Photo Manipulation Isn’t a Sin — But Lying About It Is

With technology making it so easy to profoundly alter photojournalistic images — deleting or adding items, changing the source of the lighting and so on — how can we, the audience, know that what we’re seeing is “the truth”?

The answer is, we can’t.

While it is commendable that Reuters and Adobe, for example, are working to make altered files more readily identifiable, let’s face it: it’s a losing battle. It will never adequately protect news consumers.

It Comes Down to Two People

Ultimately, preserving truth in editorial photography comes down to the same two people it always has — the photographer and the photo editor. If either of these two is ready to lie, there is no protection to be had.

The news audience would like to believe that our eyes don’t lie. That if we see it, it’s true. That a photograph is a faithful representation of a moment in time and space.

We’d like to believe it — but are we really kidding ourselves?

The reality is, the history of photojournalism is riddled with examples of altered images and outright fakes. And there is no clear line between professionally “improving” an image and unethically “manipulating” it.

Eugene Smith was notorious for spending long hours in his darkroom working on his prints. Did this undermine the authority of his work? Certainly not.

Others have cropped, enhanced, shadowed or even damaged their negatives. Robert Capa’s famous images of the D-Day landing might not have looked like that if they hadn’t been damaged. They look real enough.

So where is the limit, and who decides?

Again, it comes down to the photographer and the photo editor. But as our news coverage becomes more crowdsourced, and as editing barriers fall, replaced by automation, it is inevitable that our images will become less and less credible.

I am still amazed, for example, that the Iranian government did not blunt negative Twitter coverage by tweeting fake images by fake users showing the government’s side of the story. Next time it will happen; count on it.

Branding for Truth

The only way to preserve ethics in photojournalism is to have brands that value credibility. We trust (most of us, anyway) the New York Times for the veracity of its information; photo agencies and individual photographers could build their brands around credibility as well.

Does that mean that ethical photojournalists shouldn’t retouch their images? Not at all. It just means they shouldn’t lie about it.

The IPTC consortium could have photographers add an “R” for “retouched” to their image files, for example — making it easy to tag images as altered.

Beyond that, it will be up to audiences to be savvier in analyzing what they see. And it will be up to photographers to brand themselves as instruments of truth, if that’s what they want to be considered.

4 Responses to “Photo Manipulation Isn’t a Sin — But Lying About It Is”

  1. While I certainly hold Eugene Smith as one of the most powerful photojournalists of all time you need to have your eyes open wide on this topic. Even the cover of his famous book "Let the Truth be Prejudice" is one of the most famous manipulated photos ever in the history of "photojournalism."

    "Who was the greater sinner: LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith who, though his credo was “let truth be the prejudice,” had no compunction about using his darkroom wizardry to sandwich together two photos taken on different continents to add drama to a portrait of Albert Schweitzer; or L.A. Times photojournalist Brian Walski who used the PhotoShop wizard in his laptop to digitally combine elements of two photos taken seconds apart of a British soldier and Iraqi civilians outside Basra to create a more dramatic composition?"


  2. I need to follow up and say that my comment is to say with Life Magazine it did undermine his work. They wouldn't use that photo he manipulated--at least I think that is how it goes in the documentary film done on Smith.

    I know also he set up many of the situations in the Spanish Village from what the locals say about his visit there.

    I think in reality not all but some of the photojournalists like Smith we hold up are like our past US Presidents. We just were not aware of their mistresses like we were made aware of Clinton for example.

    I think the difference today and especially with the latest PhotoShop CS5 is how the proficiency for manipulating will no longer take the skills of a master printer like Eugene Smith to pull off, but almost anyone will be able to make photos that will look flawless to the trained eye.

  3. Comparing Ansel Adams' Moonrise image in a before and after state, as innocent as it was, shows dramatic difference thanks to darkroom magic.

  4. I am one of Eugene Smith's biggest fans. He was a pioneer, and he set a standard for all photojournalists after him. But you have to consider his work within the context of his time. It's not the 1950s any more. Some of his methods would not stand as ethical these days. Nor should they. Credibility is what's at stake.

    I both disagree and agree with the statement that it comes down to two people. I disagree because in many instances, if not a majority of the time, decisions about manipulation are made by managing editors and graphic designers after photo selections are made. It's a matter of visual illiteracy about photographs and the role they play in reporting the news. If photographs were always treated as news content and with the same respect as words, these transgressions would happen much, much less frequently, in my opinion.

    But I agree with the statement because it's largely up to photographers and photo editors to educate and enlighten others about the ethics of using photographs in the context of news. Somehow, we are going to have to become persuasive advocates. We have to find a way to be taken seriously instead of being seen as whiners and pompous artists in newsrooms. We have to take our case outside of the newsroom, too, and engage the public, our audiences, in these discussions.

    Like I said, credibility is at stake. If news organizations don't use photographs ethically, how can they be trusted sources of ANY information?

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