Why Is “Photo Illustration” a Dirty Word in Journalism?


Most photojournalists are not crazy about “photo illustrations” — the only category of newsroom artwork that permits substantial photo manipulation. In fact, many news photographers flat out hate them.

Why the animosity? Two reasons:

1. Photo illustrations are viewed as dishonest unless the manipulation is obvious to the reader.

2. Photo illustrations are seen as the art department’s “easy way out” — elevating flash over substance and graphic design over visual reportage.

The Orlando Sentinel’s policy on photo illustrations is typical of most U.S. newspapers. It states:

The combination of photography and illustration to create a “photo illustration” is acceptable in cases in which the subject matter is complex, abstract or difficult to convey through documentary photography. However, all photo illustrations must contain an element of the absurd so exaggerated that the image could not be confused with a documentary photo. These pieces must be labeled as photo illustrations, and their use must be approved by a supervising design or photo editor.

But does it have to be this way?

Or, at a time when photojournalists are increasingly under fire for manipulating images with Photoshop, should the profession actually embrace the photo illustration?

After all, if photo illustrations were not required to contain an “element of the absurd,” and if the stigma were removed from the term itself, wouldn’t photojournalists have less incentive to lie?

Time Magazine’s Conceptual Covers

Certainly, not all news organizations take the fundamentalist approach of most newspapers. Some of Time Magazine’s most talked-about covers of recent years are photo illustrations that do not contain an “element of the absurd” — the darkened O.J. cover, for example, or the Reagan cover featuring a Photoshopped tear. Time defends these as “conceptual” images that better illustrate the story than an unmanipulated photograph.

Veteran newspaper photojournalist Mark M. Hancock, formerly of the Dallas Morning News, believes such manipulation is not appropriate for a news environment.

In a news environment, photo illustrations should be deliberate and obvious. A pig riding a flaming motorcycle while juggling sharks is a photo illustration … No news image is made “more important” through digital manipulation. The manipulated images and the people who create them have cheated authentic photojournalists and the public.

Embracing the Photo Illustration

Longtime Black Star photographer Michael Coyne, however, thinks it’s time for photojournalists to embrace the photo illustration.

Here’s his argument:

I think that images used in publications, especially news media outlets, should have some sort of symbol, sign or comment notifying the viewer that the images have been manipulated if that is the case. Once we are open and honest about which images are manipulated, and the term “photo illustration” is common practice, then there will be less incentive for the photojournalist to be deceptive.

We have always been able to alter images; it has been happening since photography was invented. It is only since the advent of Photoshop that we have had this fundamentalist attitude about changing photographs. In fact, before Photoshop, it was considered OK to change the images in the darkroom, burn, dodge, crop, print excessively dark to give a different mood, or sandwich two negatives for a double exposure. We don’t have to look any further than the great photography legend W. Eugene Smith to see all of these tools being applied.

I believe that when a photojournalist is shooting news, they should photograph the event in the same way it would happen as if they weren’t there. Obviously, when photographing non-candid portraits there is a certain amount of setting up by the photographer, so they have a lot more latitude about how they approach their subject. But when a photographer shoots a situation — e.g., sets up an ambush, asks a soldier to start shooting his gun at the enemy or removes objects in the image that can change the meaning of the picture — then I believe it is photo illustration and should be declared so.

As long as the photographer reveals that they have adjusted or altered the image and calls it “photo illustration,” then I have no problem with the picture. Let us accept and embrace the term … and acknowledge that there are certain circumstances where it has, does and will always happen. It may be that the photographer feels that this is necessary to show the viewers the totality of a situation.

What do you think?

Tomorrow: The Case Against Photo Illustrations

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


2 Responses to “Why Is “Photo Illustration” a Dirty Word in Journalism?”

  1. Too late to protest, this boat has sailed. More and more, the focus on "selling the product" means design counts for more than the content does. So if a designer wants to manipulate a photo out of existence, ain't no-one up the food chain going to stop them.

  1. [...] Is ‘Photo Illustration’ a Dirty Word in Journalism,” by Scott Baradell, June 22, 2008, http://rising.blackstar.com/why-is-photo-illustration-a-dirty-word-in-journalism.html, “The Case Against Photo Illustrations,” by Scott Baradell, June 23, 2008, [...]

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