In the wild days of yellow journalism, manipulated photos were common. Hearst newspapers and the New York Evening Graphic were among the more notorious for the altered images they printed in the early decades of the 20th century while claiming that the pictures were genuine and un-retouched.
Journalistic standards have changed for the better since that era of anything-goes photojournalism. But photo manipulation is not yet extinct. In fact, photo manipulation is much easier now in an era of photo-editing computer software than it was when an air brush was a principal tool of retouching.
Among the more infamous altered news photos of recent times are the following:
- A photo of the dead Osama bin Laden published on the Internet on May 2, 2011, was reputedly a doctored image, part of which was an archived picture of his face pasted onto another individual's body. This marriage of two separate images became an iconic picture of the dead Al-Qaida leader.
- Two government officials were digitally removed from an official White House photograph of President Obama and high level staff members following the Navy SEAL mission to kill bin Laden on a TV monitor. The people removed from the photograph were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Counter Terrorism Director Audrey Tomason. The doctored photo ran in an Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn newspaper, Di Tzeitung.
- Even journalism's distinguished "gray lady," The New York Times, ran a digitally altered photo in April, 2007. A Times employee altered a photo to restore a misalignment of a building siding and remove a white area on a photograph. The Times published a correction and noted its policy against photographic alteration.
- At least one case of photo manipulation has been uncovered in academia. In an attempt to proclaim the diversity of the student body at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the cover of a brochure was changed to include a black male in crowd of students at a football game.
One of the more noteworthy examples of digital photo manipulation was the Time magazine cover portrait of O.J. Simpson which ran on June 27, 1994. The Time photo of O.J., taken from a police mug shot, was altered to darken his skin, to reduce the clarity of the image, and to present the subject with a growth of facial stubble. The effect is sinister. Newsweek's cover of the same un-altered photo of O.J. reveals the difference in images.
Today such photo fakery is rare in responsible news media, although still not entirely. Major news purveyors – print, broadcast and online – have strict policies against digital manipulation of photographs with severe penalties for violators, summary termination, included.
Photojournalist Val Mazzenga worked for the Chicago Tribune for almost 40 years and was the first at that newspaper to use a digital camera. He is a member of the National Press Photographers Association, and has been inducted into The Photographer's Hall of Fame. He also taught photography at the University of Illinois, Champaign.
As the first photojournalist at the Tribune to use a digital camera, Mazzenga was able to help his fellow photographers become familiar with its new capabilities - and potential abuses - as digital photography became more widely used.
"When digital came in, most [Tribune] photographers hated it," says Mazzenga. "One of the first problems was that the flash didn't synch with the camera [shutter].
Almost simultaneous with the widespread introduction of digital cameras was the development of photo-editing computer software, most notably Adobe Photoshop.
"The Tribune had strict rules against manipulating photographs," says Mazzenga. "If you did it and got caught, you got fired."
Nobody was dismissed at the Tribune during Mazzenga's tenure for altering a photograph, he recalls. But a photographer for the L.A. Times, a Tribune company, was fired for altering a shot taken in Iraq. "He removed trees [with digital editing software] from the image," said Mazzenga.
Every major newspaper has the same tough rules against changing a photographic image, according to Mazzenga.
Nevertheless, media policy may allow minor alterations of photographic images for contrast and clarity.
"The Tribune permitted its photographers to change a picture but only in ways that did not change the story," says Mazzenga. "You could enhance a foreground figure, for example, or create more contrast between foreground and background for visibility."
Nothing radical beyond these alterations was allowed. "You couldn't put people in a shot or take anyone out," says Mazzenga. Cropping and lighting changes were permitted if these alterations did not change the meaning of the picture.
World-famous photographer Arnold Crane, whose work hangs in museums around the world including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, and the New York Metropolitan, among others, was a freelance crime photographer in his youth, decades before the introduction of digital cameras.
"I worked the police beat and sold pictures to all the Chicago papers," says Crane, who began working the streets with his camera while in his late teens. He is now 80 years old and still shooting with both film and digital cameras.
"A digitally manipulated photograph is an illustration, not a news photograph," said Crane. "But some alterations are alright. You can remove an [obscuring] highlight or a reflection in a window, but you can't remove an object. And you can't change the meaning of a photograph."
Crane regards any alteration of an image that changes the meaning of a photograph as unethical, and sufficient grounds for dismissal from a news outlet.
