The Case Against Photo Illustrations

On Monday, we laid out a case for embracing the photo illustration as a legitimate product of photojournalism — rather than the profession’s redheaded stepchild. Perhaps, as Michael Coyne articulated, “once we are open and honest about which images are manipulated, and the term ‘photo illustration’ is common practice … there will be less incentive for the photojournalist to be deceptive.” Furthermore, perhaps there are cases where “the photographer feels [it] is necessary to show the viewers the totality of a situation.”

While other photojournalists and academics we interviewed shared Michael’s concerns about the integrity of photojournalism as a profession, the consensus was that broadening the use and acceptance of photo illustrations would only make the problem of photo manipulation worse — and would do little to help readers find the truth in what they were seeing.

Here are a few of the comments we received on this topic from Black Star Rising contributors:

David Weintraub, photography instructor at the University of South Carolina —

Photo illustration, along with other terms, is meaningless, in my opinion — because the reading/viewing public doesn’t have a clue what it means. It’s a shorthand way of saying, “This photo is a lie, but we want you to believe it, so we put a disclaimer, usually in tiny type, to make ourselves feel ethical.” Hooey!

Mark M. Hancock, freelance photojournalist and former newspaper staffer —

A pig riding a flaming motorcycle while juggling sharks is a photo illustration. Digitally removing a soda can from an image is simply a lie. Minimizing the photo illustration term and allowing photojournalists to digitally manipulate images or set up images is contrary to journalism and truth. The notion of lowering this standard is a ridiculous, destructive idea. It promotes lies and punishes truth.

Heather S. Hughes, freelance photojournalist and former newspaper staffer —

A “photo illustration” must be clearly fake or else it is not acceptable. As a newspaper or news organization, it is our job to report on reality and facts, and when we need to resort to an illustration because there is no way to visually tell the reality then it needs to be obvious, so that the reader who doesn’t read the “photo illustration” tag or know what that means will still know that it is a fake photo.

A little burning or softening of edges is not obvious enough; that is just manipulation and most readers will not know the difference. It should always be over the top so that no caption is needed to point out the deception. It should not become commonplace and should only be used as a last resort.

Too often it is used as a lazy way to illustrate a story due to a lack of planning or communication in the newsroom. I don’t have a problem with photo illustrations in the newspaper — I have seen some that do a very good job of visually telling the story — but our job should always be to document reality whenever possible.

Mike Fox, San Francisco-based freelance photojournalist —

I think that the term “photo illustration” would act as an excuse for photojournalists to manipulate more so that they can get more of their work printed, and, therefore, paid more. I really don’t think that words will deter photographers from going astray.

Dennis Dunleavy, communications professor at Southern Oregon University —

We have entered a time that calls for the viewer to become much more visually sophisticated. Labeling a picture “photo illustration” may not be enough. It may come down to the point where news organizations avoid the practice, especially in a news context, altogether … Digital photography has pushed us to reconsider what had been the irrepressible faith people gave pictures as a factual account or evidence of reality …

It remains difficult if not impossible for the news industry to restore public confidence in its role as the arbiter of the so-called “truth” in a digital age. Trust and credibility reside at the heart of journalistic integrity, and I am afraid that we have burned too many bridges in terms of public perception.

On the other hand, since many of the credibility-damaging controversies over photo manipulation have originated with skeptical bloggers taking the time to study individual pixels in Photoshop, might it not help to satisfy this increasingly influential audience to introduce labels like “photo illustration,” along with accompanying explanatory detail, where appropriate?

Brian Ledbetter, a tough critic of photojournalistic ethics on his Snapped Shot blog, extends this idea beyond digital manipulation to the practice of photo staging — and the issue of media bias generally:

As far as improving the industry goes, I’d like to see a stronger distinction between “news” reporting and “advocacy” reporting … especially if the news agencies themselves are as concerned as they claim to be about more than a mere glossy coating of “impartiality” in their reporting. Whenever photographers encounter situations which are either abjectly manipulated by the subjects, set up ahead of time by “media coordinators” … or otherwise not a totally genuine scenario, there probably ought to be a notation to that effect in the caption.

What do you think?

[tags]photojournalism ethics, photo illustrations, newspapers[/tags]

3 Responses to “The Case Against Photo Illustrations”

  1. I honestly think it doesn't matter. If there's a problem with trust now, there's no reason to think people will trust the labeling. It will just make them wonder what's been hidden or changed and why -- leading to even more conspiracy theories than there already are, unfortuantely.

  2. As long as designers have more value than either photographers or writers, the illustration will reign.
    Of course, there are also those nice photo agencies who pushed design by merging two or more photographers work, taking the copyright for themselves, and paying pennies for the product.
    Is it any wonder so many photographers are hanging up the shutters?

  3. I think the whole issue is we need to define what a photo illustration is. From these two columns, it seems as tho everyone is only defining it as something that has been photoshopped. My PS skills aren't fabulous when it comes to doing photo illustrations. I do most of mine in the studio, and its always an assignment involving something that wouldn't normally happen in real life, so you can't really capture it as an image in the world. Whether its something involving food, or people, or an idea; I'm trying to illustrate a concept that can be vague. And I shoot everything for my paper; news, sports, features. But I have a clear line between illustrations and everything else. And frankly, I enjoy doing the occasional illustration for the paper, I get a chance to be creative in a different way.

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