The Photography of Truth

David Byrne has reason to be rueful. Having been awarded the title of Landscape Photographer of the Year in October 2012, he then had to sit back while other photographers and forensic experts dissected his entry, decided he used Photoshop excessively and disqualified him. In his own words:

“I have to inform you after a conversation with Charlie Waite I have been disqualified from the Landscape Photographer of the year awards, unfortunately I didn’t read the regulations and certain editing like adding clouds and cloning out small details are not allowed, while I don’t think what I have done to the photo is wrong in any way, I do understand it’s against the regulations so accept the decision whole heartily.

I have never passed off my photographs as record shots and the only reason this has come about has been due to my openness about how and what I do to my images. The changes I made were not major and if you go to the locations you will see everything is there as presented.” [i]

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Lindisfarne Boats by David Byrne

Harry Fisch suffered a similar fate in the prestigious National Geographic Photo Contest with this image:

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Preparing for Prayers by Harry Fisch

The reason he lost his title was that he cloned out a small paper bag at the extreme right of the image. He argued that he could have cropped it but to no avail. Like Byrne, he accepted the issue gracefully and vowed to read the rules more carefully next time. [ii]

The introduction to part 4 of the course has this to say:

When digital photography began to be used professionally for publication, many people voiced concerns about the threat to what was perceived to be the inherent ‘truth’ of a photograph. How are we to know any more that a photograph was truly taken from life, and not in some way manipulated unscrupulously?

We then went on to look at various Photoshop actions and were asked to comment on the ethical issues around each one. The concept of a continuum from ethically acceptable to unacceptable was used. Clearly in the two cases mentioned above, the photographers placed their entries in a more conservative position on the continuum than the organisers.

Competitions are one thing, they have well defined rules and are officiated by a judging panel. Whether the rules in terms of allowed Photoshop interventions are clear is a matter of debate beyond this post. Nevertheless, as is often quoted, “the judge’s decision is final.”

What is the situation with more ‘real world’ areas of photography? I looked at what was meant by photographic truth in my previous post “The Camera Never Lies” and questioned what the real truth was. In a reply to a blog post by Kevin Connor on fourandsix.com, Eduard de Kam argues along the same lines, “…the truth is way too complex to ever be captured in a picture, a picture or photo will only show a small part of the reality. The lens used and the direction the photographer aims his camera are choices made at the very moment the picture was taken.” [iii]

In this post I will look a bit deeper at the history of photographic manipulation and review the situation with regard to two specific genres, fashion and photojournalism.

Four and Six Technologies is a company founded by Adobe veteran Kevin Connor and photographic forensic expert Hany Farid. Their website fourandsix.com (mentioned earlier) contains a timeline of photo manipulation stretching back to 1860. It contains many examples of alterations for political reasons, either because a leader had fallen out with someone or to make them look more powerful. [iv]

Mussolini:

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Mao Tse Tung:

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The nest example was a Pulitzer prize winning photo published in Life magazine.

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But even though manipulation has been going on since the dawn of photography, the timeline shows increasing numbers. The assertion now is that Photoshop has made it easier and more widespread.

At one end of the acceptability continuum where manipulation is widespread is fashion photography. Refinery29.com is quite amused by it: [v]

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Ralph Lauren and Fillipa Hamilton
This highly controversial Ralph Lauren ad makes model Fillipa Hamilton look like distorted bobble head being sucked into a vortex. Ralph Lauren later apologized, but our eyes still haven’t forgotten.

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Carla Bruni in Closer Magazine
The perfect accessory to a beautiful evening gown is not a black clutch but apparently, a floating third hand.

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Demi Moore on The Cover of W Magazine
In this photo of Demi Moore wearing Balmain on the cover of W magazine, her body looks awfully similar to Anja Rubik’s. Demi’s disappearing hips caused a ruckus when this photo was first published, but W‘s Creative Director Dennis Freedman claims that there was no retouching of the image.

These are extreme examples but the industry finds no ethical impairment in it. Flawless magazine’s creative director and photographer, Don Horne (his Facebook page say’s ‘I’ll shoot anything!) goes further than merely justifying the approach,

<p>“These days everything is about money. We all want it, We all try to make some of it! So its not surprising to see the lengths companies / brands would go to, to try and make some of it. All that these brands are worried about is selling. Sometimes they do it in a good way, Sometimes they twist the truth a bit to try and sell…”

“…But im a strong believer in photoshop’s role in photography![vi] (sic)

He goes on to warn about “the bad things about photoshop”, nevertheless his comments indicate a level of acceptance of photo-manipulation in the industry.

Further evidence is provided by the Guardian in their article “The Camera Often Lies.” [vii]

"Every single magazine cover in the UK has been Photoshopped to some degree,…If it’s a celebrity or a model, the bare minimum is that the skin will be touched up to remove blemishes, folds in clothing that show fat, wonky looking legs, bad hair, the whites of the eyes, cellulite … For men as well as women."

A former art director at Arena recalls two complicated cover shoots where Natalie Imbruglia’s cheeky grin as she jogged away from the lens was constructed from three different pictures, and Nicolas Cage had his forehead extended using a composite of six separate shots. "With the advent of digital technology, stars are taking more and more of an active role in the picture selection and retouching," the art director explains.

The prevalence in an industry where image means everything is understandable; does that mean it is acceptable?

