Every day, the trusting public looks at the work of photojournalists online, in magazines or in newspapers, assuming those visual representations of news events are truthful. These all-important images can inspire, spark debate or incite anger, action or even rebellion.
So what happens when an image is changed, whether through setting up a scene or through (digital) manipulation? There are dozens of software applications that can easily change a photograph to show whatever the creative mind of the manipulator wants it to show, for good or for ill.
The question of how a photo should be – if at all – manipulated for public consumption is debated appropriately through a recent photography show in New York City. The Bronx Documentary Center hosted a curated display entitled, "Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography,” which garnered national attention for its tricky yet important subject matter.
According to organizer and photographer Michael Kamber, he created the exhibit to show some of the most controversial examples of manipulated photojournalism. These photos ranged in time from as early as the American Civil War to this year’s World Press Photo contest. In that prestigious contest, some 20 percent of participants were disqualified for digitally altering their submitted images.
“The World Press Photo Contest must be based on trust in the photographers who enter their work and in their professional ethics,” said Lars Boering, the managing director of World Press Photo, in a statement about the contest controversy. “We now have a clear case of misleading information and this changes the way the story is perceived. A rule has now been broken, and a line has been crossed.”
A line, indeed, has been crossed. A photo cannot be changed digitally in any way other than cropping it for size for it to be considered true, accurate and fair to the viewer. Period. There is no way around this if you want to gain or keep the public’s trust and respect.
One thing that was notable from the exhibit is that several of these manipulated photos were caught because someone other than the photographer altered them. The photographer noticed the change right away in these cases and contacted the editor or publication to report the problem. But once the image is out there for the public’s consumption, the damage is done.
As a news reporter with more than 20 years of experience, I can say that I have worked with some of the finest photojournalists in the nation. I consider my years at The Detroit News among my most enjoyable, especially because of the photographers I worked with. The Photo Desk had a standard that was never doubted or questioned: You never set up a photo. Never.
What does “set up a photo” mean? It meant that you didn’t send a news photographer to a ribbon cutting; that wasn’t going to end up in our newspaper. You didn’t tell a source to prepare a “fake” scene for the photographer to capture. You didn’t give the photographer a set-up moment to show off the story’s central theme. If the story didn’t happen when the photographer was there, there was no story. A photo had to happen naturally – like the photographer was a fly on the wall and observed things as they happened, capturing the image as if you and that photojournalist were there together watching the story unfold.
I believed in that mantra then, and I still believe in it now. I trusted every image that I saw in the newspaper then, and I want to believe in every image that I see now. But when you see the problems that have come up within the photojournalism world because of digital manipulation, you see why this trust has been shaken.
If you think that I’m taking too strong a stance, let me back it up with comments from three photographers that I have worked with on a regular basis, all of whom say the same thing. If you see their photos, you should trust that they have been created honestly and without digital alteration. If you’re creating art, that is one thing and some changes from the original photo are to be expected. However, and they could not have been more adamant about this, if you are purporting to be a photojournalist and presenting news, that is something entirely different.
Jessica Muzik comes to the subject from two points of view. She is the Vice President of Account Services for Bianchi Public Relations, Inc., as well as the owner of Jessica Muzik Photography LLC. Her photographs have been published both online and used by news organizations.
“I don’t think one can lose more credibility as a photojournalist than to alter or set up photos,” Muzik said. “The public trusts photojournalists to capture real moments and timely events, not to compromise their ethics by altering an image to fit the needs of a particular media outlet.”
“In my line of work, I always say that what the media reports is considered 10 times more credible than any advertisement that can be placed because we trust that the media are objective in all matters and that includes photojournalists,” Muzik added. “If a photojournalist feels the need [to] alter or set up an image, that is not photojournalism, but rather photography.”
Asia Hamilton is the owner of Photo Sensei, a company that offers photography workshops to professionals and amateurs in several cities. Her goal in part is to help people in image-sensitive cities, including Detroit, show off their photo skills with respect to themselves and the community, demonstrating both their creativity and the city’s best assets.
Because Detroit often gets a bum rap when it comes to its “ruin porn,” or images of the city’s abandoned or burned out buildings, Hamilton often works with people to find other ways to highlight Detroit via her Photo Sensei classes. Thus, she too has a tough stance when it comes to manipulating an image within the news realm.
“I think photo altering is ok if the photography is art or editorial related,” Hamilton said. “However, photojournalism should not be altered because it is a documentation of facts. The news can only be trusted if it is completely factual.”
My favorite comment came from John F. Martin, a news photographer who has a commercial business that does work for news agencies as well as corporations.
“Staging or otherwise manipulating an image from a news event is lying, plain and simple. It's no different than a writer making up a quote. This was instilled in us on day one of journalism school (Ohio U, '96). It turns my stomach when I read about these seemingly increasing incidences,” Martin said.
That’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it? Photo manipulation has happened too much and too often. That’s reprehensible and cannot be allowed to stand. The situation has grown so dire that for-profit businesses have been established to find and expose photo manipulation.
The company in question is called Fourandsix Technologies Inc., and its founder Dr. Hany Farid recently introduced a new service, Izitru. Its purpose is to allow anyone who puts their images online to prove without a shadow of a doubt that these images are authentic. They can do this by allowing the photos to be tested, thereby receiving a Izitru “trust rating” for any viewers.
Yes, the world of photojournalism has come to that—a trust rating—frightening and unacceptable.