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Photo Manipulation: How Far is Too Far?

At a memorial service, a newspaper photographer repositioned a   photograph of the deceased so that it would be more clearly visible   behind the mourners. This photo of the manipulated scene was never published. At a memorial service, a newspaper photographer repositioned a photograph of the deceased so that it would be more clearly visible behind the mourners. This photo of the manipulated scene was never published.
© Tony Overman / The Olympia

NPPA president Todd Stricker addresses the issue of photojournalistic ethics.

It’s all about the truth. It really is that simple. The photojournalist’s job is to take the pictures that best tell the story and portray the truth. Whether you work in television or with still images, the rules are the same now as they were back when the first news picture was taken.

Or are they?

The National Press Photographers Association has a code of ethics that every photographer must agree to upon joining the association. Part of that code is, “It is the individual responsibility of every photojournalist, at all times, to strive for pictures that report truthfully, honestly and objectively.” But what exactly is a truthful, honest and objective picture? It’s an ongoing discussion, and there is no end to it in sight.

Photojournalists today have an unprecedented array of tools at their disposal: Photoshop, Illustrator, Avid, Quantum and many others. While these tools make us more efficient and better able to do our jobs, they also make it easier than ever to manipulate the images we work with. And the same question still applies: How much manipulation is too much? Just about everyone I have spoken with on the subject would love to have a black-and-white answer, but there isn’t one, and there won’t be one in the foreseeable future.

As photojournalists, we believe that credibility is our greatest asset. Every time an image is altered beyond truth, that credibility slowly erodes. Remember your first movie? I know that I watched with a youthful innocence and believed that everything I saw was true. Superman could fly, I was sure of it. Then, over the years, I learned about stuntmen and all of the tricks they used to make Superman fly, and I began to question the images I saw.

Our viewers and readers start out pretty much the same way, only now we are talking about documenting reality, not adapting comic books. Every time a photojournalist stages a photo or pushes the boundaries of alteration too far, viewers lose a little more faith in what they see. Once they lose faith, we must expend 20 times more time and energy trying to regain it.

Almost every photographic technique, from cropping the image to darkening, lightening or setting up the background in a picture, has been criticized at one time or another as a violation of that faith. Most instances are open to broad interpretation. However, there are times when it is obvious that someone has gone too far. Tony Overman, a staff photojournalist for The Olympian, in Olympia, Wash., recalled an incident of a memorial service for a college basketball player who had died.

“There were two large photos of the young man set up on each side of the podium,” Overman said. “Following the memorial service, some friends of the young man gathered to the side of the stage to hug and comfort each other. The photos were facing forward. A photographer from another paper walked up [and] turned [one] photo 90 degrees so it was behind the hugging friends and now facing the photographers. Soon, nearly all of the photographers covering the event were shooting the scene. Many of them may not have seen the other photographer manipulate the situation. But I did, so I didn’t use the set-up situation.”

This seems like a pretty clear case of breaching journalistic ethics, but some of the other photographers apparently saw it differently. Out of fairness, Overman said that some of the other photographers at the memorial may not have seen the picture moved before they took their photographs, but some clearly did and continued to shoot the scene anyway.

Adding to an image is another obvious offense, yet it happens frequently. While covering the war in Iraq, Los Angeles Times photographer Brian Walski chose to combine two separate photos into a single image of a British soldier guarding Iraqi civilians. After the photo ran on the front page on March 31, the manipulation was discovered and Walski was fired from the Times. (To compare the final image with the two original images, visit the Poynter Institute’s website.

In July, the North Carolina Press Photographers Association revoked three awards initially given to Charlotte Observer photographer Patrick Schneider, in its 2002 Photographer of the Year contest due to digitally changed backgrounds.

Whatever their reasons at the time, the decisions of shooters like Walski and Schneider have changed their lives and affected the futures of everyone else in photojournalism. Their bad judgment eroded a little more of the faith our readers and viewers still have in the presentation of the news.

At NPPA, we truly believe that credibility is our greatest asset. John Long, chairman of our ethics committee is working to revise our current code of ethics, which you can find on our website at www.nppa.org. As part of this revision, the ethics committee is working on a list of questions that all photojournalists should ask themselves.

The list will be designed to help photographers find their own answers to the question, “How far is too far?” Not only must readers and viewers rely on photojournalists to educate and inform them, they must trust that the shooters are making the right decisions and are honest in their pictures.

Todd Stricker
Story Author: Todd Stricker

Todd Stricker, a photojournalist with KSAT-TV in San Antonio, Texas, is president of the National Press Photographers Association.

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