The Greater Good?

By John Long

The greater good. There is an entire system of ethics based on the concept. There is also another system that says there are hard and fast rules that apply in all cases. Ethics in this philosophical system are based on the rules, not on who or how many benefit. This is a totally simplistic description of these two ethical viewpoints, but it does go to the heart of many discussions over digital manipulation of the content of photographs.

Consider this case in point, from a story that was posted on the NPPA Web site:

[blurred team photograph cited in the article]

CARROLL, IA (September 1, 2007) - A posed team photograph taken by a photographer at the Carroll Daily Times Herald of the Carroll High School football players was digitally altered when it ran in the paper to obscure what the paper and the school deemed to be an obscene hand gesture.

An editor's note ran beneath the photograph:

"The above photo has been altered to remove hand gestures displayed by four members of the team. While we considered not publishing the photo, we felt it was not fair to the 51 young individuals who conducted themselves in a respectable manner."

Two competing “goods” are vying for prominence here:

  1. It is ethically wrong to alter the content of a newspaper photograph, so if you must run the photograph, run it as is.

  2. Taste demands that you do not run a photograph with obscene gestures that offend readers.

If you adopt the “rules” scenario, the answer is easy: You never change the content of a documentary photograph. If you adopt the “greater good” scenario, you must decide which “good” is more important, which ethical breach would cause the most harm, what is more “valuable,” maintaining the integrity of the photograph or not offending readers’ sensibilities over taste issues.

To my mind, changing the content of the photograph creates a visual lie and in my book, the “value” of honesty is far more important than the “value” of tastefulness. If the photograph must run, it must run as is. To do otherwise is to lie to your readers. Lying is the cardinal sin of journalism.

But, it might be argued, this is a posed portrait of the team. It is not a news photograph. It is a set up, a constructed photograph to begin with, so why not use the computer to adjust the content after the fact just as you arranged the kids to adjust the content before the shot was made? It comes down to another “value,” the value of “the moment.” Over the past almost 200 years since photography was invented, there have always been conventions by which we communicate visually, certain expectations we have come to accept. They may be grounded merely in convention but they are what allow us to define what makes an honest photograph.

In this day and age we believe that “the moment” as caught by the camera on film or digital media constitutes an honest photograph. That concept of “moment” is sacrosanct to our profession. You cannot change the content of that moment without creating a visual lie. This is not to say that “moment” defines “truth.” Accuracy of the symbolic elements in the photograph must also be considered, but if the content of an otherwise accurate documentary photograph is modified in the computer, it becomes a lie.

In reality I don’t care much what is done to high school team photographs but the principles must be upheld so we do not go down the slippery slope and start changing photographs that matter. Of what value would the Nick Ut photograph of the "napalm girl" in Vietnam be, if we covered her nakedness with a blurry spot? Of what value would the Robert Capa photograph of the dying soldier be, if we redacted his head? Of what value would the photograph of a dying Robert F. Kennedy be, if we blurred out his dying face so as not to invade his privacy in his moment of death?

Many of the photographs from Abu Ghraib were modified with blur spots. This was an insult to the integrity of the images. Whoever modified the images was saying, “I can look at these distasteful images but you can’t.” The blur diminished the impact and the veracity of the images. If it is important enough to run these photographs, then run them as is. The untouched photographs are the honest portrayals of the actual scene.

The documentary photograph is powerful and it gets its power from the fact that it is real, a real moment of history frozen in time for us to see and marvel at. Photographs allow us to participate in history as no generation has ever been able to do so. It is our duty as photojournalists and editors to protect the integrity of these moments and demand accuracy in every published frame.

One final note from the NPPA article: “Ann Wilson, the general manager and co-owner of the Carroll Daily Times Herald, said she strongly opposed re-shooting the photograph so as not to use more of the newspaper or the team's time and resources.” This was the same argument used by National Geographic in 1982 when they moved the pyramids closer together in order to squeeze a horizontal photograph into a cover format instead of sending the photographer back to Egypt to re-shoot the image vertically. Some things don’t change, “cost” as an excuse being one of them. Whatever happened to the idea that “If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right”?