Musings on the Ethical implications of image manipulation and more

Streams of sunlight breaking through the cloud over the Exe estuary, Devon.

1. Streams of sunlight breaking through the cloud over the Exe estuary, Devon.
Monochrome image conversion using Silver Efex

Since photography began, images have been manipulated to show what the photographer or client intended whether that be by choice of film and lighting, by negative (or positive) processing technique, or colouring, burning and dodging prints amongst others. In photojournalism, image manipulation is a no-no, the clue being in the word stem journalism defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the practice of communicating news by photographs”. If the image is manipulated so is the message (the news) it is conveying and with that the bias, effectively news becomes propaganda ( information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view – OED). There is a school of thought that says no image can be totally objective which is of course true. Interpretation (of a story or event) is an integral part of journalism. The journalist interprets what the event they see, read and hear and this interpretation can lead to bias. This is no different with photography and photojournalism:

Questions of interpretation 1.

Where do you shoot from? Police lines or protester lines? Embedded or free agent in a war zone? How does the perspective from which you shoot alter the image you are shooting in terms of objectivity? What do you include, what do you leave out? How much of the story do you cover?

Questions of interpretation 2.

How do you interpret the image afterwards when processing it? While burning and dodging helps to focus the eye and create a visually pleasing image, including or excluding elements that are there in the original captured frame is generally thought of to be unethical in photojournalism (see National Geographic moves pyramids for cover shot, Reuters Apologizes Over Altered Lebanon War Photos etc etc.) The Washington Post came under attack for using HDR (High Dynamic Range) images to illustrate a story of a plane that crashed into a bridge 30 or so years ago. HDR images are very much in fashion at present. They are captured from several frames that are then blended (usually). This means there is no one decisive moment. The image is mixture of images. Should newspapers be using images that are creative amalgamations or does their use diminish the paper in the eyes of those who believe all papers should use accurate images that reflect the ethics of photojournalism? The argument here is one of artistic interpretation (of an event) rather than a singular image of the event with no alteration to any of the key aspects of the image.

So what of other areas of photography?

river exe estuary near topsham, devon

2. Processed as an RGB image in Photoshop

Well, In other areas of photography there seem to be few ethical considerations as far as image manipulation is concerned (but other forms of photography do have some ethical guidelines as far as shooting and portraying the image are concerned). And so we move onto stock photography. This image is of the River Exe estuary late in the afternoon. It was shot for stock, that is for commercial or editorial stock. Here the division regarding art and journalism becomes pronounced. The top, monochrome, image (1) is great as an art photograph but not as editorial stock. I would argue that the the heavy manipulation forces it out of the editorial arena by nature of that (overt) manipulation. Editorial images are generally illustrative and while I have no doubts this could illustrate something, that is not its natural home. This is not photojournalism and the over-riding consideration is aesthetics or saleability, not ethics. Had it been more subtle then it way well be fine after all; the image is “reality” in that nothing has been added bar image conversion additions (ones that could well have been done with traditional wet processing chemistry). The image above (2) has had an increase in clarity, saturation and contrast along with selective burning and dodging (as can be seen in the RAW image 3. below). In a similar way to the physical film negative, the RAW file is, effectively, a template from which to make the final image. Both allow for adjustments to create a final product.

exe estuary near exeter, devon

3. This is the RAW image converted to sRGB

While this wasn’t intended to be full discourse on the ethics of photography, more musings, ramblings and general thoughts on this issues that affect photographers, it is interesting to examine the guidelines and accepted practices if only to make us think about it more, the worth of photography and its standards.

From Ethics to Other Values

We are in a post-modernist, digital, throwaway society. To some, the value we ascribe to images seems to be diminishing in the Instagram world where images are ubiquitous. To others, the news that more people than ever are taking photographs is a sign that it is more important than ever before. So, aside from image integrity, how much value do we place on photography and photographs? If, in the image above, I said that I had waited for four hours for the clouds to move into position, the sunlight to come through and the tide to be just right, you may view the monochrome picture as a piece of art. If I said that I was cycling past the scene, jumped off the bike and took a quick picture does that diminish the worth of the photo? If a great image is snapped on a smartphone does the same apply?

The language of modern photography – in brief

The language of photography itself can demean a picture. Photojournalists were, and are, often referred to as “snappers” which has connotations of a lack of skill. Likewise the now overused phrase “great capture” is often used by the amateur photographer. Semantically similar to snapper, capture seems to indicate something not quite as skilled as photographing, making or taking a picture but just capturing what is there. Capture, the word, is one often used in digital, not film, photography to describe the electronic process of making an image i.e. Digital Image Capture or digitisation. Is the photograph a “great snap” or a “beautiful photograph”? Did the photographer “get a great capture” or “make a stunning image”. Is digital imagery making us forget that behind great images there is almost always a great deal of skill?