Photoshopping History: Where Is the Line in the Sand?

BlogHer Original Post

Today's photographers have a wealth of tools at their fingertips. Not only can they review photos and take more as necessary while out in the field, but they can alter, edit and otherwise create whatever they so desire during post-processing. Otherwise known as "photoshopping," the process can be as simple as editing for bolder colors or as complex as totally removing a person from a photo like The Economist recently did with their cover photo.

From the New York Times
Image from the New York Times; photo on right, Larry Downing, Reuters.

It turns out that The Economist removed a woman and man, one by cropping and the other by photoshopping, to portray Obama standing alone on the shore of The Gulf. He wasn't alone. He was standing with Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard and Charlotte Randolph, a local parish president. On the one hand, I understand the cropping out of Allen; cropping has to be done in proper proportions to make photos fit. Newspaper crop everyday. But why remove the woman? What purpose did it serve to erase her existence?

More over, I'm not buying that removing her from the photo created the most compelling photo. I still maintain that the original photo was quite compelling, but, for argument's sake, it was a horizontal photo needing to be placed on a vertical cover. Cropping needed. What about the other photos taken that day? What about the already vertical crop of Obama crouching down to touch the sand? No tricky photoshopping needed.

The Economist responded to the New York Times with what some are calling a not-so-great attempt at back-pedaling.

We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers.

I'm not sure I buy that line. We've seen President Obama with other people before; he's a political figure, and we expect that he is usually surrounded by a number of people. In fact, showing him interacting with local figures who are dealing with the oil spill crisis in their everyday lives might have brought the President's compassion levels up a few steps. The forlorn, standing alone Obama makes one statement. The Obama working things out with people affected by the spill makes an other. I don't believe that the public would have been confused by an "unknown woman." Simply address the woman in the article on the inside of your magazine. Problem solved.

The mainstream media can't seem to learn the problems that accompany photoshopping. Magazines and fashion companies have been caught photoshopping already thin models into something that they were most obviously not. Advertorial photos maybe get a little more leeway, because they're trying to sell something. Historical photos are not trying to sell me clothes. They are meant to represent what happened, how it happened. Removing someone from the scene is editing history. If we don't want fashion magazines photoshopping their models, why would we want a news source to do so? If a news publication is doing so with its photo editing, what are they doing with their words?

I turned to some other photographers and journalists to see what they were saying.

Jessica Blum at PetaPixel points out that the edits do more than provide an aesthetic quality.

This is a huge problem because The Economist’s omissions entirely change the tone of the image in order to make Obama appear alone, hanging his head, when in fact he is likely looking down at the beach while in conversation with the two people next to him. Additionally, according to journalism ethics, news photos should not be altered, especially to this extent.

Ken Kobre, a professor of journalism, had some thoughts and an amusing title: The Big Cheese Doesn't Stand Alone.

The Economist violated Reuters' own strict photo-editing policies. In its defense, deputy editor Emma Duncan declared (in an email to the N.Y. Times) that cropping Allen was justified, and that Randolph was "removed not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers. I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story."

Still, that was indubitably the net effect -- all the more proof that any photo editing that fudges reality is bound to create more problems than it solves.

The Online Photographer makes a good point in his own post with this argument:

And the MM [mainstream media] wonders why its sustainability is such a greased pig these days? Betrayals of trust, large and small, left and right.

Additionally, the comment string on that post is fantastic, with points both in favor and against the photoshopped cover.

Denver, Colorado photojournalist Kevin Moloney didn't buy the excuses given by The Economist.

“Obvious” is the key there. Digital alterations of news images is a hot-button issue because as journalists we seek to not deceive readers. I frankly have no trouble with heavy-handed art made from news images in news publications as long as it is patently obvious to the average reader that the image has been rethought, combined with others or torqued beyond question. I have not seen that March 27 cover, but I would guess it is pretty clearly a digital mashup. But this June 19 case is certainly not so. They made this woman disappear in a way that Stalin would envy.

Camera West Blog finally nails it succinctly.

Take a close look at both the original photo and the cover. They tell two different stories. Two different emotions. The cropped and photoshopped version is clearly the most compelling but it's a lie.

A lie has no place in any form of journalism.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Does this level of photoshopping have a place in the news?

Jenna Hatfield (@FireMom), from Stop, Drop and Blog and The Chronicles of Munchkin Land, is a freelance writer and newspaper photographer.


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