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Photo ethics Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Fig. 1: Portland city skyline, adjusted for maximum effect. Pretty, no?

After a glorious weekend, we're back into wintry weather again here in Portland. Though the skies were fairly bright for most of yesterday, it rained and hailed on and off until the late afternoon. The clouds broke after dinner, though, so I took my camera up to one of my favorite vistas to see what I could find. Normally, Mt. Hood would be in the background of this shot, but the clouds were in the way this time.

What I really have on my mind today, though, is photo ethics. This probably isn't the best example to use, but it's what I have on hand: the lead photo (Fig. 1) is modified somewhat beyond what I would normally do, and beyond what I would consider ethical for photojournalism. I didn't go crazy or anything, but I did burn in the sky quite a bit for added drama. I probably could have done more if I
were more of a Photoshop wizard and had more time. Fig. 2, below, is what it would have looked like if I'd submitted it to a newspaper. And Fig. 3, for reference, is how it came out of the camera.

Fig. 2: Within the bounds of journalistic integrity.

Fig. 3: As it came out of the camera.

The topic of ethics in photojournalism has been a recurring theme in my short time in this profession. To be clear, the discourse that follows is about photojournalism. In the world of commercial and art photography, anything goes—as it should. Heck, an advertiser would use a pencil drawing of unicorns and dragons if it made their point. But in journalism, the rules are different.

As a member of the National Press Photographers Association, I subscribe to the NPPA code. The key point in this context is:

6. Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

That seems pretty straightforward to me: cropping, and minor dodging and burning (lightening or darkening areas of the photo) are alright, but you're not allowed to add or subtract anything that changes the picture. That includes burning to the extent that it hides elements of an image.

That's the topic of the latest "bust" in the world of photomanipulation. As Carrie Niland revealed in this blog post last week, a young, talented photographer made some pretty serious modifications to a football photo and won some pretty big awards with it. The issue came to my attention through this discussion on, and it is continued here.

Just to be clear, I've never met the photographer in question. I have no doubt that he's very gifted, and this post is not about picking on him. But to save you the trouble of looking it up, here's his website.

I remember seeing the photo in question a while back, and being impressed with it. It definitely stands out from the hundreds of post-game shots I see (and make) each year. It looks like it was shot at a night game with some kind of zoomed flash setup that isolated the subjects from the cacophony of the post-game scene—a pretty bold, risky choice when you've only got one chance at something.

In fact, the reality is far more ordinary.

Much of the discussion has asked why it matters if you do something after the fact in Photoshop that could have been done in the field. From my point of view, it's pretty simple: who's to say that that's what it would have looked like if you'd really done it? And if that's the way you expected it to look, why didn't you do it that way in-camera?

It seems to me that most of the cases of photo manipulation are about making the picture (and by extension, the photographer) seem better than it actually was. The bombing of a city not sufficiently spectacular? Add more smoke! Don't have a great action photo from the game? Add a ball! A key emotional moment usurped by flat light and background clutter? Just burn them out!

Ariel Reynolds leads a stream of Jefferson players and fans onto the court after the Democrats clinched their first state basketball championship Mar. 8 with a 67-58 win over Hermiston. Could this photo have been "improved" with Photoshop?

For me, knowing that this kind of photo manipulation is going on—and winning—in some of the contests that I enter is at the same time relieving and frustrating. On the one hand, it makes me feel better about the gulf between my images and some of the contest winners. On the other hand, you wonder "how am I supposed to compete with that?"

That's what I mean when I say that Photoshop is to photojournalism as drugs are to sport. I can understand how athletes feel pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs when it seems like all of the top competitors are. But Photoshopping, like using drugs, is a shortcut to the top. Both distort reality and make your performance better than it otherwise would have been.

That brings me back to the point: in the world of commercial photography (as in the WWE), it's only the end result that matters. It doesn't matter how you get there.

In photojournalism, though, the point is to make a truthful representation of the scene. As photojournalists, we are there to document reality, not make reality seem better than it is. Yes, you want to make the pictures as visually interesting as possible, but photos are visual quotes—you don't get to change them to make them fit the story you want to tell.

What it all comes down to is trust of the audience: as a journalist, that's about all that separates you from gossip and urban legend. If the readers can't trust that your photos reflect reality, what's the point?

OK, I'm off the soapbox now.


Granny said...

Your comments on the photography were most interesting - I hadn't realised that people in this field also cheat when necessary. Granny

Matthew said...

To be clear, this kind of "cheating" remains--as far as I know--definitely the exception and not the rule. And, in the case that spurred my post, seems to be limited to contest entries. His football photo ran properly in the newspaper (which is how the modifications were spotted).

In instances where photographers did deliberately improve photos for the newspaper (such as those linked in the text), they were fired, had all of their images expunged from the AP archives, and will have a hard time finding this kind of work again.

Even though these cases are the exception and not the rule, even that is enough to tarnish the reputation of all of us, and make the public skeptical of any spectacular image. That hurts us all.