Friday 26 February 2010

Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography / Visual lies

It is time to get back to the theme of this report - the ethics involved with the use of computers to process images.
I like the Weekly World News. It provides a constant source of photos for these discussions about ethics. One of the more famous front pages shows a space alien shaking hands with President Clinton. It is a wonderful photo, guaranteed to make the career of any photographer who manages to get an exclusive shot of this event.
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We can laugh at this photo and I have no real problem with the Weekly World News running such digitally created photos because of the context of where this photo is running. This is the second of the vocabulary words I want to give you: CONTEXT. Where the photo runs makes all the difference in the world. If this same photo ran on the front page of the New York Times, it would damage the credibility of the Times. In the context of the Weekly World News, it cannot damage their credibility because that newspaper does not have any credibility to begin with (it seems we need to create a new set of terms when we can refer to the weekly World News and the New York Times both as newspapers).
Context becomes a problem when we find digitally altered photos in reputable publications, and there have been many. For example, the cover of TexasMonthly once ran a photo of then Governor Ann Richards astride a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle. It came out that the only part of the photo that was Ann Richards was her head. The body on the motorcycle belonged to a model and the head of the governor was electronically attached to the model.

On the credit page in very small type, the editors claimed they explained what they had done and that this disclosure exonerated them.
They wrote:

    Cover Photograph by Jim Myers
    Styling by Karen Eubank
    Accessories courtesy of Rancho Loco, Dallas;
    boots courtesy of Boot Town, Dallas;
    motorcycle and leather jacket courtesy of Harley-Davidson, Dallas;
    Leather pants by Patricia Wolfe
    Stock photograph (head shot) By Kevin Vandivier / Texastock
In the first place this was buried on the bottom of a page very few people look at, in a type size few over 40 can read and was worded in a way as to be incomprehensible.

Secondly, my feeling is that no amount of captioning can forgive a visual lie. In the context of news, if a photo looks real, it better be real. This photo looked real but it was a fake. We have an obligation to history to leave behind us a collection of real photographs. This photo of Ann Richards entered into the public domain and on the day she lost her reelection bid, AP ran the photo on the wire for its clients. AP had to run a mandatory kill when they were informed it was not a real photo.
Written Lies

Janet Cooke was a reporter at the Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for a story she wrote about an eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. The Prize was taken back and she was fired when it was discovered that she made up the story. Can you imagine if the Post put a disclaimer in italics at the end of the story when it first ran, that said something along these lines: "We know this exact kid does not exist but we also know this kind of thing does happen and so we created this one composite kid to personalize the story. Even though Jimmy does not exist you can believe everything else we wrote." The Post would have been the laughing stock of the industry and yet this is what TexasMonthly is doing by captioning away a visual lie. You have to have the same respect for the visual image as you have for the written word. You do not lie with words, nor should you lie with photographs.