Thursday 8 April 2010

Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography/Changes to Photographs

In one of the early Digital Conferences, the Rev. Don Doll, S.J. pointed out that there are degrees of changes that can be done electronically to a photograph. There are technical changes that deal only with the aspects of photography that make the photo more readable, such as a little dodging and burning, global color correction and contrast control. These are all part of the grammar of photography, just as there is a grammar associated with words (sentence structure, capital letters, paragraphs) that make it possible to read a story, so there is a grammar of photography that allows us to read a photograph. These changes (like their darkroom counterparts) are neither ethical nor unethical - they are merely technical.

Changes to content can be Accidental or Essential (this is an old Aristotelian distinction)- Essential changes change the meaning of the photograph and accidental changes change useless details but do not change the real meaning. Some changes are obviously more important than others. Accidental changes are not as important as Essential changes, but both kinds are still changes.

If you had a photograph of a bride and groom and removed the groom, this would constitute an essential change because it would change the meaning of the photograph. (In fact, there are companies that will provide this service if you get a divorce. I guess the wedding book would end up looking like the bride got all dressed up and married herself.)

In the photos of the ladies on the parade float, the first photo has a set of wires running behind the ladies. In the second photo, the lines have been removed.


It takes only a few seconds with the cloning tool in PhotoShop to remove these lines. Removing the lines is an Accidental change, a change of meaningless details. If we had changed the flag to a Confederate flag, or removed a couple of the ladies, this would have changed the meaning of the photo and it would have been an essential change. But if we just remove the lines, what is the big deal? Who is harmed? As far as I am concerned, we are all harmed by any lie, big or small.

I do not think the public cares if it is a little lie or a big lie As far as they are concerned, once the shutter has been tripped and the moment has been captured on film, in the context of news, we no longer have the right to change the content of the photo in any way. Any change to a news photo - any violation of that moment - is a lie. Big or small, any lie damages your credibility.

The reason I get so adamant when I discuss this issue is that the documentary photograph is a very powerful thing and its power is based on the fact that it is real. The real photograph gives us a window on history; it allows us to be present at the great events of our times and the past. It gets its power from the fact that it represents exactly what the photographer saw through the medium of photography. The raw reality it depicts, the verisimilitude makes the documentary photo come alive. Look at the photo of Robert Kennedy dying on the floor of the hotel in California; look at the works of David Douglas Duncan or the other great war photographers; look at the photo of Martin Luther King martyred on the balcony of a motel in Memphis. The power of these photographs comes from the fact they are real moments in time captured as they happened, unchanged. To change any detail in any of these photographs diminishes their power and turns them into lies. They would no longer be what the photographer saw but what someone else wanted the scene to be. The integrity of the Moment would be destroyed in favor of the editorial concept being foisted, as is the case in the O. J. Simpson TIME cover.