NPPA Special Report: Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography

One of the major problems we face as photojournalists is the fact that the public is losing faith in us.

Disclaimers:

 

  1. My purpose is not to give answers. My purpose is to provide you with a vocabulary so you can discuss the ethical issues that may arise when using computers to process photographs. I also want to present the principles I have found helpful when trying to make decisions of an ethical nature. I do not expect everyone to agree with me. I want you to think about the issues and arrive at your own conclusions in a logical and reasoned manner.

  2. The advent of computers and digital photography has not created the need for a whole new set of ethical standards. We are not dealing with something brand new. We merely have a new way of processing images and the same principles that have guided us in traditional photojournalism should be the principles that guide us in the use of the computers. This fact makes dealing with computer related ethics far less daunting than if we had to begin from square one.

 

John Long
NPPA Ethics Co-Chair and Past President
September 1999

We have many problems in journalism today that threaten our profession and in fact threaten the Constitution of our country. Photo-ops, lack of access to news events, rock show contracts, yellow tape and bean counters are just a few. Everyone has a spin; everyone wants to control the news media. We are under attack from all sides.

One of the major problems we face as photojournalists is the fact that the public is losing faith in us. Our readers and viewers no longer believe everything they see. All images are called into question because the computer has proved that images are malleable, changeable, fluid. In movies, advertisements, TV shows, magazines, we are constantly exposed to images created or changed by computers. As William J. Mitchell points out in his book, The Reconfigured Eye, Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, we are experiencing a paradigm shift in how we define the nature of a photograph. The Photograph is no longer a fixed image; it has become a watery mix of moveable pixels and this is changing how we perceive what a photograph is. The bottom line is that documentary photojournalism is the last vestige of the real photography.

Journalists have only one thing to offer the public and that is credibility. This is the first vocabulary word I want you to remember, and the most important. Without credibility we have nothing. We might as well go sell widgets door to door since without the trust of the public we cannot exist as a profession.

Credibility - some questions to ask

  1. In what Context is the photo being used?

  2. Is the photograph a Fair and Accurate Representation of the information being presented?

  3. Does this photograph Deceive the reader?

Our credibility is damaged every time a reputable news organization is caught lying to the public and one of the most blatant and widely recognized cases was the computer enhancement of the TIME Magazine cover photo of O. J. Simpson. TIME took the mug shot of Simpson when he was arrested and changed it before using it on their cover. They would not have been caught if NEWSWEEK had not used the same photo on their cover photo just as it had come from the police. The two covers showed up on the news stands next to each other and the public could see something was wrong.

TIME darkened the handout photo creating a five o'clock shadow and a more sinister look. They darkened the top of the photo and made the police lineup numbers smaller. They decided Simpson was guilty so they made him look guilty. (There are two issues here: one is a question of photographic ethics and the other is a question of racial insensitivity by TIME in deciding that blacker means guiltier. The black community raised this issue when the story broke and needs to be the subject of another article. My concern is with the issue of photographic ethics).

In an editorial the next week, TIME's managing editor wrote, "The harshness of the mug shot - the merciless bright light, the stubble on Simpson's face, the cold specificity of the picture - had been subtly smoothed and shaped into an icon of tragedy." In other words, they changed the photo from what it was (a document) into what they wanted it to be. TIME was making an editorial statement, not reporting the news. They presented what looked like a real photograph and it turned out not to be real; the public felt deceived, and rightly so. By doing this, TIME damaged their credibility and the credibility of all journalists.

In order to have a rational, logical discussion of ethics, a distinction needs to be drawn between ethics and taste. Ethics refers to issues of deception, or lying. Taste refers to issues involving blood, sex, violence and other aspects of life we do not want to see in our morning paper as we eat breakfast. Not everyone defines taste-ethics this way but I find it useful. Issues of taste can cause a few subscription cancellations and letters to the editor but they tend to evaporate in a few days. Ethics violations damage credibility and the effects can last for years. Once you damage your credibility, it is next to impossible to get it back.

