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"It was true that there was no such person as Comrade Oglivy, but a few lines of print and a couple of faked photographs would soon bring him into existence.... Comrade Oglivy, who had never existed in the present, now existed in the past, and when once the act of forgery was forgotten, he would exist just as authentically, and upon the same evidence, as Charlemagne or Julius Caesar."

Orwell 1984

If you Mac it, mark it!

"Pictures and sound should be true and accurate. Any manipulation likely to mislead should be disclosed." Thus the Australian Journalists Association section of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance proposes dealing with the issue of manipulation, in its new (draft) Code of Conduct. So that's that problem put to bed? 'Fraid not. For one thing, there's some influential resistance to the idea of disclosing manipulation of photographs. For another... what exactly is it ethical to do to a photo without declaring it to be "manipulated"?

That's why the photo-manipulation motion at the NUJ's 1996 Annual Delegate Meeting (ADM) dealt with the principles, not with all the details. We need to take time for discussion, persuasion and debate. ADM instructed the National Executive Committee "to campaign in collaboration with appropriate organisations for the adoption of a world-wide convention for the marking of photographs which have been digitally manipulated."

People put two, diametrically opposed, arguments against marking manipulated photos.

One, most forcefully expressed by the US National Press Photographers' Association, is that no photo should ever be manipulated, not nohow, nowhere.

The other goes: we've always manipulated photos -- dodging and burning to get the shadows and highlights in or, more controversially, extracting telegraph poles from people's heads, or... "But why," wrote Bob Bodman, picture editor of the Daily Telegraph, in the British Journal of Photography last March, "be forced into using a dull three-column picture when, by splicing out some empty space in the middle, you are able to make a better two-column picture which the photographer should have taken in the first place?"

Forgive me for saying it, Bob, but you should have hired a better photographer on reasonable terms, instead of presenting readers with what looks like a news photograph but is fiction -- to side- step the philosophers, define that as a scene which was never in front of a lens.

From taking out the boring bits, under the screaming pressure of deadlines and owners it's just a short step to removing inconvenient people from a photo. Older members will remember how Stalin hired squads of photo-manipulators to do the same to Trotsky.

It must have taken them a whole afternoon for each picture. A competent Photoshop operator could do it, much less detectably, in minutes. That's the reason electronic manipulation is more dangerous than the wet'n'messy kind: it's easier, so it'll happen more.

I propose that ease of manipulation be measured in Trotskys per second. When the geeks come up with a system which achieves 25 Trotskys per second, they'll be able to take people out of live TV news footage, and then public confidence in any kind of pictorial reporting will take a nose-dive.

So why do we journalists not agree among ourselves on the purist line? Because manipulated photos are a perfectly valid form of illustration -- for features. They will and should appear in newspapers and magazines.

How many readers, though, could give a snappy definition of the difference between news and the back of the book? I've looked for research on this, without success. I did discover that one US university finds it necessary to teach undergraduates, in words of few syllables, how to tell the difference between an academic journal, a news/opinion paper or mag, and pulp. And what happens in the brave new multimedia, where there is no "back of the book"?

Picture editors, according to the BJP's response to the ADM vote, "reason that the readership is an intelligent one, which can discern the difference between a 'true' photograph and a doctored one." Sorry, no: intelligent is not the same as informed, and informing clearly and honestly is our job. Any time a manipulated photo is used, it must be marked. Because it may be used in electronic media, in which pictures and captions are easily separated, it must be marked within the image area. If that serves as a deterrent, so much the better.

Some opposition may stem from the suggestion -- spread, as far as I can tell, by a couple of Media Studies students -- that some kind of law should be passed on photo-manipulation. To be perfectly clear: that would be very much like the government defining "truth", and it can't happen. This issue must be dealt with by voluntary industry codes. As a start, ADM '96 instructed the NEC to ensure that an addition to the NUJ's Code of Conduct is put to ADM '98.

To write those codes, we need a definition of how much re- touching is manipulation. Here, the US Cavalry rode to our rescue, in the shape of a memorandum from (then) Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch, dated 9 December 1994. The military has the strongest possible interest in photos not misleading. Remember, some photos of Cuba nearly started World War III.

Taking military references out of the US guidelines gives this definition of allowable re-touching:

  • Dodging, burning, colour balancing, spotting and contrast adjustment to achieve accurate recording of an event or object.
  • Photographic and video image enhancement, provided these techniques do not misrepresent the original image's subject.
  • Obvious masking of parts of a photograph for specific security or criminal investigation requirements.
  • Cropping, editing or enlarging to isolate, link or display part of a photograph or video image as long as the event or object's facts or circumstances are not misrepresented.
  • Digitally converting and/or compressing photographic and video imagery without altering content.

Changes which are manipulation and must be marked were defined by Secretary Deutch to include:

  • "repositioning an element in an image;
  • changing the size, shape or physical appearance of an element;
  • merging two or more visual elements into one;
  • adding an element to an image;
  • changing spatial relationships or colours in an image; or
  • removing a visual element from the image."

If you can get clearer than that -- or if you disagree -- please join the debate. The remaining question is: what kinds of publication and production are so clearly fictional that they need no mark? Should Vogue, for example, sully all its de-acned images, or will it get away with a note in the flannel panel that "nothing in this magazine should be taken as a representation of a real person"?

BY Mike Holderness

An edited version of this articles appeared in the Journalist, March 1997.


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