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|| News Item: Posted 2008-04-29

'Thou shall not over-tone!'
By Greg Cooper, Brooks Institute

Photo by Greg Cooper

Photo by Greg Cooper

Original image. Cooper shot this for an assignment to photograph fall colors at Western Kentucky University.
At risk of opening a can of worms…

For the past month I have been going through my 35mm film archives, putting them in a manageable order so I can start to scan them. What a daunting process.

One benefit spending so much time on organizing has been re-living certain turning points in my life that I had long forgotten including one where I made an ethical call that I now question.

It was my second year in undergrad; we had an assignment to photograph fall colors. My roommate and I (who was also a photojournalism major) traveled the back hills of Kentucky in search of color and people. We settled on the spillway below a lake where some fishermen had set up shop, fishing the late afternoon away.

What was great for me was some of the trees along the river were in fall colors, the trees and the water were back-lit and the man in his chair were framed by the light reflecting off the water. Shot on color negative, we needed to print the image our self and present it in class mounted and captioned. During the printing process, which as I recall was a few days later, my roommate saw the test print and called me out on it, suggesting that the scene was not that yellow - that I was falsely adding color to the print. I countered that my print was accurate, matching what I remembered from the day. He insisted not and I stuck to my guns.

He was right; my print was too yellow (There are two versions of the image, one un-toned and the other toned to mimic my original print, which I still have). And indeed, I presented with conviction in class what turned out to be a falsehood. Only now do I realize the error in my judgment (it took looking at the straight scan to confirm my suspicion).

I now wonder why I allowed the print to go forward. My roommate wasn't saying I was a bad person, just that my print was inaccurate. Deep down, my gut told me he was right. I cannot say with certainty why I submitted the image anyway, perhaps pride. Since leaving school, my approach as a professional to capturing and representing accuracy has taken a stern edge… to not over tone my work to make my image look better. What has propelled me through my professional shooting and editing years at newspapers (and now as an educator), is that as a journalist, it is our responsibility to our readers to portray what we experience in the field as truthful as possible even if the work is not as strong as it could be with alteration.

Even though this example is from a wet darkroom (remember those?), the principle of presenting our work truthfully as journalists' remains - but now we work primarily electronically in Photoshop. Even back during my undergrad days, working on a very early version of Photoshop, our teachers warned us of not straying beyond was what ethically acceptable with our work. If we are capturing and presenting work that is said be objective, what we represent to be the truth, then our images need to reflect what was there. Outside of basic contrast control, spotting of electronic artifacts (spots on the sensor) and cropping (that does not alter the content of the image), we SHOULD not be over toning our work.

Photo by Greg Cooper

Photo by Greg Cooper

Toned image. Cooper shot this for an assignment to photograph fall colors at Western Kentucky University.
We teach our Visual Journalism students here just that, do not over tone in Photoshop, error on the side of caution. Unless the image is a portrait or a photo illustration, we suggest to our students to capture without fabrication (to not set up the picture) and to tone with little alteration - essentially to represent what they see as the truth.

Unfortunately for our industry we have too many examples of journalists altering content (either before shoot or in Photoshop) and passing their work off as the truth. We have heard a litany of excuses for this (and I paraphrase here), "I was just messing around and accidentally transmitted the wrong image," "that is how I remember it" (that's my contribution), "it's OK because that can be done in a wet darkroom and it's not that bad," "it represents my personal vision," or my favorite - "NO, THE IMAGE IS NOT ALTERED."

We as journalists ONLY have our integrity - that is what separates us from other industries that utilize visual imagery. The public, our readers, subscribe to our Websites, newspapers, news magazines or even documentary films because they believe what they are reading/seeing is the truth. When individuals decide (for whatever reason) to stray down the falsification path for short-term gain, you undermine our industry and affect change that has long-term implications for the future of our industry.

The bottom line is this, if you are presenting work as the truth when in reality, it is not; you have only yourself to blame. Former Photojournalism sequence chair at Western Kentucky Mike Morse said it best, "you are either in the truth business… or you are in the entertainment business."

Perhaps every person out there has their own unique ethical opinion, mine is just one. Not to say that my way is right or the only way, but perhaps we can all utilize the gut-check, if it doesn't seem right, then it probably isn't. I suggest that if you are not sure if it's acceptable or not, ask your teacher or your boss - but do not gloss over it and pass it off as real.

So, if you feel compelled to alter your images for a contest or publication because you feel that is your only edge, perhaps you should first listen to your gut response.

(Cooper teaches photojournalism in the School of Visual Journalism at Brooks Institute in Ventura, Ca. His member page: Related links:

Related Links:
Cooper's member page

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