When Rich Lam went to bed early on the morning of June 16 last year, he had no reason to suspect he’d wake up to a media frenzy.
The night before, Lam was on assignment for Getty photographing riots in Vancouver after the city’s hockey team, the Canucks, lost the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins. According to Canadian news reports, several people were stabbed during the riots, cars were set on fire, stores were looted and police carrying shields moved in to control the crowd.
Lam had shot protests and riots before, so the dangerous environment was nothing new to him. At one point while Lam was standing behind a police line, he snapped a few frames of what he believed to be a man helping a woman who’d fallen in the street. The pair were about 30 to 50 yards away, so Lam zoomed in, making sure the woman’s legs were in focus. Then he “never looked at that photo again.”
Lam returned to his editors, who were on-site for the big game to assist with cropping photos and writing captions. “Another photographer told me, ‘Hey, nice picture of the couple kissing,’” Lam recalls. “I only saw it on the screen for about 30 seconds.”
The next day, that photo went viral. Questions about the kissing couple circulated around the globe as the photo was shared on Twitter and Facebook. News media searched for the couple’s identity. Bloggers started to question if the shot was staged or if the photo had been manipulated.
That’s when Lam’s phone started to ring with questions he didn’t have answers to. He hadn’t gotten the couple’s names because they were on the other side of the police line. And if the moment was staged, “I knew I wasn’t any part of it,” Lam says. At the request of his editors, Lam provided other photos from the kiss sequence to prove the moment wasn’t staged.
But the doubts from bloggers were almost insulting. Lam had built a solid reputation as a photographer for the past 15 years. “I understand it’s their job to hear from the horse’s mouth if it was doctored,” Lam says of the journalists who questioned him. “No one could accept a good photo for just that — a good photo.”
So why is the public starting to see problems where there are none?
Part of the problem has to do with the existence of more savvy news consumers, who, ethicists and photojournalists say, have become more skeptical of news photos in recent years, as coverage of photo manipulation scandals becomes more frequent and prominent. Consumers also have seen for themselves what they themselves can do with relatively inexpensive and easy-to-use digital manipulation software like Photoshop.
“The credibility of the photojournalist that we once had as documenters of what’s happening in the world, it definitely takes a big hit when people start fooling around with it,” Lam says. “It’s that whole thing of one rotten apple spoils the bunch. Once you fool the reader... they’ll have that perception of ‘What’s stopping this person or that person from doing it?’”
But that skepticism isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Your average citizens are learning about journalism and how it works and to not trust everything they see or read,” says Paul Martin Lester, a professor at California State University, Fullerton, who’s written extensively about evolving photojournalism ethics. “I would think you want to be skeptical of what you see. So it’s really a positive influence on the public’s state of mind.”
Lester notes that photo manipulation didn’t begin in 1990 with the release of Photoshop. In his book “Photojournalism an Ethical Approach,” Lester traces the first faked photo back to 1840 when a Frenchman posed as a corpse. Throughout photography’s early history there have been examples of photographers who made photo composites and passed them off as one moment in time, bodies of Civil War soldiers that were moved for dramatic effect and mash-ups done in the darkroom. For example, the popular full-length portrait of President Abraham Lincoln that appears on the $5 bill is actually Lincoln’s head atop a Southern politician’s body.
And in the early 20th century, staging a shot wasn’t considered as unethical as it is today. Lester uses Dorothea Lange’s famous “Migrant Mother” photo as an example. In it, the children were directed to turn away from the camera and part of a distracting hand holding the tent flap was airbrushed from the image.
This changed by the 1950s, Lester says, when academic institutions like the University of Missouri started offering photojournalism majors and professional organizations like the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) started to group photographers together, offering them guidance and making them think more like professionals. Eventually, codes of ethics for photographers were drafted and universities added ethics courses that became integral to photojournalism programs.
Since the 1950s, photojournalism codes of ethics have consistently stated that you cannot add or subtract from an image in a way that distorts reality, Lester says. The current NPPA code of conduct urges photographers to stay away from stage-managed photos and prohibits them from doing anything that deliberately alters the events unfolding before them. The editing process must “maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context.” Images shouldn’t be manipulated in a way that misleads viewers or misrepresents subjects.
The fundamental philosophy of photojournalism ethics might sound intuitive, but that’s because the problem has less to do with ethics than how they are put into practice, says Kevin Connor, president of Fourandsix, (a word play on “forensics”), a company that’s working to develop tools that analyze and authenticate digital images.
Many photojournalists say they stick to alterations in Photoshop that they could have done in the darkroom. But for journalists who were raised on digital cameras, that might be a difficult basis for judgement calls.
To solve this, some organizations provide specific limits on what can be done in Photoshop. For example, the Associated Press allows photographers to make “minor adjustments” such as cropping, dodging and burning, converting to grayscale, toning and color adjustments that “restore the authentic nature of the photograph.” Use of the cloning tool (which copies and pastes part of the picture) is only permitted to eliminate dust on camera sensors or scratches on scanned negatives. Removal of “red eye” is not allowed.
But there are no hard and fast rules as to which Photoshop tools are off limits.
“The challenge here is it is contextual,” says Connor, who worked at Adobe for 15 years, mostly on Photoshop products, and now blogs about photo editing. “Those same things that you do that are valid, if pushed too far can become inappropriate.”
