Photo-Editing Ethics: Feature

The following is a feature I wrote on photo-editing ethics. I interviewed a local photographer and reporter Kelly Catana who has also contributed to the New York Times. I also researched recent and topical photo editing controversies that caused many publications to rethink their approach to photo editing software.

Photo Editing: Ethics in the Newsroom

Emma Tucker

A picture is worth 1000 words … But what about an edit?

The media is an institution burdened with heavy responsibility in terms of ethics. The mission of reporting the news objectively and wholly is something of the utmost importance if we are to progress into a fully transparent society. Like writers and editors, photojournalists are held to a standard of ethics. These rules cover a wide range of topics such as how a photographer should act while taking pictures, what he or she can and can’t photograph, and whether or how an image can be altered in the darkroom or with digital software.

The swift advances of technology put pressure on news editors to adjust to new ethical dilemmas every day. In particular, the realm of photo journalism has changed immensely with the introduction and advancement of photo editing software. Furthermore, these programs are widely accessible to every day citizens.

“You can change the meaning of a news photograph by cropping or changing the lighting,” said Kelly Catana, a photographer for the Press-Republican in Plattsburgh and also for the New York Times. “News photos just shouldn’t be touched.”

This brings to mind the public controversy after News Week and Time magazines both published the mug shot of O.J. Simpson on their covers after his arrest. Time magazine had significantly altered the lighting of the photo, darkening it almost to the point where Mr. Simpson’s features became invisible. While illustrator Matt Mahurin argued it was to make the photo ‘more artful, more compelling’ others complained that it made the subject look demonized. This controversy demonstrates how the most subtle things can change the context of photographs, and that edits should definitely be used sparingly where possible. What constitutes quality improvement or even creative licence versus altering the meaning of an image is an ethical decision an editor must decide.

The two covers featuring Mr. Simpson

Ms Catana does admit to using some simple editing techniques to improve photo quality, which she doesn’t believe changes the context. “I usually check the levels (contrast and brightness), and use an unsharp mask so the colors don’t bleed. But that’s all. I don’t think it alters the context when only used subtly; it just makes the photo clearer.”

An ‘unsharp mask’ is actually used to sharpen an image, contrary to what its name might lead you to believe.  Sharpening can help you emphasize texture and detail, and is critical when post-processing most digital images.

Deception should never be a part of the news, but perhaps there are times when an edit might be justified. “I took a photograph of Glen Race, a Canadian man who was charged with murdering 3 people, as he left the courtroom in Plattsburgh. I was called there in a rush and I wasn’t prepared. I got the photo, but it was incredibly blurry. It was, however, the only photograph anyone had that showed Race with his eyes open,” said Ms Catana. “We had to use the photo. It’s the only time I’ve edited a photograph to that extent, I had to decrease the blurriness and lighten the whole thing – but in this case, editing was needed to give the public news, rather than conceal it. In those types of cases I think it’s justified.”

Kelli Catana/Press Republican

In recent years, one of the biggest photojournalism scandals centred on Los Angeles Times photographer Brian Walski. Photo-Journalist Daniel Bersak explores this situation in his 2006 essay “Ethics in Photojournalism: Past, Present and Future”. Walski was embedded with a group of British soldiers in Iraq in early 2003. Walski took a set of photographs of soldiers protecting Iraqi citizens. In one frame, a British soldier is gesturing to a group of Iraqi citizens to take cover because they were taking incoming fire. In another frame, the same soldier is visible but not gesturing, and an Iraqi man is standing while holding a child. Walski digitally combined the two images together so that it appears that the soldier is telling the Iraqi man to “get down.”

Walski’s doctored image went appeared in newspapers around the country, including The Hartford Courant and the Chicago Tribune. The composite would have gone undetected had it not been for an employee at The Hartford Courant, who noticed that a person in the background appeared twice within the photograph (Bersak, 31).

Brian Walski’s original images and the composite (right)

When questioned about the editing, Walski admitted to it. The editor decided that despite Walski’s talent, to keep him at the publication would convey a poor message for the paper. The newspaper published a prominent apology and explanation, and Walski was taken out of the field and brought home. This controversy sparked a debate within the journalistic community; there were those who did not see the harm in Walski’s photo manipulation, especially since the resultant image significantly resembled the two other images from which it was constructed. Others, strongly opposed this position. Among the former voices was noted photographer Pedro Meyer. On his website, Meyer publicly blasted the Los Angeles Times:

“[The LA Times has] fired someone for doing a professional job in trying to come up with a better picture, the same way that any of their journalists polish a text so that it reads better and is succinct. (Why should a photographer be deprived of doing exactly the same that other professionals are doing on a daily basis as long as the information is not distorted?). The only explanation I can find is that by accusing the photographer and attempting to portray themselves as publishing “unmanipulated” news, they are seeking to conceal the factual reality of their biased and one-sided presentation of the overall news” (Bersak, 33).

There was a strong opposition to this point of view, however. Washington Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper responded to Meyer’s statement by writing:

“Any reporter worthy of the name would no sooner fiddle with direct quotes than a reputable photojournalist would alter his or her picture. Remember: news photographs are the equivalent of direct quotations and therefore are sacrosanct. Just as a writer can, in the interest of brevity or impact, choose which quotes to use in a story, so can a news photographer or picture editor crop out dead space in a news photo. But the key elements of a news photograph simply are off limits to manipulation” (Bersak, 34).

Though most any manipulation is clearly contrary to accepted ethical standards, Ms Catana’s editing of the photo of Mr. Race seems appropriate, as no information has been changed; only made clearer. Both of the subjects in Walski’s photos, however, were doctored to appear as if they were interacting in an exchange that never actually took place. The National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics reads in part:

“Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images … in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects” (Bersak, 33).

It appears that ethics is continually developing, and even with strict rules case-by-case decisions need to be made. This is a difficult task for editors, but nonetheless a strikingly important part of delivering the news in its entirety to the public.


One thought on “Photo-Editing Ethics: Feature

  1. Great article! First about me: I’m not a pro, I’m only a hobby photographer, who loves to document our time changing. Back to your article: for me, I believe making adjustments to sharpness, brightness or switching from colour to black and white, is OK in order to get better quality. If a photographer gets it right in the first place (I mean a perfect picture where everything is how it has to be), that is proof of proficiency. Nevertheless – as to be read in your article – some pros have to edit the picture because it’s just the only picture that exists (like Ms. Catalana who took the picture of Mr. Race). But assembling a picture, like Mr. Walski did as a press photographer is mistake. On the other hand, if he had clearly stated that he manipulated it, then it would be a great picture (so much I know, many pictures in WW1 were ‘directed’ by the early press photographers). But submitting it to a newspaper like that: no! Don’t get me wrong Mr. Walski makes great pictures, but… that shouldn’t have happened.
    It’s sometimes hard to determine if a photo is manipulated, and if manipulated it can turn out to be a masterpiece too. These days, the creator should reveal what it is, and he/she might be able to receive approval from the audience. These are my thoughts as an hobby photographer, who has lots of respect for those who do this professional.

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