Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography

From the National Press Photographers Association

Our credibility is damaged every time a reputable news organization is caught lying to the public and one of the most blatant and widely recognized cases was the computer enhancement of the TIME Magazine cover photo of O. J. Simpson. TIME took the mug shot of Simpson when he was arrested and changed it before using it on their cover. They would not have been caught if NEWSWEEK had not used the same photo on their cover photo just as it had come from the police. The two covers showed up on the news stands next to each other and the public could see something was wrong.

TIME darkened the handout photo creating a five o’clock shadow and a more sinister look. They darkened the top of the photo and made the police lineup numbers smaller. They decided Simpson was guilty so they made him look guilty. (There are two issues here: one is a question of photographic ethics and the other is a question of racial insensitivity by TIME in deciding that blacker means guiltier. The black community raised this issue when the story broke and needs to be the subject of another article. My concern is with the issue of photographic ethics).

In an editorial the next week, TIME’s managing editor wrote, “The harshness of the mug shot – the merciless bright light, the stubble on Simpson’s face, the cold specificity of the picture – had been subtly smoothed and shaped into an icon of tragedy.” In other words, they changed the photo from what it was (a document) into what they wanted it to be. TIME was making an editorial statement, not reporting the news. They presented what looked like a real photograph and it turned out not to be real; the public felt deceived, and rightly so. By doing this, TIME damaged their credibility and the credibility of all journalists

Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics:

NPPA Statement of Principle adopted 1991 by the NPPA Board of Directors.

As journalists we believe the guiding principle of our profession is accuracy; therefore, we believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public.

As photojournalists, we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its images as a matter of historical record. It is clear that the emerging electronic technologies provide new challenges to the integrity of photographic images … in light of this, we the National Press Photographers Association, reaffirm the basis of our ethics: Accurate representation is the benchmark of our profession. We believe photojournalistic guidelines for fair and accurate reporting should be the criteria for judging what may be done electronically to a photograph. Altering the editorial content … is a breach of the ethical standards recognized by the NPPA.

In his column on 60-second Window 60 Seconds: Ethics in Photo Journalism editor Fred Showker highlights what should not be done.

For the sake of representing honest and accurate information, the digital editor should avoid anything that will change the actual event or scene as it was captured by the camera. This includes adding, removing or moving objects in such a way that the context of the event is altered. The digital image editor must be careful to let the photos speak for themselves. So it’s not permissible to alter any aspect of place or time — like removing wrinkles or gray hair. Additionally they should never enhance or distract from the apparent quality or desirability of a subject, or the aesthetics of a place.

Subtle visual elements like color have a dramatic effect on the viewers interpretation of an image; yet are also difficult to decipher whether the effects or color changes were applied through digital editing or were part of the original event that was being covered. Care must be taken not to allow the blood to be more red or foliage to be less green. Never change the image in a way that creates a misleading impression of the events, participants or context.

People can judge for themselves whether or not standards were broken or simply stretched in the case of the Register’s Trung Nguyen photo. The editor has given his explanation and certainly we have had a good laugh about the whole thing.

I mean, how often do you get the circumstance where a major print publication digitally enhances the image of a politician who recently altered his picture in a campaign ad by inserting his head on someone else’s.

  6 comments for “Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography

  1. Dan Chmielewski
    February 19, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    Nice post Chris. There are dozens of other examples. President Bush with rank and file military photoshopped in behind him for a speech. Photoshopped photos of John Kerry and Jane Fonda togehter at the height of the Vietname protest used by the right wing in 2004.

    The Register owes its readers an explanation.

  2. February 20, 2007 at 8:08 am

    Contrast, exposure (lightness/darkness) and color temperature of digital photographs are decided upon by the photographer upon processing. Yes, digital photographs must be “developed” much like film photographs. Most people don’t know this because the average consumer digital camera makes these decisions for you. You would be hard-pressed to find a professional photographer who doesn’t make use of these controls to make the most interesting photograph possible.

    If you consider the selection of contrast and exposure an “alteration”, then EVERY digital photograph is “altered” in some manner. Thus is the nature of capturing light.

  3. February 20, 2007 at 8:27 am


    Here is the explanation from Matt Leone of the Orange County Register:

    Matt Leone, on February 19th, 2007 at 5:09 pm Said:

    I’m the guy on the Register editorial page staff who did indeed alter the Trung Nguyen photo (and the Janet Nguyen photo as well) by dropping out the background a little to make the main subjects stand out in better contrast. The idea was to emphasize that both were relatively unknown political personalities that suddenly stood out from a crowded field of candidates. No images were combined, no part of any image was added or deleted. Only the contrast between the backgrounds and main subjects was heightened. I didn’t do a great job of it, at that. We do alter photos in feature sections like Commentary to make a point on occasion.

    All that said, I most certainly should have let readers know what we did. We most often do that by labeling an altered photo a “photo illustration,” and on occasion I also have written explanatory notes to avoid confusion. We failed to do any of that in this case. We’re sorry for any confusion it has caused.

    “Altered Photo,” was his definition, not mine. Further, Matt clarified in his email to me “by brightening the background to make the main subject, Mr. Nguyen, stand out a bit.”

    Mr. Showker in his suggested guidelines states: “Additionally they should never enhance or distract from the apparent quality or desirability of a subject.”

    Significantly lightening the background did enhance the quality of the subject of the image. Even Matt Leone agrees, the enhancement should have been noted.

  4. February 20, 2007 at 9:25 am

    I agree that altering the background of the image separately from the subject would make it a “photo illustration”. I’m just saying that we should understand photography before we make accusations.

    Technically, both of the OJ photographs were “wrong”. One is under-exposed and the other is over-exposed. Reality probably lies somewhere in the middle. I doubt that the police officer took the proper light measurement to make sure that OJ’s skin tone was correctly portrayed in his mug shot. As a result, he might look lighter than he really is in the Newsweek photograph. How come nobody complained about that?

  5. February 20, 2007 at 9:26 am

    I’m actually with Travis here….I’ve messed with the colors and contrast of photos before sending them off to print. Ocassionally you need a little help from the Photshop Gods before a photo will look right on a newspaper page.

    I think that this Trung photo was poorly done, and it made us think that maybe Trung was photoshoped into another photo.

    At the end of the day, it’s just a funny story to add to the funny stories about this funny candidate that could possiby be our next sup.

  6. G. Jones
    February 20, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little enhancement of the contrast in a news photograph.

    A friend of mine studied at the Ansel Adams Center and was able to examine some of Adams’ negatives and his darkroom notes. He told me that the negatives themselves were unremarkable and that much of the drama of Adams’ pictures was created in the darkroom. Since Adams was an artist rather than a journalist the analogy is imperfect, but the point is that alteration of photographs is pretty traditional.

    I think the Register’s only “sin” was to print a rather carelessly altered photograph of a politician who recently got himself into trouble with another even more carelessly altered photo.

    If that’s the worst thing the Reg does in February they’ll be having a very good month indeed.

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