By David K. Shipler
When O.J. Simpson was charged in June 1994 with murdering his wife, both Time and Newsweek ran his mug shot on their covers, but with a stark difference. Newsweek’s Simpson was true to the original photo, an African-American man with amber skin. Time’s artists darkened his complexion so that his unshaven cheeks and chin matched the blackness of his jacket. Within the deep cultural bias associating darkness with evil, the alteration gave Simpson a sinister air. The drama of the manipulation was obvious to all who saw the magazines side by side on the newsstands.
Last week, using modern digital technology, Time again raised a ruckus by merging a photo of a crying 2-year-old Honduran girl and another of a towering President Trump, who seemed to be looking down at her. The words “Welcome to America” hovered ironically above her head.
It can be argued that the human eye is not the final arbiter of visual truth. In an age of camera and computer wizardry, the photographic sensor and the software processor can bring to light what the eye has missed—or can erase what the eye might find distracting or distasteful. A few clicks and sweeps with a mouse can tease out digital information from an image that the camera has captured but the eye has not perceived; can brighten or dull or revise colors, change white balance, raise or reduce exposure and contrast, move people, remove blemishes, brush in different backgrounds, and so on. Therein lies the potential for both artistry and fraud.
Much manipulation was possible even in the days of film. Ansel Adams, the great landscape photographer, spent hours in the darkroom “dodging and burning” to make areas of his prints lighter or darker, and thus more stunning. Autocratic regimes bent on revising history airbrushed into disappearance people who had been obliterated from the pantheon, including Stalin and Khrushchev in certain settings. (Fast forward to the digital age, and Haredi Jewish newspapers, which forbid images of women without hair covering, removed Hillary Clinton from the famous photograph of President Obama and his staff in the situation room during the attack on Osama bin Laden.)
So, the question: What is acceptable, and what is not?
One answer is to be honest with the viewer, to label clearly what has been altered. Another is to understand that art and journalism have different standards, that a picture purporting to document a visual fact must stand the test of absolute accuracy, while one that aspires to fine art carries a license to be altered and enhanced.
The trouble is that within those two broad categories, ethical lines can be intricate and blurry, and are drawn by various people in various ways. Andy Williams, a photographer who leads photo tours for Muench Workshops, believes that an image that combines several photos, as he’s done by creating a gorgeous scene of a horse and a misty landscape, for example, “should be announced as a composition.” On the other hand, he adds, “cloning out a stray branch or leaf, no, does not need to be announced. Color, white balance, all that, are creative tools available to us and do not need ‘announcing’ for a fine-art photo that is not a documentary photo.”
But do viewers always know that they are seeing a fine-art photo legitimately subject to enhancement? Or do they think they are witnessing on a screen or a wall exactly what their eye would have perceived in person? Do we all pause to differentiate between creativity and documentary?
Then, too, is the eye always infallible? In journalism as well as art, the camera’s frame is chosen and usually cropped, the scene frozen, the focus determined, and therefore the tempo of contemplation is slowed to a reflective pace. From a newspaper, a magazine, a broadcaster, and a news website, viewers should expect no manipulation, and they shouldn’t be unwittingly subjected to it. Time should not have tricked them with the subliminal effect of darkening O.J.Simpson’s skin. But they should recognize that those taking and presenting images have made choices of what to show and what to leave aside, just as writers do.
It’s hard to know reliably what viewers are going to assume about how much a given photograph has been manipulated in Lightroom or another program. It might be safe to say that most who saw Time’s recent cover recognized it as a composite, that Trump hadn’t actually been standing over the little Honduran girl. It was more like a political cartoon than a news photograph.
But how many realized that the crying girl was not actually being separated from her mother, who was merely being searched? The caption was accurate in other publications, but the photo morphed as it circulated into an iconic image of the cruelty being visited upon innocent children by the Trump administration’s family-busting policy at the border. That the cruelty exists is not changed by the misinterpretation of the picture, but the misinterpretation, heightened by Time’s use of it, gives Trump and his hardest-line supporters an opening to denounce his critics.
To help photographers navigate along the complicated lines between acceptable and unacceptable processing, some photo contests have devised and tightened rules, and have even embedded videos in the regulations. The effort is to be as clear as possible to avoid repetition of past incidents of deception. In 2015, the World Press Photo competition disqualified 20 percent of the entries for excessive processing, discovered when the submitted images were compared with the RAW files, which contain all the data the camera has recorded, without manipulation.
“Once we saw the evidence, we were shocked,” said Michele McNally, chair of the jury. “Many of the images we had to disqualify were pictures we all believed in and which we all might have published. But to blatantly add, move around or remove elements of a picture concerns us all, leaving many in the jury to feel we were being cheated, that they were being lied to. Many of these photographers clearly didn’t think what they were doing was wrong. But I’m telling you that it was often very wrong and not accidental.”
The competition’s current code of ethics prohibits staging, influencing a scene, removing people or objects and shadows except by cropping, changing color significantly enough to alter original hues, and so forth. Videos show examples of unacceptable changes: three small spots on a woman’s arm were removed, a cigarette butt was erased, highlights were added by cloning, a small fin was added to a fish, and two shots of groups of strollers on a bridge were combined into one.
Egregious alterations have been caught by a couple of prize administrators, but after the fact. In 2015, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects awarded a prize to a building called El Centro, which the Chicago Tribune described as “a striking, boomerang-shaped structure with blue and gold fins” designed by Juan Moreno. The trouble was, the jury went by pictures alone, and the photographer had erased a huge row of air conditioning/heating units that look like a couple of container trucks disrupting the graceful line of the roof. None of the jurors went to visit the actual, real-life building. The architect said he didn’t like the oversized structures, but he didn’t see the doctored photo as a misrepresentation. “The truth of the matter is, in every photograph that takes place on any building, there is an artistic representation that occurs,” he told the Tribune.
In another case, the Natural History Museum in London rescinded a 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award from Marcio Cabral, whose dramatic photograph of nighttime, glowing termites included, by lucky chance it seemed, an anteater at the base of the insect mound. After close examination by experts and a review of Cabral’s RAW files, the jury determined that the anteater was quite dead, stuffed, and usually resided at the visitor center at the Emas National Park. Cabral denied it.
Andy Williams and his colleague Juan Pons called attention to this gross deception in a podcast, where Williams differentiated between creating images for fun and art and misrepresenting them as absolute truth. During a rainy stretch on a trip in Alaska’s Inside Passage, he recalled, he told workshop participants, “Hey, why don’t we figure out how to use only Lightroom to smooth out the water here, cause we couldn’t do long exposure and we couldn’t do tripods. So I figured out that reverse clarity and reverse dehaze a little bit will give you a smoother appearance to the water. Which is kind of cool. And reverse sharpening. All those three things, and then I said, hey, what if we put some ducks in this from another picture? So I showed them how to select a flock of geese … and paste them into this image. … and at the end of the day we had a lot of fun and we created a lot of cool images. But they are created, manipulated, composite images. And I would never put this out to the world saying it’s anything but a composite image.”
To which Juan Pons added, “It’s all about being truthful, being honest with your viewers.”