Sunday, June 21, 2009

Image manipulation is a global problem

© by Mark M. Hancock for Global Journalist magazine

The first day in April is called April Fool's Day in the United States. In Israel this year, it was simply portrait day for the new cabinet and photographer Menahem Kahana. However, when Kahana's image appeared in Yated Neeman, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish newspaper, someone had fooled with the image.

Someone at the newspaper used Adobe Photoshop or a similar software program to remove female ministers Limor Livnat and Sofa Landver and replaced them with two men to create an all-male cabinet.

While cloning over people in a portrait is a terminal offense at most U.S. daily newspapers, image manipulation has recent precedence in the Middle East.

Los Angeles Times staff photographer Brian Walski was fired - ironically - on April 1, 2003. The international-award-winning, 20-year news veteran combined two images of a British soldier and civilians in Iraq to make a "better" image. It cost him his job and his credibility.

However, few lessons were learned by others.

Lebanese photographer Adnan Hajj submitted at least two digitally-manipulated images to Reuters during the 2006 Lebanon War. Hajj turned flares into missiles in one instance and poorly cloned smoke rising from Beirut in another.

Hajj and others were also accused of introducing various items such as new toys and a burning Koran into scenes. Two days after Hajj's digital manipulations were discovered, Reuters stopped its 10-year association with Hajj, removed 920 photos by Hajj from the company archive and fired a photo editor.

During the same conflict, a woman was apparently photographed by photographers representing both Reuters and Associated Press (AP) while she mourned near a bombed home - in three different locations on three different dates. Issam Kobeisi made two of the images for Reuters while Hussein Malla submitted one to AP.

While both photographers were close enough to conveniently capture her emotion and the wreckage with wide-angle lenses, neither bothered to include the woman's name in their captions to verify authenticity.

Moving further east, the media branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guards released an image of an Iranian missile test launch in July 2008. In keeping with Middle Eastern digital ethics, it was manipulated as well.

After one missile failed to fire, the non-firing missile was removed from the image and one of the three other missiles was duplicated to make the launch appear to be a complete success

Digital manipulation isn't limited to the Middle East, and the April Fool's Day theme continues.

On April 1, 2007, the Toledo Blade ran a front-page image by photographer Allan Detrich. However, the former Pulitzer Prize finalist had digitally altered the image. Detrich's deceptions were discovered when he digitally removed the legs of a spectator from a baseball game on a Page 1 story. Competing papers ran similar images with the legs plainly visible.

By April 7, all of his images were removed from the Toledo Blade's Web site and access to his images was blocked internally. All 50 images submitted by Detrich to the Associated Press were also removed by AP.

The 2007 National Press Photographers Association president Tony Overman took the unusual step of publicly condemning Detrich's practices.

Overman stated the extent of this problem precisely, "The Blade reports that a subsequent internal investigation of his work showed evidence of manipulations in 79 photos so far this year, an unprecedented amount of violations."

In many of Detrich's manipulations, items such as balls or bushes were added to images while distracting elements such as wires were removed.

Advice from pros

Millions of ethical, accurate images are presented to the public each year by professional photojournalists. These professionals often risk their lives to present honest images. Consequently, harsh, career-ending criticism is leveled at rogue photographers who violate the core ethical rules of photojournalism and undermine the work of thousands of ethical photojournalists.

"Most photojournalists in Nicaragua are aware of the basic ethical rules of photojournalism and follow them," stated Tomas Stargardter, photo editor at La Prensa newspaper in Managua, Nicaragua. "The basic principle is 'Do not lie.'"

Alex Lloyd Gross is a Pennsylvania-based freelance photojournalist. He stated, "Always follow tight ethics. Without them, there is no trust between the reader and the journalist."

Defining ethical standards

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) released a “modernized” Code of Ethics in 2004. The old code was written in 1946 and didn't address television or digital editing. The new code includes these concerns and clarifies some other issues while clearly stating the expectations of members.

