What is truth? – manipulation of photographic images – Digital Knowledge

What is truth? – manipulation of photographic images – Digital Knowledge – Column

Sheri Rosen

Quotation marks are handy symbols. Writers conveniently and clearly tell readers when a statement reflects exactly what was said.

Well, most of the time, that is. It’s a practice of some organizational publications to correct grammatical errors in a quote, for example. But if a writer changes words or summarizes a speaker’s statement, out go the quote marks.

The truth gets fuzzy in photographs.

Photojournalists freeze a moment in truth. Their prints once became halftones, and that was that; now they become digital images that can be manipulated without anyone knowing.

There are no quote harks.

The code of the American Society of Media Photographers places the responsibility on the photojournalist to never alter the content or meaning of a news photograph.

But in reality, long-standing darkroom techniques as tame as burning and dodging can hedge the visual truth. Then, once an art director gets hold of the image, digital alteration and manipulation go a step further. It’s easy to take out a person in the crowd, for example. You’d never really know by just looking at a photograph that it wasn’t what the photographer saw through the viewfinder.

What are we dealing with here? Ethical questions? Or legal issues?

Attorneys at Weyerhaeuser Co. (Washington state) advised editors of Weyerhaeuser Today that alterations that were not misleading shouldn’t present legal problems. But there was that one photo that already had appeared in a company publication; a strategically placed, computer generated bush covered the fact that one person was wearing the wrong kind of safety boots. It won’t happen again.

“Safety is our top priority at Weyerhaeuser. For us to correct an unsafe situation with a computer probably would put us at risk if someone in that situation had gotten hurt and we had falsified the way things were,” said Dan Berglund, Weyerhaeuser Today graphic designer.

After those conversations with the lawyers a couple of years ago, Weyerhaeuser developed guidelines for digitized photos. It’s OK to:

* darken overexposed areas and lighten underexposed areas or make minor improvements that previously would have been done in a darkroom,

* improve the appearance of people, such as removing blemishes,

* remove elements that would distract from the main message of the photo (you know, the telephone pole growing from someone’s head), and

* correct optical illusions created by the camera.

On the flip side, nothing can be added, removed, or changed that would:

* alter the main message of the photo,

* create an image that would look different from the way those present remember it, or

* make subjects appear to be working in a safer manner than they actually were when the photo was taken.

For Berglund, the message is clear: “We don’t try to tell a story other than what’s in the photograph.” On the other hand, he’s had good results with digital manipulation. “We’ve salvaged poor or underexposed shots. We’re using it to give us better photos, not different photos,” he said.

At the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, the concern is ethical. Does the manipulation of a photograph unfairly influence the reader?

If text can carry a symbol of truth like quote marks, why can’t photos carry a similar symbol? That’s exactly what the school’s Committee for New Standards for Photographic Reproduction in the Media calls for. “We are suggesting that a label be placed next to every image that has been significantly manipulated while still appearing to have been created by photographic processes,” reports the committee.

The committee proposes two icons. Unaltered images earn a boxed circle icon, with the circle representing a camera lens. Altered photos get a similar icon, only this one has a slash through it. Either way, the icon should appear just outside the bottom perimeter – left or right – of the image, says the committee.

And just what qualifies as altering? Just about anything that goes beyond those traditional darkroom techniques.

Icons are a convention of computer screen graphics, and in fact, the committee suggests using the not-a-lens icon for interactive media or television news, not just printed publications.

This committee is serious: “What is at stake is the photographic document’s credibility, the authority of the news media, and the ability of citizens in a democracy to be informed as to the nature of the world in which they live.”

In truth, these lofty ideals are not so far removed from organizational communication.

Sheri Rosen, ABC, is senior employee communication specialist at USAA in San Antonio. You also can write her at Consult Rosen Communication, 7502 Camomile Cove, San Antonio, TX 78249. She invites your E-mail about “Digital Knowledge” via CompuServe at 76547, 23001.

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