Philosophers tackle photo manipulation
by John Mitchell


Three philosophers weigh
in on photo ethics
View photos addressed in
this piece and more

This past August, Katie Couric appeared to lose twenty pounds overnight when CBS’s promotional Watch! magazine featured a significantly trimmed photo of her just weeks before her debut as the anchor of CBS Evening News. Seven months later, a fake tear trickled down Ronald Reagan’s face on the cover of Time magazine, the publication that notoriously doctored O.J. Simpson’s mug shot back in 1994, making him appear darker than he really was.

Doctoring photos is nothing new. As early as the 1860s, a photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln was composed by inserting Lincoln’s head on the body of southern politician John Calhoun; and Joseph Stalin is famous for airbrushing enemies of the state out of his photographs.

But as digital technology rapidly develops, photo manipulation is becoming increasingly sophisticated and commonplace. Once-laborious darkroom techniques can now be done on a laptop in the middle of Iraq. As manipulations become more subtle, deception and distortion—once deemed anathema to traditional journalistic ethics—are becoming increasingly difficult to define. All of these developments pose a new generation of ethical questions and challenges to the contemporary journalist.

What exactly makes a photograph a photograph, and when do alterations stop being brushups and start being deceptions? Can a photo be manufactured to illustrate a point, just as words are constructed to compose a headline? What role does disclosure play in justifying manipulations and maintaining the reader’s trust? Are “photo illustrations,” which is what magazines often call their manipulated photos, works of art, and is it a journalist’s role to be artistic?

Organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Photographers Association have attempted to codify guidelines for ethical photographic practice. The code of ethics of the Society for News Design, which has more than 2,600 voluntary members worldwide, includes accuracy and honesty among its core values. “We must ensure that our content is a verifiable representation of the news and of our subjects,” the code reads. “We promise never intentionally to mislead those who depend upon us for public service. . . . Our work will be free from fraud and deception—that includes plagiarism and fabrication.”

Guidelines like these are all well and good, but they hardly do justice to the complexity of the issues at hand. The question today is what exactly constitutes a fabrication, fraud, or deception.  With so many tools at our fingertips, journalists are sometimes all too willing to rationalize when it comes down to answering such questions. Calling a fabrication an “illustration” sounds much less sinister—even artistic. And distinguishing between different levels of manipulation can be tricky. Some adjustments simply improve a photo’s clarity, but others can distort the original photo, turn it into an editorial comment, or even be purposely deceptive.

Since Boy Scout codes no longer cut it, and since journalists don’t always jump at the chance to self-criticize, perhaps it’s better to seek the advice of those whose job it is to think critically and to clarify the ethical dilemmas of our time: some professional philosophers.

The Philosophers

To guarantee diversity, I consulted philosophers from three different schools of thought: a phenomenologist, an aesthetician, and a preference utilitarian. Robert Sokolowski is a phenomenologist and professor at the Catholic University of America. Phenomenologists study reality by analyzing our intuitive experiences of everyday life, so he has lots to say about what our experience of photographs tells us about their nature.

Peter Singer is a preference utilitarian at Princeton University and current laureate professor of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. Preference utilitarianism maintains that whatever satisfies the preferences or desires of an individual involved in an action is morally right. Singer is best known for questioning why animals, as sentient beings, don’t have the same rights as humans, and asks such controversial questions as whether it’s worse to kill an octopus, a carrot, or a disabled infant. Although photographs obviously aren’t sentient beings, Singer frames his perspective on photo manipulation in relation to the preferences of the photos’ viewers and creators.

Arthur C. Danto is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy emeritus at Columbia University and art critic for the Nation. Back in the 1960s, Danto was intrigued by a pile of Brillo box reproductions set out by Andy Warhol as a work of art in a gallery. The display spurred Danto to write extensively about what did and did not constitute art, which is what magazines claim that their photo illustrations are.

Trace and Testimony

What is a photograph, anyway? At a time when Adobe Photoshop allows designers to cut, crop, rotate, resize, recolor, and reconstitute any image they please, it’s not always so easy to tell.
Sokolowski says the difference between a photograph and a painting is rooted in the reason photographs can be used as evidence in a court of law and paintings cannot: “A photograph is a piece of proof because it’s an effect. It’s a natural effect of nature impressing on a photographic plate certain light rays that come from the fact that those people were there. It’s like a footprint. Now, a painting does something else. It might bring out some truth about a person, but it’s really the artist whose insight is operating there, and not nature.”

