Photojournalism in not about the photographer’s ego, it’s about the Public’s Trust.

Note: For full disclosure, I am a member of the National Press Photographers Association, and subscribe to not only the NPPA’s ethical standards and practices, but also the Associated Press’ ethical standards concerning digital photography.

How a photographer’s personal ethics translate to Public Trust

Image manipulation is nothing new on photography. And today, with everyone having their own digital cameras and access to software, it’s more prevalent than ever.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately concerning this digital manipulation, especially with journalism photographs.  The most recent is that a sports photo essay by photographer Stepan Rudik was awarded 3rd place by the World Press Photo competition. The award was revoked after it was discovered the photographer digitally removed an element from the photo. Read more here.

In their statement Michiel Munneke, managing director of World Press photos says “After careful consideration we found it imperative to disqualify the photographer from the contest. The principle of World Press Photo is to promote high standards in photojournalism. Therefore, we must maintain the integrity of our organization even when the outcome is regrettable.”

Although the removed shoe was small in the image, WPP felt it was necessary to disqualify the entry stating “In the opinion of the jury, the photographer ventured beyond the boundary of what is acceptable practice. Consequently, this judgment left World Press Photo no choice but to disqualify Rudik.”

I agree with situations such as this. In my years shooting news, I’ve come back with nice images only to be dismayed after discovering flaws. But that’s photojournalism. Not every photo will be perfect, not every photo will even tell a story.

And I would rather have a bad photo with flaws published on the inside pages, than a great one that’s been manipulated and used as the cover photo. Or even win an award. I wouldn’t feel good about it as I value my credibility and integrity.

The root issue here is the credibility of the photographer. And it is here that public trust begins.

The individual ethics of the photographer directly translates into the trust the public gives that publication. The ethics of the photographer creates their integrity and credibility. From this, it builds to trust in the managers of the publications. They trust the photographer is submitting images that meet journalistic standards and ethics.

Upon publication, the viewers/readers trust in the integrity of the image. They see what they believe. When it is discovered that a photographer manipulated an image, even by a small amount, that trust may begin to erode. Questions rise in their minds: “If this one has been altered, have there been others? Will there be others?

When it has been discovered that a photographer has been submitting altered photographs, the only viable option is to be transparent and inform the readers of the transgression and apologize. Such as when the LA Times discovered that former photographer Brian Walski . He combined two photographs into one.

Upon finding out, the editors at the LA Times immediately called Walski in order to have him send the raw file. He admitted to faking the photograph. The LA Times ran a front page apology. Being transparent in situations such as this may help quash any public mistrust that could be building.

In another situation, when photographer Allen Detrich worked on staff at The Toledo Blade, the newspaper launched an investigation and discovered numerous manipulations. Detrich added and removed elements in his photographs. It was discovered he routinely manipulated images. His excuse was he did it for his own personal use and accidentally submitted them to the newspaper for publication. Read more here.

The executive editor , Ron Royhab, stated: “When a Blade reporter or photographer covers a news event, the newspaper and its readers expect an accurate record of the event.”

When photojournalists manipulate photos (beyond basic tonal and color corrections, including minor burning and dodging), they begin to tell little white lies to the public. At what point is it considered going too far? I believe any deletion or addition of elements of the photograph are too far.

In a  New York Times blog about the manipulation of the winning image and the ensuing retraction of the award: reader Jeff said in his posting “Any change to a news photo – any violation of that moment – is a lie. Big or small, any lie damages your credibility. “

I believe this to be true. With the credibility of the media as low as it is, why take chances and by possibly weakening it further by awarding manipulated images?

And with taking this a step further, I believe the “photojournalists”  who combine separate frames actually fabricate a story. It’s not a matter of simple manipulation. You’re combining two separate moments in time and lying to the public that it is one. The moment in the photograph is a fabrication.

In my opinion, these photographers join the ranks of writers such as Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair. Writers who fabricated stories and plagiarized. Cooke even won a Pulitzer but it was pulled soon after it was discovered the story was a fake.

All these situations erode the public trust in the media. Why continue to do so with poor ethical standards.

But the question remains: How do contests organizers avoid these circumstances in the first place? How do contest judges award prizes without the fear of having to retract the award?

The answer seems simple. They can instill rules such as supplying the raw files with your entry. When the entrants in particular category have been narrowed down, they can then use the raw files to verify no manipulations have occurred. Or after narrowing down the field, request the raw files. But the former would be the best option. This may even eliminate the inclusion of manipulated images from the contest altogether. After all, who’s going to enter their work if it will be scrutinized?

The simple truth is, digital manipulation of journalistic photographs undercuts the integrity of the image, and therefore weakens the public trust in the media.

Here is an article by Hany Farid, Ph.D., reasearch leader of the Image Science Group at the Dartmouth College Department of Computer Sciences titled Photo Tampering Throughout History. There are some very interesting examples.

Some argue that the following techniques are considered manipulation because the camera sees differently than the eye. Techniques photographers use before the shutter is tripped and the exposure is made

–  The mere presence of the photographer alters the situation. Yes, I’ve seen the difference how people react when the cameras are present. But I’ve also seen many more not affected by the presence of the camera.

–  Lens choice affects the meaning of the image. A telephoto compresses traffic to make it look worse than it may be.

–  Wide angle lenses distort perspective. They can accentuate the vastness of open space.

–  What moment is captured. Simple editing can misconstrue the meaning of an event.

–  Moving in order to remove or add elements to the photo.

–  Using various apertures to remove or add the background.

–  Exposure to change the mood.

As these issues directly affect the image before exposure, they shall be addressed in a later blog.

Paul Conrad

Sky Fire Photography


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