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|| News Item: Posted 2006-09-04

Digital Manipulation: 'It's not the software that's to blame.'
By Mick Cochran, USA TODAY

It's been a tough month for photojournalism. Faked images by professional photographers being paraded in front of television viewers and newspaper, magazine, and Internet blog readers.

What photojournalism doesn't need is professional photographers on one end of the scale who don't take their job seriously enough to make truthful images, or, at the other end of the scale, might their images for political reasons.

On the technical side, these most recent examples of image manipulation were really no more than amateur attempts. Given the will to change the content of an image via digital manipulation, these faked photographs from Lebanon and Alaska were simply botched efforts. In both cases the photographers' bosses have told me that the photographers were working in conditions where they couldn't see the results of their efforts and in both cases the photographers said they were just doing minor corrections to eliminate dust spots on the images.

But who cares? On one hand, it's the effort and intent to deceive that is in question, not a photographer's ability to hide what's been done. And on the other hand, also in question is the probability of a faked image being disseminated by photographers and syndicated services without questions being raised about image authenticity.

We're not really talking about a lack of craftsmanship. True, there was once a time when a photographer not only worked hard to record a fleeting moment of news, but also labored over the end result, a glossy print. Like painting, composing music or building a house, there is the idea, the content, and the labor of bringing all that together into a final physical thing.

Photojournalism has always been an art and a craft. The art is in a photographer's mental processes being translated into a visual image that is truthful and that can be understood by others. The craftsmanship is in the making of the image all the way through to the final print. But a video screen full of pixels has replaced the photographic print as end result. And enlargers, developers and in some cases a photographer's own hands hovering under an enlarger, holding back light, allowing more through to darken or lighten areas of the final print, have all been replaced by powerful computer software tools. And those tools enable photographers, editors, virtually anyone to take apart those images virtually at the "atomic" level, to reconstruct the visual sub-particles of their "reality" into a new, but fictional reality.

Just as the image is gone once it leaves the computer screen, craftsmanship will also disappear unless we leave time for the image to settle on the screen, be scrutinized for imperfections, and be made as accurate as it can be (not being reality). In the charged world of news photography, the time to do that is slipping away, both in the field and in the editing bureau.

When lame attempts such as those by the Reuters and Associated Press photographers this month hit the wire reports at newspapers, photo editors and photographers sat back in amazement that the images were in the wire report at all. They could have fooled no one. And I think we all began wondering how difficult it will be to flag that kind of fraud here on the receiving end. We are already scrutinizing thousands of images daily.

We check for validity, both in the image and in the words (captions) that accompany the image. Not only that, we scrutinize the events surrounding images, particularly in politically charged situations. We ask how photographers get access behind terrorist lines. We pay attention to whether the subjects of photographs are posing for photographers and we are constantly calling photo desks all over the world to verify information and to flesh out what are often bare-bones captions, sometimes just to get the identity of a person in the photograph. We're natural skeptics. But we can be fooled.

So, beyond their lessons in technical incompetence, what are we going to learn from these images? For one, we know that laptops and technology aren't to blame. Sure, software companies could provide methods of tracking changes to an image, even if they're saved as copies. And we could disable tools so the temptation goes away.

But it's not the software that's to blame.

Journalists are to blame. The rush to publish is to blame. And I suppose cost cutting and eliminating editing staff is another. But whatever the reasons, we stand to lose something more important than positions, or profits or a deadline race on the Internet.

Years ago, I inherited two newsroom "artists," on a newspaper staff. Their sole job was to airbrush glossies and log them onto a sheet of paper to indicate that the images had been sent to "engraving."

No, it wasn't the 50s! It was the 80s.

Every picture was airbrushed to some extent. Tradition dictated that hair highlights were accentuated, non-distinct edges outlined, and in some cases, in years past, people eliminated.

We immediately wrote a policy to end airbrushing completely, a move that was met with some resistance (mostly related to reproduction issues).

It was an easy thing to stop because I came from a completely different culture where those things just weren't done. But we have to remember the professional portrait studios of years ago (and of today!) wherein soft focus and total airbrushing of negatives erased every skin blemish. The public has accepted, demanded that kind of manipulation for generations and I suspect most people make little distinction between portrait photographers and photojournalists.

So image manipulation is not new to the viewing public. The debate that has been ongoing for decades in photojournalism is where and how far can the truth be stretched? Can we eliminate the acne in a teenager's yearbook photo? How about the cellulite in a model's legs? Can we eliminate compositional or technical flaws? Dust spots? A strobe's reflection in a studio illustration?

There are those who say we should evolve with the times. And in some respect there is hope in that. With cell phone cameras feeding blogs, maybe that's the way back to the pure un-retouched image. But, even then, questions will remain. And whether an image is faked will continue to be on the minds of today's highly sophisticated viewers. Everyone knows what is digitally possible.

What'll we do, let our integrity go the same way? Worse, will we let frivolous professionals take us back decades to a period when we were thought of as dolts, shutterbugs, and shallow hangers-on to the real business of journalism? It's a time when professional, ethical and responsible photographers make it known that this idiocy just can't continue. We've all ridiculed the abuse of Photoshop tools. Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes we speak up in protest. But obviously we don't speak loudly enough.

Most newspapers have codes of ethics and best practices statements. But many photographers and editors need a better understanding of the distinctions that we're trying to make between unaltered images and those images that are manipulated and can fool the public. As one photographer who sent me a copy of the faked smoke above Beirut said in his one-sentence e-mail, "Photoshop 101!" It really is that basic a concept. Photojournalism must be trusted.

Otherwise, professional photojournalism could become like public images on the Internet, their veracity always in question. Will they be images that are "more like postcards than journalism," as Mark Glaser, editor of the PBS weblog MediaShift ( said on National public radio last week (

Also, we need to be even more frank with the public about what we photojournalists believe.

Edward Weston (1886-1958) was an absolutist when it came to exposure, composition and printing. He was a master photographer and printmaker. He would tolerate no manipulation. In his daybooks, he wrote:

"Photography is, or can be, a most intellectual pursuit. In painting or sculpture or what not, the sensitive human hand aids the brain in affirming beauty. The camera has no such assistance, unless of course, the process after exposure has been interfered with, and hence ruined, by manipulation, manual dexterity."

His strict adherence to his philosophy was often met with resistance by his portrait clientele.

So he posted a sign outside his studio that read, "E.W. Photographer - un-retouched portraits."

In the end, the question is can we hang that shingle on our mastheads and homepages?

(Mick Cochran is USA TODAY's director of photography.)

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