Sokolowski calls this difference between photos and paintings a distinction between trace and testimony. A photograph is a straightforward trace of reality. A painting is one artist’s testimony of reality.

Photos have had some elements of testimony since their invention in the nineteenth century. Photographers choose the angle from which to shoot a subject and when to click the shutter. But with the digitization of photography, the potential for making photographic testimonies has exploded.

Take the photo of a British soldier directing Iraqi civilians that appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times in March 2003, for example. Photographer Brian Walski, a thirty-year veteran of the news industry, combined two relatively lifeless photos into a more dramatic composition. But in so doing, he created his own testimony of a scene that never actually happened, infusing it with meaning that was not present in the original traces. In the lower pictures, the soldier does not motion the man in the blue jacket to halt, but in Walski’s version it looks as though he did.
Walski did not disclose his alteration, and after the Times ranthe photo, it was noticed that the civilians to the left and right of the soldier’s knees were repeated. The newspaper’s policy forbids any alteration of news photos, and Walski was fired two days later.

Doctoring Quotes, Doctoring Images

Not all photo manipulations are necessarily deceptive. Some are considered standard practice, to improve a photo’s clarity. A good analogy to the doctoring of images is the doctoring of quotes. This time-honored journalistic tradition is used to translate a source’s rough spoken language into prose that is suitable for print. Removing the speaker’s “um’s” and “you know’s,” hesitations and repetitions, makes quotes more readable and lucid. But, of course, doctoring a quote to excess can change the speaker’s meaning entirely.

“You have to be careful brushing up a quote,” Singer said. “Sometimes when you quote people, you can distort them. Not just taking out the “um’s,” but taking a couple sentences out of context, can be very misleading, and that’s a serious problem which is quite similar, I suppose, to doctoring photos.”

As a utilitarian, his approach to photos is relatively straightforward. “It’s not as if there’s something intrinsically wrong with fiddling with photos. It’s the misrepresentation, particularly in an area where the public relies on journalism for understanding the way the world is.”

For example, he sees nothing wrong in the touchups employed on the cover of the February 5, 2001, issue of Sports Illustrated. In the photo, Number 55’s waist towel is edited out to provide room for the cover lines. But the overall meaning of the photograph is not changed in any way.
Sokolowski writes extensively on the similarities, and even relationships, between words and pictures. “We could not think in pictures if we did not have words,” he writes in a 2005 issue of Review of Metaphysics, “and perhaps we could not use words, in principle, unless we were also engaged in some sort of picturing, at least in our imagination."

Language is composed of parts and wholes, he says. Letters make up words, and words make up sentences, which, in turn, present ideas. A similar part-whole relationship is true of images. “A painting is one image,” he writes, “just as an argument or a sentence is one statement, but the painting also contains parts, which in turn also are pictures, and the parts are placed by the artist into an ordered whole.”

With the introduction of Photoshop, the same has become true of photos. Editors can now break a photo of a football player into its individual parts and place them where they please. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does require a greater sensitivity to the photo’s original meaning.

The Rhetoric of Images

Photoshop creates a new rhetoric of images, where composing a truthful photo becomes similar to composing a truthful statement. Take the March 2005 cover of Newsweek. Martha Stewart was due to come out of prison but not yet available for a photo shoot. Wishing to use her as its cover story, Newsweek composed a photo illustration by inserting Stewart’s head onto a
model’s body.

Surprisingly, Danto sees nothing wrong with this, when understood in terms of a rhetoric of images. “What they did was create a picture that was equivalent to the language that they used,” Danto said. “Either they’re both true or they’re both false.” He says readers are accustomed to understanding rhetorical language, so it isn’t questioned. “‘Martha’s Last Laugh’ isn’t literally Martha’s last laugh,” Danto said. “No, there are going to be lots of laughs in Martha’s life, but everybody knows what it means. ‘She’s got the last laugh’ means that she’s come out ahead. It wasn’t really a punishment.” Similarly, Martha standing between curtains looking bright and beautiful is simply conveying an idea, a rhetorical concept. Whether conveying ideas by words or images, what it boils down to is the truthfulness of the editors.

Disclosure and Context

But Singer disagrees. He says publications can do what they want with a photo, but only if it’s properly disclosed. “If it’s something that looks like a photograph and it’s something that readers would take for a photograph,” he said, “it really should say so pretty prominently, preferably actually on the cover itself.” He says that even though readers have a growing knowledge of programs like Photoshop, they will still assume that a photograph is unaltered and therefore must be told if it is otherwise. Although Newsweek disclosed its Stewart illustration, it did so on page three, which is not sufficient, in Singer’s opinion.

