168 : Ethics in Digital Photography

by Fred Showker

Fred Showker : 60 Second Window Is it getting more difficult to believe news photos these days?

Most people haven't noticed, but it's getting more and more difficult to recognize reality in photographic journalism. While the unwary public soaks up newspaper and broadcast news reports which show stark photography, those of us who know what can be done with today's software are taking a more careful look. A recent photo in the local newspaper editorialized the aftermath of a house fire. Most people looked at the story it told. I saw it -- but I also saw the affects of over-sharpening and was alerted that the image had been manipulated. As a journalist myself, I've come to scrutinize the images as much as the content.

I have to give an overwhelming thumbs down for the likes of ABC, NBC and CBS nightly news these days. Not only have they fallen off their high ethical standards in journalism, they've also allowed the marketing and bureaucratic spin-doctors to do their magic as well. The recent news frenzy over some of the distasteful events in Iraq have made my skepticism even sharper. I have to ask who makes the decisions on how to edit the tape to tell their version of the story, and who decides how many times to show the same photos.

All journalists who use the printed or displayed image to help reinforce a story need to follow a hard line on ethics and honesty. It's bad enough that some events even take place. But to turn and put political spin on the images makes them that much worse.

In 2002, the DigitalCustom Group, Inc. published a collection of Model Ethics Guidelines To Protect The Integrity of Journalistic Photographs. These guidelines addressed suggested policies for the ethical, objective application of digital image editing procedures to journalistic photographs. They sponsor the continuation of these guidelines as part of a mission to advance the art, science and profession of digital image editing.

What you can do

In release version 1 of these guidelines, editing procedures are allowed to compensate for limitations and defects inherent in the digital photographic process. However, the editor must be diligent to protect the photo's true-to-life accuracy. It is entirely within the scope of photo journalism to make color balance corrections, correction of lens distortion, despeckling, focus adjustments, glare elimination and other modifications considered presentational changes.

What you shouldn't do

For the sake of representing honest and accurate information, the digital editor should avoid anything that will change the actual event or scene as it was captured by the camera. This includes adding, removing or moving objects in such a way that the context of the event is altered. The digital image editor must be careful to let the photos speak for themselves. So it's not permissible to alter any aspect of place or time -- like removing wrinkles or gray hair. Additionally they should never enhance or distract from the apparent quality or desirability of a subject, or the aesthetics of a place.

Subtle visual elements like color have a dramatic effect on the viewers interpretation of an image; yet are also difficult to decipher whether the effects or color changes were applied through digital editing or were part of the original event that was being covered. Care must be taken not to allow the blood to be more red or foliage to be less green. Never change the image in a way that creates a misleading impression of the events, participants or context.

How does this apply to you?

The above considerations seem to apply only to those who are involved in the media. However, anyone who takes pictures for any purpose needs to ask if the image is for pure enjoyment or personal expression -- or is it intended to record an person, place or event in its true and original light.

Designers are most at risk of becoming spin-doctors. Many times designers are called upon to represent an image to be better or more desirable than it really is. It is the designer's solemn duty to carefully honor the thin line between selling a product and ethical representations of places, people and things.

First published at www.60-Seconds.com in ©2005 Fred Showker

Please enjoy the pieces I've selected and linked to below as excellent background and authoritative reading on this subject . . . and above all, Thanks for reading

Fred Showker

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Further Reading on Digital Ethics

GO Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics - The National Press Photographer's Code of Ethics Statement of Principle, adopted 1991 by the NPPA Board of Directors

Quoting NATIONAL PRESS PHOTOGRAPHERS ASSOCIATION begins As journalists we believe the guiding principle of our profession is accuracy; therefore, we believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public.
      Visual journalists operate as trustees of the public. Our primary role is to report visually on the significant events and varied viewpoints in our common world. Our primary goal is the faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand. As visual journalists, we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its history through images. Quoting NATIONAL PRESS PHOTOGRAPHERS ASSOCIATION ends

GO 10 News photos that took retouching too far -- the editor for Media Bistro writes :

Quoting Mediabistro begins Many news photographs are Photoshopped here and there to increase clarity or to optimize for print or online display. But there have been several instances where retouching has been pushed too far, changing the original intent or accuracy of the photo. Quoting  ends

GO Digital Photography: A Question of Ethics - in Learning And Leading With Technology, vol. 23 no. 4, published by the International Society for Technology in Education, artist and educator Bonnie Meltzer writes :

Quoting Bonnie Meltzer begins As teachers we need to help our students be aware of the issues of imaging... Why are photographs edited, anyway? Does it make a difference if you can tell that a photo has been edited? Quoting  ends

GO Every Picture Can Tell a Lie - David Shenk, Editor for Wired News ©1997:

Quoting David Shenk, Editor for Wired News begins Programs such as Photoshop may be the single best emblem of the immense new - and eminently abusable - power conferred on humanity by the digital revolution: With a little will and some patience, virtually anyone can do virtually anything to a photograph. Quoting David Shenk, Editor for Wired News ends

GO The 'Ethics' of Using Filters - Photographer Nick Rains discusses the use of filters

Quoting Photographer Nick Rains begins Anything which is (seemingly) faked takes away any perceived value in the work and the viewer feels deceived in subtle way. This will always be the strength and weakness of photography and that is why the use of 'filters' can be seen by the public as in some way 'cheating'. Quoting  ends

GO Photography in the Age of Falsification - Kenneth Brower - The Atlantic Monthly, 1998.

Quoting Kenneth Brower, The Atlantic Monthly begins The wildlife photography we see in films, books, and periodicals is often stunning in its design, import, and aesthetics. It may also be fake, enhanced, or manufactured by emerging digital technologies that have transformed -- some say contaminated -- the photography landscape. Quoting Kenneth Brower, The Atlantic Monthly ends

MORE interesting articles on "faking" images

  • Kate doesn't like Photoshop - Digital Ethics - In a recent article, Kate Winslet is described as NOT a fan of Photoshop, preferring to remain as natural and real as she is in the flesh ... While Kate's experience of being retouched poorly or excessively in Photoshop is not of earth shattering proportions, the subject of the ethics of digial imaging certainly is (Images)
  • Ethical Use of Photographs - From the Webster University Journal. Their policies on what is generally allowed, never allowed and how digitally manipulated images should be labeled and identified.
  • I Was There. Just Ask Photoshop. - NYTimes.com - "As people fiddle with the photos in their scrapbooks, the tug of emotion and vanity can win out over the objective truth. And in some cases, it can even alter memories -- Cousin Andy was at the wedding, right?"
  • Too Dark for Photojournalism - Reid Stott writes the PhotoDude's Web Log: Commentary on the "overmanipulation" that resulted in three awards being revoked from Observer photographer Patrick Schneider aftering using dodging and burning techniques in Photoshop.
  • Veracity of Digital Images - Does digital image processing produce 'untrustworthy' images?
  • Ethics of Divulging Digital Manipulation - After discovering a magazine cover image was created in Photoshop, members of photo.net answer the question, "Should the digital aspect be placed right with the image (on the cover) rather than in a box 5 pages into the magazine?"
  • Ethics of Digital Image Manipulation - Is it real, or is it Photoshop? A commentary by Jerry Lodriguss.

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