You probably saw the news story about the photograph recently purchased by Reuters that was discovered to have been altered. The photo shows the aftermath of an Israeli air strike on Beirut and it had been Photoshopped to make the smoke look bigger and darker. The photographer was fired, and his 900+ photographs were removed from Reuters database. Reuters has a zero tolerance policy for doctored photos, and I suppose that is the only stance they can possibly take, but I keep asking myself, what was the crime here? Why the outrage? I fake photography all day long. It’s called advertising. Why is advertising given a pass, while the news is forced to abide by some higher moral standard? All the photographer did was clone some of the smoke and increase the contrast. Big deal. With a little more skill, these changes could have been made in camera by adjusting the exposure and camera position. With a little more Photoshop skill, the photo never would have been questioned. Why was this photo so shocking, and why would an admission that photos in the news are altered be so controversial? In my opinion, the whole scandal has to do with a widespread misconception that a photograph = truth. Let me explain…
The smoke alteration is not the first news photo to be heavily criticized. Dartmouth University has a collection of examples showing photo “tampering” and provides brief descriptions outlining the offenses. The examples range from honest mistakes (color correction of a sunset), to unbelievable (see Oprah on the TV Guide cover), to intentionally misleading (John Kerry and Jane Fonda composite). Many of the examples are found in blatantly editorial situations where I would think there would be some leniency (the O.J. Simpson cover for example), but Dartmouth doesn’t cut them any slack. To them and many others like Reuters, faking a photograph is about the worst thing a photographer can do – even if the main content of the photo remains the same. If there is common trait that the collection shares it is that most of the fakery is easy to spot. If the only fakes that get caught are the ones that are done poorly, I can’t help but wonder how many good forgeries go by unnoticed.
If I had done the Photoshop work on the photo in question, nobody would have ever known that it was a fake. That level of Photoshop skill is nearly mandatory for any graphic designer. Since the alterations didn’t add anything controversial to the image it could be argued that the photographer is not being punished for altering a photo, but for altering a photo poorly. The result is that the flawed photo brings attention to a question that Reuters (and most news organizations) would prefer you didn’t ask: How much photography in the news is doctored? If we are realistic, we will come to the conclusion that much of the photography in the news is fake – or at least touched up to better tell the story.
It is relatively simple to doctor a photo and everybody knows it. The fact that the term “Photoshop it” is a part of the English vernacular shows just how accustomed to fake photography we have become. The interesting thing is that in the face of the massive amounts of doctored photos, most people still expect photos in the news to be unaltered. I think this has something to do with a human desire for photographs to be true. We know the cover photo of Teri Hatcher is touched-up but we don’t question it because we want her to look like that. Likewise when we see news stories that confirm our beliefs we want them to be true. As photo manipulation becomes easier and easier, there is an increase in the demand for photographs that confirm what people want to believe. The market responds by flooding the world with “fake” photography. Today people can believe almost anything they want and point to photography that “proves” their beliefs.
Reuters benefits from people who equate photography with truth because they are the ones “selling” the images. It comes as no surprise then that
they make policies that forbid any altering of photography. The problem with this strict stance is that it ignores the interpretive nature of photography. Cameras aren’t unbiased observers. Different photos of the same subject tell dramatically different stories. A photograph is as much of an editorial tool as the text that accompanies it. No matter how good intentioned an author of a news story is, a point-of-view is going to be represented in their story and the photo chosen to accompany the article is going to reflect that point of view. In the news business admitting that your organization has a point of view is taboo because it sounds much like the dirty words “bias” and “agenda.” Although I would argue that we don’t have much of a choice, I think it is better to have news organizations admitting they have an opinion than news organizations that pretend that they are selling truth.
I say we have no choice because “the news” is changing right before our eyes. Just look at the explosion in news sources. Whether it is the newspaper, blogs, talk radio, cable news, or podcasts, there are more options for news than ever before. We now have the ability to select the filter that we want our news to be delivered to us through. Conservative, liberal, patriotic, religious, comedy, nearly any slant you can imagine. News has little to do with truth and everything to do with providing the type of news that the market is asking for. The news has ceased to exist in black and white and is now a thousand shades of gray. You pick the shade that fits best with your world view. Another way of describing this is to say that the news has become entertainment. If the news is entertainment then news photography can play by “entertainment style” rules that aren’t concerned at all with truth.
At first glance, this seems like an admission that the news is entertainment is a tragedy. It makes you feel like some sacred institution has been corrupted. We long for the good old days when you could trust your eyes. Before we get to sentimental, we should realize that the news has always been motivated by things other than the pursuit of truth – they just hid their motives under a disguise of pseudo truth. Although it may seem like truth is harder to find than ever, at least now it is easier to see the disguises that try to manipulate it. One of the easiest way to manipulate the truth is through photography and perhaps that is why the Reuter’s controversy is resonating so loudly.
I have jumped around quite a bit in this post, so let me summarize with a paragraph to photographers and another paragraph for everyone else:
We need to be honest about the processes that are involved in creating our images. When alterations are made, we should clearly explain what was changed. Even when no alterations are made we should recognize our work as our *interpretation* of an event rather than try to pass them off as unquestionable truth. If we can shake the misconception that photography = truth we will be saved from the abuse that comes from being “exposed” for correcting our images. When we have an image that is controversial we need to be especially careful about the alterations that we make, and be prepared to prove the authenticity of the images.
To everyone else,
It is extremely hard to tell where entertainment ends and the news begins. There comes a point where the public has to take responsibility for how we process the photography and messages that we see and hear. It is not enough to let organizations like Reuters police themselves. Now that the news is delivered by countless different voices we have no choice but to be critical of everything we look at and listen to. We can no longer afford to accept news photography as factual data. We must be critical of all photography and evaluate it based on the context and reputation of the source. We also must accept that photography is an editorial tool and cut news organizations some slack when they use photography in editorial ways.
Unfortunately, the truth is not (and has never been) easy to find. Interpretation is hard, but ultimately we have no alternative. Perhaps the bright side of this gloomy picture is that our visual vocabulary and sensitivity will increase as a result of our increased scrutiny.