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Real photographs

A few years ago, I sat next to an AP photographer on a press bus as he deftly photoshopped an image he’d just taken. I asked him if he was allowed to do that, and he said the rule was that he could do anything with Photoshop that he could have done in a darkroom.

I thought of him when I saw the NY Times’ embarrassed retraction of a photo essay it had published. It turns out that the photographer had “digitally manipulated” the photos without telling his editor. Unfortunately, the NYT removed all of the photos, rather than keeping them up with the metadata that the digital manipulation had gone beyond editorial guidelines, and without telling us what those guidelines are. For all photos are manipulated. The photographer frames them, decides on what to focus on and how much of the photo should be in focus, etc., and then completes the manipulation in the darkroom, whether it’s analog or digital. To think otherwise is to fall prey to the fallacy of photographic realism that Susan Sontag warned us against.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what the NYT’s guidelines are and then hold a contest to see who can create the most deceptive photo while staying within those guidelines?

Scott Rosenberg, a founder of Salon and the author of a terrific new history of blogging (Say Everything), provides us with reflections on what could be one of the entries, based on stories he did for the San Francisco Examiner and Wired about the photographer Pedro Meyer. Really interesting. (Embarassingly, Scott cites me at the very end.)

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6 Responses to “Real photographs”

  1. I believe it’s fine to do adjustments such as exposure and even color in an effort to make them more closely represent how the scene looked to the eye. On-the-go photography is always prone to getting light levels and light color wrong. The world is not a studio, and you don’t always have time to meter these things before you shoot. Pretty neat idea to disclose these adjustments, though. I’d like to see that.

    Other adjustments such as spot removal and compositing two or more separate images should be off-limits in photojournalism period, disclosure or not.

  2. Don’t know if they’ve got other specified guidelines, but here’s what I could find. (

    “Images in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions). Adjustments of color or gray scale should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction, analogous to the “burning” and “dodging” that formerly took place in darkroom processing of images. Pictures of news situations must not be posed. In the cases of collages, montages, portraits, fashion or home design illustrations, fanciful contrived situations and demonstrations of how a device is used, our intervention should be unmistakable to the reader, and unmistakably free of intent to deceive. Captions and credits should further acknowledge our intervention if the slightest doubt is possible. The design director, a masthead editor or the news desk should be consulted on doubtful cases or proposals for exceptions.”

  3. “Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what the NYT’s guidelines are and then hold a contest to see who can create the most deceptive photo while staying within those guidelines?”

    I’d break this into its several parts to hold it accountable to the interests woven in the statement.

    It would be interesting to see what the NYT’s guidelines for photos are.
    It would be interesting to see how the NYT holds their photographers accountable to these guidelines.
    It would be interesting to see how the NYT decided that this particular deception merited censor.
    It would be interesting to hold a contest to see how deceptive a photograph could become while still maintaining NYT’s guidelines.
    It would be interesting to see what photographers and digital tricksters would create while trying to maintain those guidelines.

    This is not even a full parsing, and I’m all on-board.

  4. The totally weird things about the Times situation are

    1. the photographer in question specifically andvocally talks about how he does NO photo manipulation, combined with
    2. the photos in question weren’t just lightly edited, they were completely fabricated. In one case an interior sht of a house was created by mirroring one half of the house into the other side of the photo and then making minor alterations. The resulting image is not at all a photograph of the house, it’s a purely digital creation.

    I watched this whole thing unfold and I think people are missing some of the real issues because of the gloss about how much photoshoppery is or is not okay, and what limits should we put on editing digital images. An interesting question, but not the main issue with the NYT event yesterday.

    More from the Times
    Some specifics about those images
    Obligatory MetaFilter thread

  5. Justin, thanks for the quick posting of the guidelines.

    Jessamyn, Scott R’s post is clear about the extent of the manipulation, which I’m not defending at all. Nevertheless, the line is smudgy overall, as the NYT’s guidelines acknowledge. And I still would have preferred for the NYT to leave the photos up, with a disclaimer about their realism, if only because now talking about the issue has to be done in the dark, so to speak.

    PS: I “photoshopped” a typo out of your post; I hope I didn’t violate anyone’s guidelines! :)

  6. Reuters recently released their Handbook of Journalism online–and it turns out they’ve got a particularly detailed list of what they do and don’t allow:

    (Not the NYT, of course, but still interesting.)

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