 

The photo of the dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu raises issues of taste, not issues of ethics. This photo is a fair and accurate representation of what happened in Somalia that day (I hesitate to use the word "truthful." Truth is a loaded concept, open to personal interpretation. What is true for one person may not be true for another. I prefer to use the terms "fair and accurate." These terms are more precise, though not completely without debate over their meaning).

 

 

If we are to use this photo, a photo that is ethically correct but definitely of questionable taste (no one wants to see dead American soldiers in the newspaper), we need to have a compelling reason. Earlier I mentioned I would give you some principles that I find useful and this is the first: If the public needs the information in the photo in order to make informed choices for society, then we must run the photo. We cannot make informed choices for our society unless we have access to fair and accurate information. A free society is based on this right. It is codified in our country as the First Amendment. We have to know what is happening in our towns, in our country, in our world, in order to make decisions that affect us as a society. The First Amendment does not belong to the press, it belongs to the American people. It guarantees all of us the right to the fair and accurate information we need to be responsible citizens.

We needed to see the dead soldier in the streets so we could make an informed choice as a country as to the correctness of our being in Somalia. Words can tell us the facts but photos hit us in the gut. They give us the real meaning, the deep and emotional impact of what was happening much better than words can. As a society we decided that we needed to leave that country.

I feel bad for the family of the soldier but sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. In our country, we have the right to our privacy (usually the Sixth Amendment is cited) but we also have to live together and act collectively. This need is addressed by the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Honest photographs can have an ethical dimension when it concerns the personal ethics of the photographer. Did the photographer violate some ethical standard in the process of making the picture?

For example, take the very famous photo of the young child dying in Sudan while a vulture stands behind her, waiting. It was taken by Kevin Carter who won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo (a photo that raised a lot of money for the relief agencies). He was criticized for not helping the child; he replied there were relief workers there to do that. After receiving his Pulitzer, Kevin Carter returned to Africa and committed suicide. He had a lot of problems in his life but, with the timing of the sequence of events, I cannot help thinking there is a correlation between his photographing the child and his suicide.

This is the kind of choice all journalists will face some time in his or her career; maybe not in the extreme situation that Carter faced, but in some way, we all will be faced with choices of helping or photographing. Some day we will be at a fire or a car accident and we will be called upon to put the camera down and help. It is a good idea to think about these issues in advance because when the hour comes, it will come suddenly and we will be asked to make a choice quickly.

Here is the principle that works for me. It is not a popular one and it is one that many journalists disagree with but it allows me to sleep at night. If you have placed yourself in the position where you can help, you are morally obligated to help. I do not ask you to agree with me. I just want you to think about this and be prepared; at what point do you put the camera down and help? At what point does your humanity become more important than your journalism?

It is time to get back to the theme of this report - the ethics involved with the use of computers to process images.

I like the Weekly World News. It provides a constant source of photos for these discussions about ethics. One of the more famous front pages shows a space alien shaking hands with President Clinton. It is a wonderful photo, guaranteed to make the career of any photographer who manages to get an exclusive shot of this event.

We can laugh at this photo and I have no real problem with the Weekly World News running such digitally created photos because of the context of where this photo is running. This is the second of the vocabulary words I want to give you: CONTEXT. Where the photo runs makes all the difference in the world. If this same photo ran on the front page of the New York Times, it would damage the credibility of the Times. In the context of the Weekly World News, it cannot damage their credibility because that newspaper does not have any credibility to begin with (it seems we need to create a new set of terms when we can refer to the weekly World News and the New York Times both as newspapers).

Context becomes a problem when we find digitally altered photos in reputable publications, and there have been many. For example, the cover of TexasMonthly once ran a photo of then Governor Ann Richards astride a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle. It came out that the only part of the photo that was Ann Richards was her head. The body on the motorcycle belonged to a model and the head of the governor was electronically attached to the model.

On the credit page in very small type, the editors claimed they explained what they had done and that this disclosure exonerated them.

They wrote:

Cover Photograph by Jim Myers
Styling by Karen Eubank
Accessories courtesy of Rancho Loco, Dallas;
boots courtesy of Boot Town, Dallas;
motorcycle and leather jacket courtesy of Harley-Davidson, Dallas;
Leather pants by Patricia Wolfe
Stock photograph (head shot) By Kevin Vandivier / Texastock

In the first place this was buried on the bottom of a page very few people look at, in a type size few over 40 can read and was worded in a way as to be incomprehensible.