One of the most famous examples of taking photo manipulation too far is Time’s 1994 cover of O.J. Simpson, which darkened Simpson’s mugshot in a way that made him look menacing. Lightening or darkening is not inherently wrong, Connor says, “but if you do it in a way that has a specific meaning or impacts in a sensitive way, that’s out of line.”
Most photo editors and contest judges know to look for certain clues that a photo has been doctored. According to a 2007 American Journalism Review article about photo manipulation, “the most common signs are differences in color or shadows, variations in graininess or pixilation, blurred images or elements in the photo that are too bright or much sharper than the rest.”
Of course, many photo manipulations are too slight to see with the naked eye, which is why increasingly sophisticated methods are being developed to tell a user where and how an image has been changed. Known as “digital image forensics,” the field is still rather new and niche, but companies like Fourandsix see the image verification tools they are developing as being useful not only to newsrooms but also within the scientific community and for law enforcement.
In a 2008 feature for Scientific American, Hany Farid, Fourandsix’s chief technology officer and a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College, wrote about the algorithms he’d developed to help detect if a photo had been manipulated. Because there are many different ways to manipulate a photo and many degrees of manipulation, Farid worked on several methods.
One algorithm estimated the direction of light sources to see if a photo composite had been made. Another determined the consistency of light being reflected back into people’s eyes, to see if they’d actually been photographed in the same place and time. A third looked for identical blocks of pixels repeated throughout an image that would suggest the cloning tool had been used. A fourth examined the image’s pixel correlations, which if incorrect for the camera used would suggest spots of the photo or the entire image had been changed.
But a major problem, Farid wrote, is that as software continues to improve, “forgers will work on finding ways to fool each algorithm.”
“As with the spam/antispam and virus/antivirus game, not to mention criminal activity in general, an arms race between the perpetrator and the forensic analyst is inevitable,” he continued. “The field of image forensics will, however, continue to make it harder and more time-consuming (but never impossible) to create a forgery that cannot be detected.”
Connor says that ideally, future manipulation detection products will have a suite of tools that look for different signs of what’s been done to an image. But he doubts any photo manipulation detection software would ever be completely automated, since it depends on how far one takes an editing tool, not whether it has been used at all. “You really can’t remove the human judgement from it,” he said.
Part of the NPPA code of conduct dictates that “visual journalists should continuously study their craft and the ethics that guide it.” And as photographic technology evolves, newsrooms and photojournalists are constantly reevaluating and redefining the boundaries they follow, often becoming more specific in their code of conduct language, Connor writes.
Lester says it’s possible that certain technologies that are frowned on now could become more acceptable as they’re used more frequently. He uses an example HDR, or high-dynamic-range imaging, which is a technique that involves taking multiple pictures at different exposure levels. Those pictures are then “stitched” together in a way that better shows dark and bright areas.
On its Jan. 13 cover, The Washington Post used an HDR image of a bridge at sunset with a plane flying overhead as the water and sky turned a bright orange color. The caption the Post decided to use accompanying the photo read: “This image is a composite created by taking several photos and combining them with computer software to transcend the visual limitations of standard photography.”
Poynter spoke to the Post’s director of photography, Michel du Cille, about the choice; du Cille said he wanted his photographers to experiment with new techniques and technologies, reasoning, “Ten years from now, HDR may be built into cameras, and who will know it?” But NPPA’s president told Poynter that HDR is a digital manipulation “not appropriate for documentary photojournalism” because it goes against the organization’s code of ethics tenant to “respect the integrity of the photographic moment.”
The use of camera phones as a reporting tool has become increasingly accepted, though the use of camera phone applications still raises quite a bit of controversy. Critics have lashed out at journalists who use apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, which develop photos with a vintage feel, arguing that they produce images that are just as unethical as those that have been manipulated in Photoshop.
But other photojournalists say you can’t categorically dismiss such apps as “always wrong,” in the same way Connor says that no Photoshop tool is always used to mislead.
Deciding whether a certain camera or an app is appropriate to use all boils down to two questions, says Chicago-based photojournalist Sally Ryan: “What are you shooting and what are you trying to say?”
Ryan, who shoots for the New York Times, says that as a photographer, you need to decide before you shoot what message you’re trying to convey and how you’ll present the image after it’s taken. It comes back to context, she says.
Last year, New York Times photographer Damon Winter won an award from Pictures of the Year International for a series of photographs taken on his iPhone using Hipstamatic. The photos accompanied a feature story that detailed the unglamorous day-to-day life of soldiers in Afghanistan.
Critics argued Winter should not have won the award, or used the app to take the photos, and after some time, Winter responded in a lengthy post on the Times’ photo blog.
He argued in support of using the camera phone, which is more discreet and less intimidating for soldiers. In adherence to photojournalism ethics, no content was “added, taken away, obscured or altered,” he wrote. The issue that inflamed critics, he argued, involved not content, but aesthetics, something that, like the field of photojournalism itself, is subjective. Ultimately, viewers must accept that photographers are in control of the image they present, and trust them to tell the truth, if only a version of it.
“We observe, we chose moments, we frame little slices of our world with our viewfinders, we even decide how much or how little light will illuminate our subjects, and — yes — we choose what equipment to use,” Winter wrote. “We are not walking photocopiers. We are storytellers.”
Kalyn Belsha is a freelance journalist based in Chicago whose work has appeared in The Texas Observer, Time Out Chicago and Hoy Chicago. She holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.