In an attempt to acknowledge that a photographic image online can and should be treated differently than a photograph on paper, during a 2004 keynote speech at the World Press Photo Awards ceremony in Amsterdam, I proposed that we consider digitally embedding specific kinds of information in the four corners of a photograph that would better contextualize the image and provide the photographer with a greater degree of authorship.
The information could be in the form of text, audio, video, more photographs or any other medium that would be appropriate. The information could also include a photographer’s code of ethics, the first time in history that a reader would be able to immediately know by simply clicking on the photographer’s name whether a photographer manipulates the image with software or sets up photographs.
The idea was to give photographers, whenever it seemed appropriate, the ability to contextualize their own images so that wherever a photograph was published or republished on the internet, the essential meanings of the image would be put in context by the person who authored it.
Lars Boering, the director of World Press Photo Foundation, endorsed my proposal more than a decade later in 2015 at a conference at Columbia University. Since then the International Center of Photography, where I am dean of the school, has collaborated with World Press Photo and the Open Lab at Newcastle University in England, which has been responsible for the project’s technical development, to bring this to fruition.
The result is the Four Corners project. How does it work? By rolling over each corner of an image with a cursor, the reader is able to find out more about the photograph:
• The lower left corner of the photograph contains the Back Story, with context provided by the photographer, the subject, a witness or other sources.
• The upper left corner contains the Image Context, where photographs made before and after, a video of the scene or a comparative image could be presented.
• The upper right corner has the Links to online articles, videos, maps and other information.
• The bottom right corner is where the reader finds the Caption, Credit, Copyright (or Creative Commons license) and a Code of Ethics.
For example, if Four Corners were to be used on Eddie Adams’ famous 1968 photograph of the execution of a member of the Viet Cong, the Back Story in the lower left corner might explain why Adams felt that the photograph was like he had “killed the general with my camera.” The Image Context in the upper left corner can show photographs made before and after as well as the video of the execution.
The Links in the upper right corner can point to more information on that particular event and on the Vietnam War through Wikipedia or various articles, and Australian television journalist Neil Davis, who was present at the shooting, can give his take on the justification for what happened in a video. And the bottom right corner can provide the more conventional Caption, Copyright and Credit, adding as well the Code of Ethics of The Associated Press, which Adams would have been expected to follow.
For the Code of Ethics, photographers are encouraged to write their own, simply and to the point, making them comprehensible to the reader who clicks on the photographer’s name in the credit. Photographers can also simply link to the NPPA code of ethics. If a photographer writes his or her own code, it could be like these simple examples:
• “While all photography is interpretive, as a photojournalist my photographs are meant to respect the visible facts of the situations I depict. I do not add or subtract elements in my photographs.”
• “As a fashion photographer, I do not photograph underweight models whose body mass index is lower than that established by health authorities.”
• “As a wildlife photographer all of my photographs depict animals in the wild unless specified otherwise.”
• “As a fine art photographer, I may alter my images in pursuit of my own artistic vision.”
In an era of “fake news,” “alternative facts” and “post-truth,” it is all the more essential that photographers’ images be contextualized as much as possible by the person who made the photograph. But this is not meant to create an additional burden on an already overworked photographer; editors, reporters and photo agents can collaborate in providing the information for the Four Corners. Nor is there any expectation that this strategy will be used most of the time; it can be reserved for special projects where it would be helpful.
Eventually, we would like to embed a digital contract in one of the four corners to make it easier to buy and sell photographs online. We are also talking about ways to establish whether the photograph has been digitally manipulated and also to provide a public forum for discussion around the image.
Right now, the technical challenge is to make sure that the metadata in the four corners are not stripped out by browsers and remain intact. Once this is finalized, the Four Corners system will be released as open source. For a preview, you can find information about Four Corners and the initial coding that can be used for WordPress at fourcorners.io.
Fred Ritchin is dean of the International Center of Photography School. He is also the 2017 recipient of the NPPA’s John Long Ethics Award and is the author of “In Our Own Image,” a book that 27 years ago outlined how the digital age would transform visual journalism.