Photo Ethics in the age of Adobe Photoshop CS5
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Adobe Photoshop. As if to celebrate, last week Adobe released Creative Suite 5, the most powerful version yet, and for photojournalism maybe the most troubling.
Photoshop remains the top photo editing and graphics program for pros. Among the newest version’s most notable features is the Content-aware Fill Tool, demonstrated here, which allows users to remove unwanted elements from an image as effortlessly as the result is seamless.
For photojournalism the implications of this tool are pretty chilling. Not because digital manipulation of photographs is anything new, but because CS5 makes it just so darn easy.
In 2005 Stephen Colbert introduced the term “truthiness” during the debut episode of the Comedy Channel’s Colbert Report to describe much of the political dialogue in and media coverage of Washington DC. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary made truthiness its Word of the Year in 2006.
In a New York magazine interview Colbert described truthiness this way: “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist.”
For visual journalism does CS5 mark a leap forward in the advance of “realishness?”
Sure, images were manipulated long before Thomas Kroll, a graduate student at the University of Michigan at the time, invented Photoshop so he could view grayscale images on his Mac Plus. What’s at issue is the proliferation of manipulated images and the impact on credibility among a public already skeptical of what it sees in the media.
Just last month, before the current version of CS5’s release, World Press Photo disqualified 2010 third-place winner Ukrainian photographer Stepan Rudik from its annual competition for digitally manipulating an image.
The World Press Photo rules state: “The content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to the currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed.” But what does “accepted standards” mean? They vary a lot based on publication type, topic and nation of origin. It’s worth noting that the image was not disqualified for its radical crop or the high contrast black & white toning, but for the removal of a compositionally distracting foot from the background.
Another humdinger of recent memory is a photo filed by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Brian Walski in 2003, who was covering Basra during the Iraq War. Walski joined two images together and submitted the final product as a single photo. He was fired as a result.
Ethical guidelines from the L.A. Times (available as PDF here) are much more explicit than the WPP’s: “We do not add color, create photomontages, remove objects or flop images. We do not digitally alter images beyond making minor adjustments for color correction, exposure correction and removal of dust spots or scratches required to ensure faithful reproduction of the original image. Exaggerated use of burning, dodging or color saturation is not permitted.”
Neither photographer contested that his image was manipulated. Walski copped to his bad judgment and blamed exhaustion and his desire to make memorable images of the war. Rudik maintains that as the “author” of the image he should be free to interpret a scene as he sees fit.
So what does the public make of all this? Studies that examine viewer trust of digital photography specifically, and of media accuracy generally, suggest that things are bad and getting worse. The core issues seem to be the perception of increased partisanship in the media and the growing influence of big money.
Yet at the same time, people are capable of applying a very canny kind of calculus when evaluating the veracity of a news image. They assess the credibility of the publication in which the image appears and take into account the coverage of other outlets. They weigh the significance of the story against any controversy surrounding how it is being reported. They also factor in their own familiarity with the issue as well as previously published images they may have seen.
The take-away is that audiences can and often do hold top-tier news publications to higher standards of veracity than partisan websites—or fashion magazines.
As increasing numbers of crowd-sourced images, images produced by semi-pros and images from the blogosphere work their way into the media — not to mention inconsistent standards among established professional outlets – how are we to fight against the creep of increasing realishiness into the news? News organizations and visual journalism educators need to establish clear standards that at the same time acknowledge the of the changing tools. We also need to promote dialogue about the impact of these changes on our industry. And we need to embrace transparency about process – especially when mistakes are made. Pretty much the same tools we’ve used all along — only updated to respond to these new realities.
While doing research for this post I was surprised by how many major news outlets had not updated the code of ethics for photography in more than a decade. Here are two examples of news organizations that have. The National Press Photographers Association provides some discussion and resources on the issue of digital ethics in photography. The organization Editorial Photographers of the United Kingdom and Ireland lays out a clearly defined graduated scale for understanding the manipulation of images, acknowledging purely editorial photo ends and where photo illustration begins.
What do you think?