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Photography and deception

This note is about documentary photography (i.e. photojournalism and nature photography), where the authenticity is an integral part of the image. In other photographic genres (e.g. glamour, fashion, art and advertising) there are no norms mandating authenticity.

The US National Press Photographers Association's Code of Ethics puts severe restrictions on how a photograph may be edited:

Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate images […] in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

This rule has lead to the dismissal of Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj and Los Angeles Times staff photographer Brian Walski, resignation of Toledo Blade staff photographer Allan Detrich, while photojournalist Patrick Schneider has been being stripped of an award and temporary suspended.

Hajj's and Walski's actions are universally condemned. The Scnheider case is more controversial. Read, for instance, photographer Pedro Meyers defence of Schneider, and the blogged debates at PhotoDude, and MetaFilter.

The Hajj incident prompted Reuters address to impose new and stricter rules for field photographers. Under Reuters' new rules, only minor Photoshop work (cropping, resizing, sharpening, levels adjustment, and removal of dust) can be done in the field by the photographer. The new rules also outlines how Reuters plan to treat photographs captured in a controlled environment, as well as staged and posed photographs. Reuters will allow such photographs, but to make sure the caption divulge the true context of capture.

Both Canon and Nikon offer software intended to verify that a digital photo taken with one of their DSLRs is authentic and unedited. However, the digital signature that this software rely on, both for Canon and for Nikon, has been cracked by Russian cryptography experts Elcomsoft.

According to this story in Wired, Adobe was at one point developing a plugin for Photoshop that will make sure field photographers do not alter photographs, but so far, nothing has surfaced.

In a recent editorial, John C. Dvorak argues that most photographs are “fakes”, and that this often has little to do with photo manipulation:

When we really examine photographs, most of them are fakes in the sense that they don't capture reality. When you see photos of President Bush shaking hands with some diplomat, how fake is that? “Mr. President, look over here. Shake his hand again.” Ribbon cuttings, Derek Jeter signing an autograph, Aunt Millie holding a baby, all posed, fake by any standard. Nobody complains.

Dvorak has a point. Not only are a lot of news photos posed and arranged, but many controversial news photographs are captured in controlled or manipulated environments. In conflict zones, the parties involved are well aware of the power of the press, and may stage “photo opportunities” for propaganda purposes. When field photographers work “embedded” in military units, they are for all intents and purposes working under control by the military. In such cases, their controlling officer can allow access to some zones, while restricting access to others, and thereby have a strong influence on what parts of reality the photographer is able to capture. And even the minute parts that the photographer is able to control himself is subject to other selection mechanisms. By choice of the angle, focal length, point of view, or by leaving things in or out of the scene, by adding or removing objects, the photographer can impose his own meaning on the scene which may or may not coincide with the truth. As this controversy over a 9/11 photograph shows, even that an (inaccurate) caption can alter the meaning of an image.

Below is a short taxonomy of how photographs may deceive:

  1. The photographer is staging a scene or moving objects, and presenting photos of such set-ups as if they were naturally occurring.
  2. The photographer is under control by a third party, and his reporting is restricted by what is allowed or made available by that party.
  3. The photographer capturing scenes staged for propaganda purposes by third parties and presenting the images as if they were of naturally occurring news events.
  4. The photographer or editor giving false or misleading or deceptive captions to otherwise real photos.
  5. The photographer or editor is manipulating the images digitally, or in the darkroom, after the photographs have been taken.

Most of the focus about photography and deception has been on outright manipulation of the photographic image (#5 in the list above). However, the public should be aware that unaltered photographs (#1-4) may be just as deceptive.

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