Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

June 25, 2018

The Eye and the Camera

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.”

June 19, 2018

Empathy vs. Self-Interest

By David K. Shipler

Making America Cruel Again: Part 1 of an occasional series

            It was sadly appropriate for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use a biblical verse once cited by some slave owners to justify cruelty to other human beings who were considered less than human: by Sessions about separating children from parents who enter the US illegally and “infest” the country (President Trump’s word, reducing them to insects and rodents), and by planters about returning fugitive slaves to their rightful place in bondage. It was the law, after all. Romans 13:1.
            Not that ripping weeping children from their parents’ arms is slavery—although slavers did so when profit and efficiency dictated. And not that the US is perpetrating “genocide” or acting like Nazis, as some critics have said, reaching for the most dreadful terms to harness their disgust and shame at the behavior of their beloved country.
But the outrages being perpetrated on the Mexican border signify the resurrection of practices and hatreds that might have seemed long buried in history if you were one of those citizens who believed America was destined to become better and better: more welcoming of difference, more just, more decent, more humane. How naïve of those of us who fostered such faith in their beloved country.
Nasty attitudes and impulses from the worst dimensions of America’s past are resurfacing as if they had merely hibernated waiting for the oxygen and sunlight of demagoguery to nurture them back into thorny bloom. And our past is replete with unsavory precedents: slavery, of course, and racist law in the form of Jim Crow; Native American families torn apart as authorities tried to stamp out tribal culture; citizens of Japanese descent interned during World War II; explicit anti-Semitism and white supremacy.

June 10, 2018

Kim, Trump's Foil

By David K. Shipler

            Whether Kim Jong-un knows it or not, he is about to play the role of Donald Trump’s foil in the farcical vaudeville routine that the American presidency has become. Unless Trump blunders egregiously (always a possibility), the Singapore meeting—no matter what its result—promises to entertain his American supporters with tough-guy antics and, possibly, the pretense of a “deal” that can be simplified by Fox News into an adoring sound bite. If the meeting blows up and Trump storms out in a blizzard of tweets, he’s a strong, combative leader who takes no prisoners. If the meeting’s vibes are friendly and promising, Trump is a clever negotiator who maneuvers his adversaries into compromise. Trump can’t lose. Only the world can.
It’s wise to remember that Trump, who touts himself as a champion deal-maker, has not made a single deal in nearly 18 months in office. He’s been more of a deal-breaker: on Iran, the climate, trade, and so on. His record in his real estate and branding business is little better, tarnished by a string of bankruptcies, failed ventures, scams, and refusals to pay struggling subcontractors. His “deal” to assist American workers lies in tatters after his hostile regulatory decisions and extremist court appointments, not to mention his new tariffs, which are expected to hurt more American laborers than will be helped.
There is nothing in Trump’s background to suggest a capacity to bargain well over complex issues. He fumbled around on health care with no effect. His Republican colleagues in Congress passed the tax bill without significant input from him. He is instead a showman and a propagandist who convinces a large minority of Americans that when he says things are good, they are good. His top priority seems to be fostering a cult of personality, which could be deadly to democracy if our constitutional institutions and reflexes fail.
 From what we have seen of him, Trump values his cult of personality far above the national security of the United States and, therefore, the denuclearization of North Korea. As a bully, he is making the United States into a bully as well, as we’ve witnessed; a bully kicks the smaller and the weaker (e.g., France, Germany, Canada, Mexico), and hesitates before the strong (e.g., Russia and China).
Now, it must be recognized that employing bullying against bullies, or convincing the dictator on the other side of the globe that you’re just crazy enough to unleash a nuclear firestorm, might make the “Little Rocket Man” tremble a little. It’s reasonable to speculate that Kim is sitting down with Trump because he thinks the US president is frighteningly unhinged—yet vulnerable to flattery.
Indeed, Trump has flattered himself about this meeting. Before abruptly canceling the summit and then restoring it, Trump and his acolytes had pumped it up so much that the president seemed to need it for both ego and domestic politics. Trump voters interviewed at recent rallies cited peace with North Korea, albeit prematurely, as a justification for their continued support. That seemed to give Kim leverage.
Therefore, if he’s clever enough, Kim might be able to out-maneuver Trump in practical reality: a phased reduction in sanctions in exchange for a very gradual phase-out of the nuclear program, an elimination that is never quite completed or an inspection regime that doesn’t penetrate all the mountain facilities hidden and buried in the North. But Trump’s fantasy world would remain, because talks could be protracted, and it would take a long time for the reality to catch up with his propaganda machine’s fiction: Victory, he would crow, as negotiations proceed slowly and keep American voters on a hopeful edge, along which only Trump can lead the way.
Trump and his collaborators in the White House and Congress would hail his iconoclastic approach to foreign relations: stare them down, shout them down, bulldoze them aside, and to hell with the wimpy experts with their obliquely polite diplo-speak. As long as Kim plays along and pretends to be disarming while getting the benefits of reduced sanctions, Trump can claim progress and success right up to his reelection. Yes, reelection. Kim will get his way, if he wants to keep the nukes, by stringing Trump along, and Trump will get his crown as deal-maker, at least in the eyes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
Of course it’s to Trump’s credit that he agreed to talk to Kim without setting preconditions or casting a summit as a big prize that North Korea had to pay for in advance. That straight-laced, uptight diplomatic calculation might be useful in some cases, but it’s not always productive, and it’s often taken by the opposition as humiliating. Further, if the US and North Korea can establish continuing dialogue to avert military miscalculation in that tinderbox of the Korean Peninsula, devastating warfare might be avoided. That would be a huge achievement, and a legitimate feather in Trump’s cap.
 The trouble is, Trump has made the United States untrustworthy. If Trump’s passion for self-puffery sets the two countries on a path to a real “deal” that Kim would observe, bravo. But if Kim is truly smart, he will insist that no agreement is valid without US Senate ratification, so that Trump or the next president could not toss away a solemn international accord like used Kleenex.