Photographic Truth

Most people believe that photographs tell the truth. In fact, “Pictures don’t lie” is often used when photographs are presented as evidence. With the advent of digital photography and computers, the manipulation of images has become more widespread. Society therefore has to look at the reasons behind the manipulation and the message that the new image is trying to express.

Kittross (i) states “The ability to ‘doctor’ pictures digitally and undetectably wont’ go away, so we have to find ethical ways to live with the technique.” In fact, doctoring pictures was occurring before digital technology was ever invented.

First World War Photography, Frank Hurley, often created composite images of the Australian Imperial Forces at Flanders. He did not consider himself to be a ‘documentary photographer’, recording the scene accurately but more of a ‘pictorial photographer’, turning the scene in to more of a picture. He often replaced the sky in his image with a more dramatic one.

Although it caused controversy at the time, Hurley (ii) defended his practice: “I make no claim to pictorial merit; the pictures are records, and except for several of the larger ones are faithful reproductions of the scenes they portray. In order to convey accurate battle impressions, I have made several composite pictures, utilising a number of negatives for the purpose.”

The reason for manipulation of images depends on the message trying to be portrayed.

In June 1994, Time Magazine altered the Police “Mug Shot” of OJ Simpson. They darkened his face and gave him a more sinister appearance. Newsweek published the unaltered picture. There can be no reason for the altering of the image but to show the subject in a different light. It was even suggested at the time that the manipulation had racial overtones.

Another reason to manipulate an image is to make the image more “palatable” for viewing by the general public.

After the Madrid train bombing, several newspaper edited pictures of the wreckage to remove or obscure human remains from the image.

The approach taken, however, varied between different newspapers. Several newspapers chose to completely edit out a human limb and replace it with stones matching ones already in the image, whereas others just changed the colour of the limb to grey to make it less obvious. Some newspapers chose not to edit the image but published it in black and white, thereby making the limb less visible.

Paul Johnson (iii), the Guardian’s deputy editor, news, said “The photograph encapsulated the scale of this very human tragedy. It’s an extraordinary photograph that was just in the margins of what we could use on the front page, but in that left-hand corner was an identifiable body part. To my mind that put us over the threshold.”

There are some recent examples of how easy it is for a “non-professional” to create an edited image. Dorset South Tory candidate, Ed Matts, edited a picture that was taken of himself and Ann Widdecombe supporting a family threatened with deportation. In the edited picture, he removed the people in the background and changed the wording on placards that he and Ms Widdecombe were holding.

Ms Widdecombe stated that she would have been happy to pose for the edited picture if asked. Ed Matts chose not to take this route but instead to create the new version of the image. The controversy around the images seemed to relate more to that fact that the second image portrayed a different message rather than the fact that an image had been edited.

Referring back to Kittross, there needs to be “ethical ways to live with the technique”. When an image is edited, the reason behind the manipulation of the image needs to be understood; it is trying to protect the public from something that we perceive that they should not see or it is changing the message that is expressed from the image.

At the moment, there is no labelling of pictures that have been edited. Most have been highlighted by the fact that an edited version of the picture has been published at the same time. Perhaps if images were labelled as manipulated then we would gain a greater understanding of the reasons behind the change. By seeing the reasons that an image has been edited, society can then start to formulate the boundaries for when editing is and is not acceptable.

i Extract from Exhibition Catalogue

ii A.David Gordon and John Michael Kittross. “Controversies in Media Ethics”. 1999

iii Guardian Unlimited — “Editors ‘clean up’ bomb photo” http://www.guardian.co.uk/spain/article/0,2763,1168278,00.html

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