Secondly, my feeling is that no amount of captioning can forgive a visual lie. In the context of news, if a photo looks real, it better be real. This photo looked real but it was a fake. We have an obligation to history to leave behind us a collection of real photographs. This photo of Ann Richards entered into the public domain and on the day she lost her reelection bid, AP ran the photo on the wire for its clients. AP had to run a mandatory kill when they were informed it was not a real photo.

Written Lies

Janet Cooke was a reporter at the Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for a story she wrote about an eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. The Prize was taken back and she was fired when it was discovered that she made up the story. Can you imagine if the Post put a disclaimer in italics at the end of the story when it first ran, that said something along these lines: "We know this exact kid does not exist but we also know this kind of thing does happen and so we created this one composite kid to personalize the story. Even though Jimmy does not exist you can believe everything else we wrote." The Post would have been the laughing stock of the industry and yet this is what TexasMonthly is doing by captioning away a visual lie. You have to have the same respect for the visual image as you have for the written word. You do not lie with words, nor should you lie with photographs.

In one of the early Digital Conferences, the Rev. Don Doll, S.J. pointed out that there are degrees of changes that can be done electronically to a photograph. There are technical changes that deal only with the aspects of photography that make the photo more readable, such as a little dodging and burning, global color correction and contrast control. These are all part of the grammar of photography, just as there is a grammar associated with words (sentence structure, capital letters, paragraphs) that make it possible to read a story, so there is a grammar of photography that allows us to read a photograph. These changes (like their darkroom counterparts) are neither ethical nor unethical - they are merely technical.

Changes to content can be Accidental or Essential (this is an old Aristotelian distinction)- Essential changes change the meaning of the photograph and accidental changes change useless details but do not change the real meaning. Some changes are obviously more important than others. Accidental changes are not as important as Essential changes, but both kinds are still changes.

If you had a photograph of a bride and groom and removed the groom, this would constitute an essential change because it would change the meaning of the photograph. (In fact, there are companies that will provide this service if you get a divorce. I guess the wedding book would end up looking like the bride got all dressed up and married herself.)

In the photos of the ladies on the parade float, the first photo has a set of wires running behind the ladies. In the second photo, the lines have been removed.

(Roll over the photo to see the altered second photo)

It takes only a few seconds with the cloning tool in PhotoShop to remove these lines. Removing the lines is an Accidental change, a change of meaningless details. If we had changed the flag to a Confederate flag, or removed a couple of the ladies, this would have changed the meaning of the photo and it would have been an essential change. But if we just remove the lines, what is the big deal? Who is harmed? As far as I am concerned, we are all harmed by any lie, big or small.

I do not think the public cares if it is a little lie or a big lie As far as they are concerned, once the shutter has been tripped and the moment has been captured on film, in the context of news, we no longer have the right to change the content of the photo in any way. Any change to a news photo - any violation of that moment - is a lie. Big or small, any lie damages your credibility.

The reason I get so adamant when I discuss this issue is that the documentary photograph is a very powerful thing and its power is based on the fact that it is real. The real photograph gives us a window on history; it allows us to be present at the great events of our times and the past. It gets its power from the fact that it represents exactly what the photographer saw through the medium of photography. The raw reality it depicts, the verisimilitude makes the documentary photo come alive. Look at the photo of Robert Kennedy dying on the floor of the hotel in California; look at the works of David Douglas Duncan or the other great war photographers; look at the photo of Martin Luther King martyred on the balcony of a motel in Memphis. The power of these photographs comes from the fact they are real moments in time captured as they happened, unchanged. To change any detail in any of these photographs diminishes their power and turns them into lies. They would no longer be what the photographer saw but what someone else wanted the scene to be. The integrity of the Moment would be destroyed in favor of the editorial concept being foisted, as is the case in the O. J. Simpson TIME cover.