Although Crane uses computer photo editing software on his photographs, he is judicious in its applications, and has strict, self-imposed rules.
"I took a portrait of a woman and [digitally] removed a zit from her face," he said. "That's where I draw the line."
Changes such as these, according to Crane, are acceptable and similar to dodging and burning in, methods of enhancing photographic prints from film. Dodging is the holding back of projected image on a print by an enlarger. Burning in is a means of accentuating a visual area of a print by permitting extended time under the light of the enlarger.
Crane, a member of the elite White House News Photographers Association, believes there's been few egregious examples of photo tampering in journalistic media the past few years. "I would like to think photographers are more principled these days," he said. "I subscribe entirely to the ethical standards of The National Press Photographers Association.”
Photo alteration is common in advertising and fashion photography, according to Olaf Moetus, a former creative director at McCann Ericson, New York, one of the country's largest advertising agencies. Moetus is currently the founder and owner of Moetus Creative Services, full-spectrum marketing, communications and Website design consultancy.
"Photo editing software is very versatile and has numerous capabilities," Moetus said. "You can make a person look thinner, or younger. You can remove a double chin, you can make food look more delicious and appetizing – think redder apples and juicier steaks."
Moetus points out that there are advertising industry standards and government regulations forbidding the misrepresentation of products and services in ads and TV commercials.
"But practically every photo for advertising purposes has been altered," said Moetus. "What's unethical is faking product features. For example, an altered photograph of a brownie showing more nuts in the product than the real amount is not acceptable."
Publicity photographs of movie stars, political figures and other categories of celebrity or public figure, are also routinely altered to be more flattering to the subject.
Fashion photographer Stan Malinowski, has photographed some of the world's most beautiful models in his more than thirty-year career including Christie Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs, Isabella Rossellini and Elle MacPherson. His photographs have been published in Vogue, Bazaar, Playboy, Penthouse, Time, Bazaar Italia, French Bazaar, Paris Vogue and numerous other domestic and foreign publications.
Malinowski photographed models before the advent of photo-editing software. In those days, raw film was turned into the client. If retouching were done, it was not done by the photographer.
In an e-mail reply to questions about photo manipulation in advertising and fashion today, Malinowski wrote, "I ...believe that smoothing of faces and complexion would be expected, and the thinning and lengthening of parts of an image."
As for altered images that run in journalistic media – print, broadcast or online --
Malinowski wrote, "I believe that all mainstream media will not allow any manipulation of journalistic images — and that's as it should be."
Although ethical standards for photojournalists have been codified, in the earliest days of digital camera use in journalism, the ethical code for digital photography had not yet been fully established.
Deborah Kravitz, a documentary photographer and former employee of the Tucson Citizen, has a degree in visual journalism, but was not required to take a course in photojournalistic ethics. She recalled that there wasn't even such a class in her curriculum.
"I was trained in photojournalistic ethics, verbally, by my managing editor," says Kravitz. "The rest I learned on the job."
Now, however, many colleges and universities offer courses in the ethics and legalities of photojournalism as part of the standard curriculum for students seeking a degree.
Manipulated photographs for political purposes, especially those of dictators, is probably common, although no current, reliable data on that subject has been found.
In the former Soviet Union, for example, where the government controlled the press, doctored photos were common.
The late Josef Stalin, for example, ruthless dictator of the U.S.S.R., was not only a mass murderer, by executive order, of groups and individuals who opposed his draconian rule.
In a photograph taken about 1930, a dissident Communist commissar was removed via air brush from a government photograph. Today, that primitive, tedious method of changing a photo is easily accomplished with Adobe Photoshop, and other photo editing software programs. Official photographs issued by dictatorial or totalitarian regimes may not be visually truthful.
Freelance photojournalists, being self-employed, are not bound by the restrictions imposed on news media employees. Freelancers are restricted only by their own integrity. They may enhance a photograph to make it more salable to a wire service, such as the Associated Press, or to a newspaper, both of which often buy photographs from outside sources. If caught substantially manipulating photographs, however, media editors aware of the deception would probably never again buy the freelancer’s work.
The camera may never lie, as the saying goes. But digital photo editing software can lie and often does. But generally speaking, you can trust that the pictures run in America's major news media have not been substantially changed. Still, there are watchdogs, both in-house at journalistic media outlets, and others outside, ever vigilant for photo fakery, ready to blow the whistle when it occurs, and committed to punishing the violator.