Monday, November 29, 2010


This post avoids issues of legality, taste and privacy in photojournalism, and instead examines two aspects of the ethics discussion that directly impact the credibility of photojournalists:
1.         manipulating the scene (before or after a picture is taken)
2.         manipulating the photograph
Both of these situations have probably affected “real” pictures since photography was invented.

Manipulating the scene

Politicians have a big incentive to appear their best in pictures, and that may be a legitimate price for photojournalists to pay for access.  However, most neutral observers agree that President George Bush crossed the line into manipulation when he staged a speech on the
aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in front of a huge sign declaring “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” on May 1, 2003.

At the time, no one took responsibility for the banner, and the White House ambiguously left completely open the interpretation of what mission was accomplished by whom.  In cases like these, photojournalists and editors are usually aware of the manipulation and make judgment calls about their pictures.  This was a TIME cover.

On a more clownish note, Arthur Fellig (AKA Weegee) enjoyed a reputation as a famous New York photographer noted for his willingness do anything to “get the picture”.  In a famous photo that ran in LIFE magazine, December 6, 1943, he contrived a social commentary. 

He hired and dressed an alcoholic woman, placed her near the entrance to an opera house, and asked her to gawk at socialites.  In one picture he managed to lie about content to his editors and combined payment, heartless exploitation, re-creation and staging, all considered serious ethics violations today.  Out of context it is a hilarious picture, and it sold lots magazines. (Disclosure! I cropped and annotated this famous work of art.)

Manipulating the photo
Initially, all photos used in mass media were completely manipulated.   Before the halftone process was perfected a publisher needed to perform at least three steps to use a photograph: produce a photo, hire an artist to draw a copy of it, and finally engrave the drawing on to wood or zinc plates.  All parties to this process were free to enhance the scene in any way.  Matthew Brady, a respected Civil War era photographer who recorded both sides of the conflict, routinely combined images in his illustrations.

Around the turn of the 20th century the halftone process was perfected.  This innovation cut artists and engravers out of the process of using photographs, and it also facilitated manipulation.   Under Stalin, the communist government of the USSR constantly re-wrote and recreated history by publishing altered official state photographs.  In some cases they produced a series of alterations as various officials fell out of favor with Stalin.  Well know group pictures could shrink from 10 to less than 5 people.  This sent a blatant message of state control to all citizens.

These old examples may appear comical today, but the NPPA sees serious abuse of facts and truth in the digital age.  Current examples range from the cover fantasies of a happy Anne Richards astride a motorcycle in TEXAS MONTHLY to O.J. Simpson’s guilty mug shot in TIME.  Manipulation before and after the shutter is released can totally change the impact of a “real” photograph.  For these reasons the NPPA recommends clearly identifying any altered photo an illustration.  Otherwise, if the public can not tell truth from fiction, all illustrated publications can turn into comic books.

1.         Accurately represent subjects

2.         Do not be manipulated by staged photos

3.         Avoid bias and stereotyping in work; provide complete information and context

4.         Show consideration for subjects

5.         Avoid influencing the actions of the photographic subject

6.         Editing should not give the wrong impression of the subjects in the photograph

7.         Do not compensate persons involved in photographs or in getting a photograph

8.         Do not accept gifts or other favors from those involved in a photo

9.         Do not purposely interfere with the work of other journalists

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