Photoshop and Photojournalism - Digital Vs. Analog Week on BTR


Photo illustration by: Rachel Steinhauser

When a New York Hasidic newspaper, Der Tzitung, artfully removed two women from a photograph of President Obama and his national security advisors monitoring the mission against Osama Bin Laden from the White House Situation Room, it may have brought to mind the extent to which technology can be used to cull history at the mercy of its author. Those two women were hardly anonymous, one being Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the other, Audrey Tomason, the Director for Counterterrorism.

“Photoshopping” has become the definitive verb for the practice of altering images. It was born of the popularity and ever usefulness of Adobe’s Photoshop image editing software used by professionals and amateurs alike. For digital photographers, Photoshop is the modern day darkroom. In addition to providing classic techniques such as “dodging” (lightening a specific area) and “burning” (darkening a specific area), the software has the power to warp reality, exchanging one face for another, buffing human skin to visual perfection, and in the aforementioned case, remove an entire person from a scene.

These are, of course, extreme cases of image tampering, not the usual editing meant to correct imperfections in exposure or contrast. However, even subtle, corrective changes to the integrity of a photograph may shape the viewer’s perception of the event captured in the image. Many digital photographs are processed several times over, initially within the camera itself based on the manual settings, and afterwards in Photoshop or a similar image editing software. Even a prudent turn of a dial to correct exposure can make an overly bright scene appear gloomy and formidable.

Perhaps, the most significant level of image processing is an inevitable dose of vanity. Photojournalists use software to create the photographs they meant to capture because even the most advanced digital cameras fail to record a scene the way the human eye sees it. What’s more, just as a reporter skillfully arranges words in a sentence to pull the reader’s attention towards a dramatic point, photojournalists edit their images to draw the viewer’s eyes to certain areas of importance.

Unfortunately, photography suffers from the age-old fallacy that photographs are absolute truth. This may hold photographers to unfair and impractical standards. Just the mere act of taking a photo is subjective and all the corrective processes following it are par for the course. Yet, technology has outpaced the current code of ethics governing honest photojournalism in a time when the intention behind image editing is almost of as much importance as the very act itself.

The National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics states:

“Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.”

This statement, however, leaves much discretion to journalists and editors to decide what is or isn’t misleading. It makes no mention of a growing palette of digital tools and techniques that may blur the line between misrepresentation and subtle enhancement.

In truth, Photoshop is hardly a threat to modern photojournalism. Before computers became the cornerstone of creativity, the darkroom provided an adequate supply of tools for gross image alteration in addition to the traditional staging of photos. Still, the wealth of image editing tools Photoshop provides over the darkroom should be tempered by each photographer’s own sense of integrity further buffered by the integrity of the publication’s editor.

There are simple and effective ways to safeguard against misleading photojournalism, one being the manner in which digital cameras store images. Most professional digital cameras can be setup to store raw, unprocessed originals on an external memory card. Even if the image is later edited, the original file will always exist until deleted, allowing the editor to compare the before and afters of each photograph to evaluate them for deceptive alterations. The same safeguards exist for journalists who take audio recordings of interviews or scribble notes.

While a Google search may turn up several instances of Photoshop abuse in popular media, these are the products of bad journalism and not the fault of a highly resourceful, innovative piece of software. Like any tool, Photoshop is only as virtuous as the individual using it. Photojournalists who aggressively alter their images to dramatic effect for the sake of attention, money or praise, poison an otherwise healthy practice of image enhancement.  Good, honest photojournalists add much needed context and meaning to their photographs through careful and deliberate editing, though never venturing so far as to distort reality.

After all, if a picture is worth a 1000 words, perhaps the journalists who take them deserve a sentence or two in telling the visual story.

Written by: Ugonna Igweatu