His reason is simple: trust between the reader and the media. As a preference utilitarian, he holds that for something to be morally right, “it has to lead to the satisfaction of preferences of all sentient beings, now and in future.” This does not mean that because a pretty picture of Stewart satisfies her preferences it is therefore morally justifiable. “You can argue that an informed public is necessary for a sound democratic process,” he said, “and that a sound democratic process will satisfy more preferences in the long run than a process that isn’t a good democracy. So the preference that I think counts here is not the immediate ones of the people who see the photo right now, but the contribution that [the photo] makes to having a reliable form of journalism that people can take as something that will inform them about important issues.” So, while a Martha Stewart photo might seem trivial, Singer points out that it’s important in maintaining the trust of readers—and even preserving our democracy.

Disclosure does not necessarily have to be done in words. Take the March 15, 2007, cover of Time magazine, which features the late President Ronald Reagan with a fake tear trickling down his cheek. Here, the manipulation is not done to improve clarity or to deceive, but simply to make an editorial statement. Time calls photo illustrations like this one “concept covers.” Singer says that context plays a major role here in the reader’s understanding of the photograph. “I think in the context it is obvious that the tear is fake, that Reagan is not currently weeping at the state of the Right in America.”

Time’s disclosure in the table of contents—reading “Photograph by David Hume Kennerly. Tear by Tim O’Brien”—was not printed prominently, Singer says the obviousness of the context made up for it.

Sokolowski agrees that, in context, the photo is not being presented by Time as a trace. “I think most people would see it as a cartoon,” he said. “They know he’s dead now, and even if they got him crying sometime, what difference would it make?”

Sokolowski concurs with Singer that disclosure is essential when presenting a manipulated photo, but he is not optimistic about prominent, plainspoken disclosure ever becoming common practice. Journalists don’t want to adopt such practices, he said, “because they get rhetorical leverage by making it look like a real photo.”

Danto goes a step further and says the Reagan cover is not only acceptable, but even artistic. “I think this is brilliant,” he said. “Of course, it’s doctored, but it’s doctored in such a way that you can really call it a work of art.” As for disclosure, he believes that all forms of disclosure are for the birds anyway. “Nobody’s going to pay any attention to it,” he said.

Photojournalistic Art?

But not all photo illustrations are necessarily worthy of being called art, in Danto’s opinion. “Technology doesn’t make something into a work of art,” he said.

Take, for instance, the notorious Time cover that featured a darkened mug shot of O.J. Simpson in June of 1994. In an editor’s note at the time, managing editor James Gaines said, “the harshness of the mug shot . . . had been subtly smoothed and shaped into an icon of tragedy . . . I felt it lifted a common police mug shot to the level of art, with no sacrifice to truth.”

But Danto disagrees. “It’s a distortion, because you have made him look a different way not to make a work of art but to make a comment on his moral standing. I think what they have done is represent him almost as Othello, the dark Moor who kills Desdemona in Shakespeare’s play.” The difference between this imagery and the Reagan imagery is that, by context alone, readers would not necessarily know that Time’s photo of Simpson was altered. In fact, the context adds to the negative imagery, placing Simpson behind the “bars” of “TIME,” and labeling the event a “tragedy.” Granted, Newsweek’s headline “Trail of Blood” is also—if not more—incriminating, but Newsweek doesn’t have a photo manipulation to justify.

Sokolowski sees a philosophical problem in journalistic photo illustrations becoming works of art. “The philosophical question is, to what extent are photographs really photographs anymore?” he said. “A photo illustration is living off a photograph because, until now, people have assumed a photograph is a real trace of a thing, but in fact it’s not. Now, it’s almost as though this situation is only going to last about ten years or so, because sooner or later people won’t trust photographs anymore. They’re going to figure no matter what they see is a composite.”

Singer agrees and says that distorted photos like the one used for the Simpson cover, even if not intended to be deceptive by the editors, must still be prominently disclosed, simply to build the trust of readers and the value of journalism in a democracy. Assuming Time really didn’t mean to make an editorial statement or to deceive readers, the fact that it used a distorted photo at all warranted a prominent disclosure, in Singer’s view.

It may seem trivial to hem and haw over teardrops, football players, and homemakers. Our philosophers, however, remind us that the survival of democracy itself may depend on paying attention to such distinctions. A good rule for the artists and journalists among us might be that if it takes longer than a few seconds to recognize that a photo illustration is just that, something is not quite right.


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