Posted by Jeff Werth
The competition to claim the perfect shot clouds the ethics of some photojournalists.
In February 2012, the Sacramento Bee fired longtime photojournalist Bryan Patrick for violating the paper’s ethics policy forbidding the manipulation of documentary photographs. He created this composite – the bottom image marked manipulated photograph – of a snowy egret stealing a frog from a great egret from the two images about it. After an investigation of his work, the paper found he had manipulated at least two other photographs, which calls in question his entire career as a photojournalist.
Why would a photojournalist risk everything for such a trivial photograph?
As both artists and journalists, photojournalists balance the conflicting desires of achieving the best image possible and documenting the authentic situation. With photo manipulation software like Photoshop, photojournalists gain power over any aspect of their photographs. They achieve the ability to create the perfect shot, but it comes at a cost.
When the temptation of the artist wins over judgment of the journalist, a photograph’s and a photojournalist’s integrity ceases to exist. 10,000 Words features a list of 10 news photos that took photo retouching too far.
The National Press Photographers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists maintain strict ethical standards for news images. Using these standards as a reference, I generated a set of guidelines for photojournalists.
Photo Editing Guidelines for Photojournalists
- Maintain the content of the image. Each picture contains a moment in time that can’t be shared. Find the best shot and live with it. Leave the imperfections since reality isn’t perfect either.
- Affect the entire image. Photojournalists can adjust factors that affect entire image such as contrast, cropping, and sharpening. If you can do it in the field with the camera, then it can do it in Photoshop. Don’t overly affect the context of the image.
- Label photo illustrations or montages. If a picture has been altered beyond these two guidelines, label it as such. This maintains the photograph’s integrity because it acknowledges the image was created, not shot.
Photojournalists tell stories with their cameras and are bound by the same ethics as other journalists. Even though Photoshop allows photojournalists to make the perfect shot, they must fight the temptation to set aside their ethics.
Does photo retouching make you question the authenticity of photographs? How important is knowing that a photograph is a photograph, not a created image?
Photo Credit: Copyright 2012 The Sacramento Bee