7 with VII: Fake News

We asked Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter followers to submit questions about fake news as it relates to photojournalism for the next installment of 7 with VII where VII photographers answer your seven questions. Read on for the answers from VII members Anush Babajanyan, Ashley Gilbertson, Ed Kashi, Ilvy Njiokiktjien, Nichole Sobecki and John Stanmeyer, and VII Mentor Program photographer Arnau Bach.

Photo by Ron Haviv / VII. People rally in New York’s Battery Park Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, protesting President Donald Trump’s immigration order.

1. How do we fight real expectations of editors who imagine something a certain way and don’t care for images that don’t match preconceptions?

- @amandarivkin via Twitter

Ilvy Njiokiktjien answers:

Ilvy Njiokiktjien

I believe disappointment by editors, who receive images that do not match their preconceptions, results from a lack of communication or miscommunication. In the past couple of years, I have encountered this several times, especially on contemporary issues or political stories. I have learned to communicate right from the start of an assignment, especially when I have the feeling that an editor has a set idea about the outcome of a story. Stories never go the way you expect beforehand. Communication with the editor about his or her preconceptions is key. I used to have the feeling that discussing this at length would result in losing the assignment to a different photographer, but I learned that this is not the case. Editors do like it when you take your assignment and your task seriously, even if this means you question their expectations.

2. Do images make fake news seem real?

- @santibilly via Instagram

John Stanmeyer answers:

John Stanmeyer

The discussion of fake news is fascinating, so pleased this is one of the topics we are discussing with you at VII. I need to touch on a bit of history to share thoughts on your excellent question…there has always been news that was manipulated, twisted slightly or profusely to affect opinion. The written word, an altered or out of context photograph, or both intertwined, all have been abused. Since civilizations began, some governments (actually, many) offered falsehoods, spinning the truth to alter the perception of reality to their people. Today, North Korea is such an example.

“We live in a time of great possibilities to do good, to enlighten. Tragically in equal measure, to harm others, to harm truth.”

In the US, there has often been altering of perception based upon political opinion, with a few media outlets in recent years eager and willing to support such unique claims. Lately, in America (and globally) we have become more divided than at any time in its history, sometimes using perception based upon opinion rather than assessing reality through truth. Everyone wants their point of view embraced, especially at a time when anyone with a camera, keyboard, a brush, or their voice has a pulpit to broadcast — the internet.

Unfortunately, these two relatively newly joined words, fake news, are being used by some to create a type of “us against them” approach to foster division. While there is indeed false information at times presented (again, always has been, always will), most of what I see, read, or hear, is chosen from sources with long histories of honest, truthful reporting. So do images make fake news seem real? Yes, when the truth is placed out of context or manipulated for the benefit of a few, and the viewer falls victim to falsehoods. That is why now, more than ever, we need information from those who solely act as conduits of what they bear witness. Fake news, false photography, needs an ally. Many allies. As Howard Chapnick once wrote, truth does not.

3. At what point does Photoshop or photo manipulation make a photo become fake news? Every photographer uses it to some extent (would photo sharpening make it fake?).

- @familywealth via Instagram

Ashley Gilbertson answers:

Ashley Gilbertson

Photoshop and other imaging programs are tools, similar but far more sophisticated than what photographers have practiced since the advent of dark rooms. For journalistic images, most organizations have clear and strict rules governing the use of these imaging programs — no addition or subtraction of elements is the main theme. Beyond that, it’s vital the photograph is made in an ethical manner, and with integrity.

4. Why do you think fake news exists? I admit that news often creates greater visibility, but they are opposed to the journalistic purpose.

- @giorgia_dragonfly via Instagram

Anush Babajanyan answers:

Anush Babajanyan

Fake news exists in a similar way as the lie can exist in every human. As in an everyday conversation, people are able to make something up because they have an agenda, they want to change a direction (or an expected direction) of things, or have others believe in something specific. The same way in the bigger picture of things, groups of people can make up news to follow their agendas.

Photographs, as they are being created, are always accompanied with the photographer’s inner beliefs, where the concept of perfect objectivity becomes relative. We have to remain balanced, away from agendas, knowing that the journalistic purpose is always connected with the human purpose.

