Seeing is no longer believing
Manipulating digital images has never been easier or faster. But there's a fine line between 'improving' a photo and altering it.
The advertisement shows a photo of a smiling couple. Then right next to it sits the same photo, but this time the man is missing. "We can fix your photographs to match your life" reads the sign in the framing store.Skip to next paragraph
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Airbrushing individuals out of your life is not new. Joseph Stalin routinely erased personae non gratae from official photographs. As his dictatorship progressed, early communist comrades gradually disappeared to the point where Stalin's entourage started to look quite sparse at times.
Today, with the advent of inexpensive software, the manipulation of digital images is easier, faster, and harder to detect. As a result, the ethics of manipulation - the line between "improving" an image and altering it - are more vital to preserving public trust.
In photojournalism the rules are clear. To alter the content of a photograph "in any way that deceives the public" is wrong, says the digital manipulation code of ethics of the National Press Photographers Association.
Ideally, a photograph is the untouched, unmanipulated transcript of what was there. Except, says Larry Gross, everybody knows there are elements of selection built in. The co-editor of "Image Ethics in the Digital Age" lists cropping and the angle of the photograph as two other common means to alter editorial content.
For example, in April 2003, not long after the start of the war in Iraq, an iconic image of Saddam Hussein's statue being toppled in front of a crowd of cheering Iraqis was flashed around the news media and came to symbolize the justness of the war.
Shortly after, a series of photographs started to circulate on the Web showing the same shot and several others but with a wider angle. "You could see there was no crowd," says Mr. Gross, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication. "What looked in the first reports like this joyous crowd of Iraqis was in fact a very small number in a roped-off area." That fit with reports that this was a staged event with an artificially collected group, he says. What revealed the reality was the uncropped image.
In photography, "there is a real conflict between an ideology of unvarnished truth and the reality of a lot of varnishing," Gross notes. And the evidentiary quality associated with the medium is more threatened than ever by the digital revolution, he adds.
While manipulation is not restricted to massaging pixels, that still happens in photojournalism. A classic case two years ago ended with the firing of the photographer. Brian Walski, who was covering the war in Iraq for the Los Angeles Times, combined two photos taken moments apart to create a more striking image. He was caught when someone noticed a duplication in the picture.
Breaking that unspoken contract of trust with the public can be costly. It degrades the value of the publication, says Stephen Grote of the Art Institute of Atlanta. And as the Los Angeles Times director of photography, Colin Crawford, said at the time, "If our readers can't count on honesty from us, I don't know what we have left."
The public's image-naiveté is disappearing, however, as awareness grows of the ease with which a picture can be "Photoshopped" (now a verb from Adobe Photoshop editing software). Add to that the higher level of suspicion of institutions in general, says Gross, and it becomes more imperative to say, "We don't do that," and to have a zero-tolerance policy.
As the story of the photo of the statue illustrates, blogs and other forms of Internet communication have made it harder to get away with manipulation, because it's harder to contain information, Gross says.