bring out detail that would otherwise not be seen, in order to
present "facts" that would otherwise not be known.
Imagine if someone had a photo of an unknown shooter of John F. Kennedy
being shot in 1963, but it was too dark to really see the person. Should
the newspaper lighten it up so as to show "the truth" about who it may be?
A reasonable person would say yes, and such edited would not be considered
"biased" reporting, or even editorialization. In fact, it might win an award.
To me, the matter of photo editing does not lie in the act itself, but
in the end result: Why was the editing done? What did it accomplish? And
what was the net effect? By judging these things on a case-by-case basis,
only then can one establish the noteworthiness of any given image.
But, the organization that makes these rules makes another mistake: they
are trying to establish the metric by which all forms of photojournalism
are judged, so as to bring credibility to the entire industry. It doesn't
work that way.
The credibility of a reporter or photographer, and of the news organizations
behind them, is established by their longer-term reputations that can
only be established over time and by broader industry recognition. It is
not established by instituting rules that don't address the realities
of how individuals do their jobs. When Jayson Blair of the New York
Times was found to have fabricated stories for the newspaper, the paper
didn't re-establish its credibility by instituting new rules that dictated
that writers could no longer use spell-checkers or word processors to write
their stories. Their reputation was re-established because it was well-known
to be an anomalous incident.
It's ridiculous to assume that the public's view of a reporter or newspaper
is somehow less credible because computer-aided tools were used to write
stories. Spelling and grammatical errors in writing are analogous to
the technical errors in photography, where dust, brightness contrast
or focus may not be exactly correct. Accordingly, the public
knows and expects that reporters will use word processors, and they
also expect that the industry has other mechanisms in place (either
internally or externally) to catch liars. Similarly, the public
should know that photographers use tools (whether chemistry found in
the darkroom, or software on a computer) to render images correctly in
their newspapers, and that other metrics are used to determine whether
an image is appropriate or not.
That is, the public should know and expect this. But they don't
because the industry that the public looks to for being the watchdog
for photojournalistic integrity doesn't quite get it themselves.
"Alteration of an image" is one thing; lying is another. Granted, there
may be a grey line, and perhaps the industry is trying to portray the
most conservative face so as to appease the luddites within our culture.
But in the long run, if they do not handle this well, it could make
the industry itself less credible in the long run. Unless and until they
administer rules that address the real issues of photographic integrity,
the industry will not be perceived to be credible in its own self-policing.
Mr. Schneider's awards were withdrawn because he was found to have edited
his photos, but it's not enough to just say that. There must be a
higher degree of standards in which he violated public trust. Adjusting
an image for artistic reasons is not enough, especially in light of the
fact that this type of editing has been done since photography was used
Organizations that grant these awards should try not to overstep their
bounds. Of course, there should be no alteration of imagery that would
change the perception of content or how a reasonable person might perceive
the news, but the it's the integrity of the news organization itself,
and the industry within which it resides, that maintains that level of
credibility. The awarding organization's job is not to establish the
"trustworthiness" of the photographers or the news bureau they work for.
Their only job is to determine whether any given image, however it may
appear in its final published form, is worthy of the award for which it
is being considered. Over-simplistic rules are not the answer.
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