"It’s (unsettling) because our commitment to telling the truth is being diluted," explains Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News.

The International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University, Massassachussetts published its ethical enquiry in August 2012[viii]. It gave a balanced report but amongst the arguments against the practise, it blamed numerous eating disorders on the “thin-ideal media images.” Although the link to Photoshop was not expicitly proven, it was criticising the attitude of the industry that leads to the digital manipulation. A number of organisations that were bucking the trend were cited, including online magazine Jezebel and the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.

Strongly allied with this is the skewed definition of beauty that is communicated and the harm done to “ordinary” people’s self image.

A genre at the further end of the continuum is photojournalism. Another competition winner who (nearly) fell foul of the forensic analysis was Paul Hansen for this winner of the World Press Photo of the Year 2012:

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Angry Mob by Paul Hansen

Neal Krawetz claimed the picture to be a composite of a number of images, a claim refuted by Hany Farid and the photographer got to keep his award.[ix]

Brian Walski was not so fortunate. The LA times staff photographer lost his job for this piece of doctoring a picture of a British soldier with Iraqi civilians in Basra. [x]

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Walski called his actions “a complete breakdown of judgement” and blamed the stress of the assignment.

Lebanese photographer, Adnan Hajj was dropped by Reuters for this digital manipulation (original on the left) of an Israeli air strike on Beirut: [xi]

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Reuters have published a “Handbook of Journalism” [xii] in which they make their views on the use of Photoshop very clear:

“Materially altering a picture in Photoshop or any other image editing software will lead to dismissal.”

They go on to describe what is allowed and what is not:

No additions or deletions to the subject matter of the original image. (thus changing the original content and journalistic integrity of an image)

No excessive lightening, darkening or blurring of the image. (thus misleading the viewer by disguising certain elements of an image)

No excessive colour manipulation. (thus dramatically changing the original lighting conditions of an image)

In defence of Brian Walski, fine art photographer Pedro Meyer asserted that Walski did not materially affect the content of the image, ‘in its essence’. He reckons they fired a photographer effectively for doing something the journalists do regularly, that he tried to come up with a better picture in the same way that the writers polish their text. He might have a point, a recent study to measure the accuracy of journalism has shown that there are errors in 59% of 4800 stories across 14 (US) metro newspapers. This reflects the results of other studies going back 70 years[xiii]. This in itself does not prove anything, but it would seem to indicate that mainstream journalism is making genuine efforts to maintain ethical standards and ensure the accuracy of its visual reporting.

The acceptability of manipulation depends very much on the context. By context I include client’s expectation, photographer’s ambition, how the picture will be used, how the viewing public will interpret it etc. We have seen how heavily manipulated images have lost competition winners their awards and photojournalists their jobs. There are rules covering both these activities, all involved broke the rules and it is to the credit of the parties involved that rules were established and enforced. On the other hand, the fashion industry has no rules and less well-established codes of practise. We have seen how this results in much more liberality with what is done to the image and something of the effect this can have on the viewing public.

I have not looked at Fine Art Photography, this is an area where even higher levels of manipulation would be accepted, if not expected.

This gives some guidance to a photographer when his computer is booted up and Photoshop loaded, what is the intent? How is the audience going to view it? Is there any deception involved? Any degree of manipulation might be acceptable in some contexts, in others only a small amount of correction can be used.

In conclusion I quote an extract from Susan Sontag’s book “On Photography” where she sums up the paradox between truth and aesthetics in photography:

“As the vehicle of a certain reaction against the conventionally beautiful, photography has served to enlarge vastly our notion of what is aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes this reaction is in the name of truth. Sometimes it is in the name of sophistication or of prettier lies: thus, fashion photography has been developing, over more than a decade, a repertoire of paroxysmic gestures that shows the unmistakable influence of Surrealism. Even the most compassionate photojournalism is under pressure to satisfy simultaneously two sorts of expectations, those arising from our largely surrealist way of looking at photographs, and those created by our belief that some photographs give real and important information about the world.” [xiv]


[i] http://petapixel.com/2012/11/02/landscape-photographer-of-the-year-2012-stripped-of-title-for-too-much-shoppin/

[ii] http://www.digitalcameraworld.com/2013/01/11/first-place-not-in-the-bag-national-geographic-photo-contest-winner-disqualified/

[iii] http://www.fourandsix.com/blog/2013/5/21/what-is-a-truthful-photo.html

[iv] http://www.fourandsix.com/photo-tampering-history/

[v] http://www.refinery29.com/the-worst-fashion-photoshop-disasters/slideshow#slide-1

[vi] http://flawless-magazine.net/flawless/photoshop-fashion-industry/

[vii] http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/feb/23/newspaper-photography

[viii] http://www.brandeis.edu/ethics/ethicalinquiry/2012/August.html

[ix] http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/155617-how-the-2013-world-press-photo-of-the-year-was-faked-with-photoshop

[x] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/photo/essays/vanRiper/030409.htm

[xi] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/5254838.stm

[xii] http://handbook.reuters.com/?title=A_Brief_Guide_to_Standards,_Photoshop_and_Captions

[xiii] http://jonathanstray.com/measuring-and-increasing-accuracy-in-journalism

[xiv] Susan Sontag, “On Photography” pub Penguin Books 1979, p105

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