5. When doing a photo essay or a long-term project, how do you know you are still telling the truth? Does personal experience and bias get in the way of the story? How do you know you are not making propaganda?

- @photostudious via Instagram

Nichole Sobecki answers:

Nichole Sobecki

We all carry our identities and experiences into our work. This is part of why it’s so crucial to continue to push for greater diversity within the media. Your gender, background, race, nationality, religion; who you are shapes your perceptions, and the very stories you seek out. The greater the range of ethical, intelligent storytellers we have, the more textured and nuanced the stories we’ll be exposed to.

Still, objectivity is the golden rule. This is why the work you do before even picking up a camera for an essay or project is so important — the voices you seek out from both sides of an issue, and the time you put into understanding the context of what you’re photographing. In the face of great abuses of power though, or violations of human rights, one can’t simply remain neutral.

“Having an opinion is an act of standing up to bigotry and hatred.”

An example of this that we see quite often in the United States is climate change and the threat to our environment and our lives. If 99.9% of empirical scientific evidence tells us climate change is real, but it’s competing almost equally with a handful of deniers, that is not the truth. That is the epitome of fake news.

This responsibility to seek out truth and transparency, depth and accuracy, is shared by both creators and consumers of stories. And it really matters. When you can’t distinguish between truth and fake news, it becomes far more difficult to try and solve some of the great issues that we collectively face.

6. That photography is representing the truth or the reality is fake news in itself. So how can photojournalism help to discover and expose fake news?

- @valerioberdini via Instagram

Ed Kashi answers:

Ed Kashi

The idea that photojournalism, when practiced ethically and consumed intelligently, is fake news would be a cynical view in my mind. As with all information, we must be educated consumers and always question the veracity of what we see and read. That is why the source is critically important, the context and presentation are important and the trust of certain institutions is worthy of our beliefs. There are elements of our societies, including in the USA, that have always played on people’s doubts about the media, and in most cases, it’s just not accurate. We cannot let demagogues and extreme elements that want to seize and hold onto power manipulate us into disbelieving the media.

“But in the age of social media and the internet, it’s never been more important to practice and teach media literacy.”

We must be able, as consumers, to call out the “bullshit” that streams across our digital platforms and even some of the mainstream media. Photojournalism is, in general, practiced at quite a high level of ethics and moral responsibility. There will always be bad players, poor editors, human mistakes and in rare cases blatant liars, but in general, the veracity and impassioned desire to seek truthful images that in some way represent reality, is certainly what we at VII practice, and most of the colleagues in this field aspire to.

As to the last part of your question, there is a tremendous amount of self policing that goes on in the photojournalism field, and today it’s never been more acute and critically done. Some of the masters of this field from previous generations would most likely have some of their work disqualified under the intense scrutiny and enhanced awareness of what makes a truthful image.

7. What if the picture you take is going to be misinterpreted and used for fake news — can you prevent that from happening, and if so, how?

- @marceltoptop via Instagram

Arnau Bach answers:

Arnau Bach

One of the biggest responsibilities that we have at VII is to ensure a true and ethical approach to the issues we address. There is always the possibility of misinterpreting an image, but this margin of misinterpretation can be reduced on one hand, creating bodies of work that offer a clear and forceful reading key. On the other hand, having an honest and clear conversation with the media or/and institutions in charge of spreading our work, in order to clarify the intention of the photographer, the history behind the images, and the context in which these images have been created.

Extra Question: How do you prevent photographs from being used negatively? For example, photos of one protest being used to depict another protest, etc.

- @distractedrun via Instagram

Ashley Gilbertson answers:

Ashley Gilbertson

One of the reasons the members of VII believe in the agency model is to protect our work from usage outside of normal journalism conventions — it’s the basic respect we have for the people who share their lives with us. At VII, we work with sales representatives and partners that ensure the work will be used in context and with captions.

In case you missed it …

Read the first three pieces in the 7 With VII series: “Ethics in Photojournalism,” “All About Gear,” and “World Press Freedom.”

Follow VII on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.