The code's goal is to achieve the highest standards while maintaining public confidence in the profession. This is accomplished through an honest, accurate and complete presentation of visual information. The code promotes accuracy and honesty in recording of events, event fidelity, digital editing and captioning.

While this standard isn't universal, it is upheld by most professional photojournalists around the world.

Historical perspective

Photographic manipulation is nothing new. In 1858, English photographer Henry Peach Robinson was a proponent of photography as an art form. Throughout his career, he made composite photos from separate negatives.

The first such composite image was placed on exhibit without an explanation. The image showed a girl on her death bed with her family in waiting. The image was initially criticized for its apparent intrusion on a private moment of a family's grief. Later, the artist was criticized for fooling the public with a manipulated image, which combined five separate negatives.

The first widely-known American instance of an altered image was by Mathew Brady's photography company in the 1860s. The company placed a portrait of Abraham Lincoln's head on the body of John C. Calhoun, a Southern slavery supporter.

Both images were portraits, but the photography company claimed they didn't have a full-body image of Abraham Lincoln in an inspirational pose.

Joseph Stalin regularly had enemies removed from images. Stalin most famously had the former Great Purge executioner and head of the Soviet secret police Nikolai Yezhov painted out of an image after Stalin arranged for Yezhov to be executed.

In the golden age of photojournalism, W. Eugene Smith also combined negatives to change the impact of images for Life magazine. Rather than cropping the image, Smith placed a silhouette of a hand holding a saw to cover a fog imperfection in a 1954 image of Dr. Albert Schweitzer.

He was also known to print images down to black and use potassium ferricyanide or bleach to reveal only the areas he wished to show. The chemical dissolved silver molecules to lighten or completely remove elements from images.

While the silver destruction process could be slowed long enough to make printing plates, the original photographic prints continued to degrade over time. Not only were these images irreversibly damaged, common storage techniques allowed these prints to permanently damage nearby prints as well.

While similar actions today are considered unethical, it was common practice in newspaper and magazine darkrooms to have potassium ferricyanide next to spotting pigment bottles.

As tainted prints degrade nearby prints, manipulated images tend to damage the works of others nearby.

Digital manipulation enters the market

During the 1980s, powerful computer-based image processing methods were developed. While supermarket tabloid newspapers continued to piece together supposed exclusive images of aliens, mermaids, Big Foot and other fiction, most legitimate newspapers had accepted basic ethical practices.

Meanwhile, magazines sat on the newsstand racks next to the tabloids. Both vied for the impulse purchase and income generated by casual shoppers. Ultimately, fashion, glamour, lifestyle and similar magazines frequently employed airbrush and digital manipulation to make sales while news magazines primarily presented factual images.

In February 1982, National Geographic created controversy by digitally moving two Egyptian pyramids closer together so both would fit onto the magazine's cover. Later, Tom Kennedy became director of photography for the magazine and stated, "We no longer use that technology to manipulate elements in a photo simply to achieve a more compelling graphic effect. We regarded that afterwards as a mistake, and we wouldn't repeat that mistake today."

With the ethical door opened by various magazines, Texas Monthly placed the head of Governor Ann Richards, a motorcycle rider, on the body of a model Betty Harper straddling a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on the July 1992 cover.

D Magazine eventually upped the ante by placing the head of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on the swimsuit-clad body of model Desiree T. Claassen in July 1995.

However, Mirabella had already won the ethical arms race by creating a completely fictitious model for its September 1994 cover. Considering fake images had become the norm, a non-existent model wouldn't have been very controversial - other than inside the modeling profession. However, Mirabella's table of contents page explanation of the image never mentioned the cover was a composite fabrication.

Instead, it states, "Maybe her identity has something to do with the microchip floating through space, next to that gorgeous face."

In March 2007, Time added a teardrop to the face of former President Ronald Reagan. Time officials later said the image was a legitimate illustration because the teardrop's illustrator was listed in the table of contents.

It wasn't the first or most controversial step over the line by the magazine.

When O.J. Simpson was arrested, Time magazine darkened his mug shot to make him appear more menacing on a June 1994 cover. Because the unaltered image appeared on nearby Newsweek magazine covers as well, the manipulation was immediately evident.