There have been many cases of digital manipulation over the past 20 years or so, the first of note being the famous pyramids cover of National Geographic in 1982. National Geographic had a horizontal photo of the pyramids in Egypt and wanted to make a vertical cover from it. They put the photo in a computer and squeezed the pyramids together - a difficult task in real life but an easy task for the computer. They referred to it as the "retroactive repositioning of the photographer," (one of the great euphemisms of our age) saying that if the photographer had been a little to one side or the other, this is what he would have gotten. The photographer was not 10 feet to the right and he did not get the photo they wanted so they created a visual lie. They damaged their credibility and (as I said before) taste issues have a short life span, ethics issues do not go away. Here we are almost 20 years later and we are still talking about what Geographic did.

Sports Illustrated recently produced a special edition for Connecticut on the UConn National Championship basketball season. In one photo, they showed a star player, Ricky Moore, going up for a lay up with another player, Kevin Freeman, in the frame. They also used the same photo on the cover of the regular edition of the magazine, cropped tighter but with Kevin Freeman removed. I guess he cluttered up the cover, so he was expendable.

The point I want to make here is that, if Sports Illustrated had not used the same photo twice, they would not have been caught. The computer allows for seamless changes that are impossible to see and, if you shoot with an electronic camera, you do not even have film to act as a referent. How many times has Sports Illustrated or TIME or NEWSWEEK or any of a long list of newspapers and magazines changed a photo and we the reading public not known about it? This is the Pandora's Box of the computer age.

It is not just in the computer that photographers and editors can lie. We can lie by setting up photos or by being willing partners to photo ops. These things are as big, if not bigger, threats to our profession as the computers. The L. A. TIMES ran a photo of a fireman dousing his head with water from a swimming pool as a house burned in the background. In doing preparations for contest entries, they discovered that the photographer had said to the fireman something along the lines of, "You know what would make a good photo? If you went over by the pool and poured water on your head." The photo was a set up. It was withdrawn from competition and the photographer was disciplined severely.

This is as much a lie as what can be done in PhotoShop. Neither is acceptable.

"A Day in the Life" series of books has a long history of manipulated covers. In A Day in the Life of California, for example, the photo was shot on a gray day as a horizontal. The hand came from another frame; the surfboard was moved closer to the surfer's head and the sky was made blue to match his eyes. They had about 30,000 images to pick from and could not find one that looked like California to them, so they had to create an image- an image of what they wanted California to look like.

The list can go on for pages: NEWSWEEK straightened the teeth of Bobbi McCaughey, the mother of the sextuplets; NEWSDAY ran a photo supposedly showing Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding skating together a day before the event really happened; PEOPLE ran a photo of famous breast cancer survivors made from five separate negatives; The St. Louis Post Dispatch removed a Coke can from a photo of their Pulitzer Prize winner. This just scratches the surface. How many cases have not become known? The cumulative effect is the gradual erosion of the credibility of entire profession and I am not sure we can win this war. We are being bombarded from all sides, from movies, television, advertisements, the Internet, with images that are not real, that are created in computers and documentary photojournalism is the victim.

We may be in a death-struggle but the end is worth fighting for. Real photos can change the hearts and minds of the people. Real photographs can change how we view war and how we view or society. Vietnam is a prime example. Two photos sum up that war: the Nick Ut photo of the girl burned by napalm running naked down the street and the Eddie Adams photo of the man being executed on the streets of Saigon. These photos changed how we perceived that war. They are powerful and they get their power from the fact that they are real Moments captured for all time on film.

No one has the right to change these photos or the content of any documentary photo. It is our obligation to history to make sure this does not happen.

John Long
NPPA Ethics Co-Chair and Past President
September 1999

Selected Booklist to accompany "Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography."

  • Paul Lester, Photojournalism, An Ethical Approach, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers; Hillsdale, N. J. (published 1991)

  • Fred Ritchin, In Our Own Image, Aperture Press, 20 East 23 rd St., New York, N.Y. 10010 (published 1990)

  • Dave LaBelle, Lessons in Life and Death, Dave LaBelle, P.O. Box 906, Blackshear, GA 31516 (published privately 1993)

  • William J. Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye, Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (published 1992)

  • Jay Black, Bob Steele, Ralph Barney, Doing Ethics in Journalism, Society of Professional Journalists, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, second edition (published 1995)