Newsweek magazine has also had its share of controversies. In December 1997, Newsweek drastically altered a portrait featuring septuplet parents Kenny and Bobbi McCaughey. In this instance, Time ran the unaltered image.

And, not to be outdone by the Texas lifestyle magazines, Newsweek placed Martha Stewart's head on a model's body for its March 2005 cover.

Political manipulations

While digital manipulations are often easy to make, old-fashioned staged images are still useful to fulfill questionable political agendas.

The Daily Mirror newspaper in the United Kingdom fired editor Piers Morgan in May 2004 after learning he was a party to staged images of British soldiers supposedly abusing Iraqi prisoners. Morgan had refused to resign. Instead, he said the photos "accurately illustrated the reality about the appalling conduct of some British troops."

While political image manipulations are nothing new, the ease of modern software programs has accelerated the frequency of manipulated images for political gain.

A 2004 composite image appears to have a young Sen. John Kerry and Jane Fonda share the stage at an anti-war rally. In reality, the images were made by two separate photographers in two separate states more than a year apart.

A 2006 image placed the head of comedian Al Franken on the body of an adult wearing a diaper, bunny ears and clutching a teddy bear.

In both instances, Republican operatives were trying to discredit Democrat candidates. Neither attempt is known to have run in newspapers as legitimate news images.

In October 2008, Republican activist outrage over digital manipulation took an unusual and disturbing turn.

After Newsweek ran a particularly tight image of Gov. Sara Palin on the magazine's cover, Republican media consultant Andrea Tantaros, vice president at Sloane & Company, appeared on Fox News to voice her displeasure.

The crisis communications specialist with a journalism degree from Lehigh University was upset because Newsweek had not manipulated the image to make her client look better than reality.

Tantaros also stated on her blog, "We expect this from gossip magazines like Star, OK! and In Touch. Newsweek is supposed to be an unbiased, substantive weekly, not some fly by night publication that can afford to appear unprofessional. It is expected to have standards (except when it comes to conservative, backwater female politicians, apparently) and a competent photography department It's incredible how this photo editor didn't have time to make Governor Palin look her best but manages to make Barack Obama look like a statuesque, presidential image of perfection just about every other week. Mindboggling."

Possibly Tantaros should move to France.

Recent manipulations of images inside France appear to favor the administration of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Paris Match magazine removed body fat from a shirtless image of the French leader in August 2007. In June 2008, the newspaper Le Figaro digitally removed a large diamond ring from the hand of French justice minister Rachida Dati.

Concerns about the future

Recent newspaper cutbacks and closings have many photojournalists concerned about future photojournalistic integrity.

"With papers leaning towards citizen journalism, I am very concerned. It's nothing for the citizen with a cell phone to take out a tree, manipulate the background or something even more sinister," Gross stated.

Stargardter instead believes ethical behavior has become a prerequisite.

"Photojournalists are taking more care to follow ethical rules since the labor market is limited," Stargardter stated. "The ability to protect your actual job and make sure that you have good references for any future job becomes a priority in these troubling times."

Enough for now,


Unknown said...

That's the price we pay for digital photography. Cloning, manipulation, the alteration of the original image is photoshopped to death.

Give me real photography (film based reality). But then again you can manipulate this by attaching a filter, dodging and burning etc.

The camera never lies (well it does in the digital age).

Good on you Mark for highlighting this issue and problem.

Yours sincerely

Trevor David Betts.

Unknown said...

I like the history you have provided here, it is very useful. Certainly ongoing advances in technology will continue to change the way in which image manipulation is done and the way in which it is seen (re: the Tantaros' comments). The comments near the end of your piece about citizen journalism potentially increasing cases of digital manipulation is also very interesting. It seems inevitable that citizen journalism is going to remain important, and indeed only become more important, over time. Some serious thought needs to be given to its relation to the ethical standards of professional journalism. There are some great interviews with journalists about challenges like these facing the future of journalism at,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid69 I have found it a useful source.