Retouching Photos in Photojournalism | American Photo

Retouching Photos, Processing the News

How to portray truth in photojournalism amidst photo alteration

Yuri Kozyrev Cairo Egypt Retouching Photojournalism

BEFORE

Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR

Claudio Palmisano, of 10b Photography, based in Rome, processed the images in this story for the journalists who shot them. He provided us with the flat, original RAW files he began with and the final, transformed images that resulted. This image by Yuri Kozyrev was captured in Cairo, Egypt, February 11, 2011.

Yuri Kozyrev Cairo Egypt Retouching Photojournalism

AFTER

Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR

Claudio Palmisano, of 10b Photography, based in Rome, processed the images in this story for the journalists who shot them. He provided us with the flat, original RAW files he began with and the final, transformed images that resulted. This image by Yuri Kozyrev was captured in Cairo, Egypt, February 11, 2011.

Francesco Zizola South Sudan NOOR Retouching Photojournalism

BEFORE

Francesco Zizola—NOOR

Palmisano adds custom textures, or “grain,” for every photographer he works with. This image by Francesco Zizola was captured in South Sudan, March 23, 2011.

Francesco Zizola South Sudan NOOR Retouching Photojournalism

AFTER

Francesco Zizola—NOOR

Palmisano adds custom textures, or “grain,” for every photographer he works with. This image by Francesco Zizola was captured in South Sudan, March 23, 2011.

Yuri Kozyrev Cairo Egypt Retouching Photojournalism

BEFORE

Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR

Palmisano makes small (or “sometimes huge”) zonal density adjustments to help move a viewer’s eye around the scene, which was photographed by Yuri Kozyrev near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, November 23, 2011.

Yuri Kozyrev Cairo Egypt Retouching Photojournalism

AFTER

Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR

Palmisano makes small (or “sometimes huge”) zonal density adjustments to help move a viewer’s eye around the scene, which was photographed by Yuri Kozyrev near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, November 23, 2011.

Tommaso Protti Turkey NOOR Retouching Photojournalism

BEFORE

Tommaso Protti—NOOR

Palmisano says: “Color perception is relative and not absolute.” Above: Baglar, Diyarbakir, Turkey, February 10, 2012.

Tommaso Protti Turkey NOOR Retouching Photojournalism

AFTER

Tommaso Protti—NOOR

Palmisano says: “Color perception is relative and not absolute.” Above: Baglar, Diyarbakir, Turkey, February 10, 2012.

Photojournalism in the digital age is fraught with peril. And it brings questions of objectivity, truth, ethics, and deception into sharp relief. While news photography remains vital to our understanding of the world, confusion in both the public consciousness and among photographers about the use of Adobe Photoshop and other editing tools in retouching photos threatens to erode its credibility and destroy its power to illuminate. Photographers, photo editors, and other defenders of the faith have made it their mission to uphold a rigid set of journalistic standards regarding image processing and manipulation. Trouble is, not everyone agrees on what those standards should be.

“I don’t think we’ve really comprehended the scale of the digital revolution,” says writer/researcher David Campbell, secretary for the World Press Photo Contest. He points out that every digital photo ever made has been processed, even if its creator never even glanced sideways at the cloning tool. “Digital is fundamentally different from analog because there is no original image,” Campbell says. “The RAW file is just data. To even see an image requires processing. The question is not whether you should allow processing, but that it should be transparent and show just how the processing was done.”

Campbell and World Press Photo are particularly interested parties in this arena. In 2013 Paul Hansen, a winner of a World Press Photo of the Years 2012 award, was accused of manipulating the content of his photo “Gaza Burial.” Though Hansen’s photo was ultimately cleared and the prize stood, the controversy was heated enough, and spoke so deeply to the basic credibility of the medium and the contest, that the organization commissioned Campbell to speak to as many media outlets as possible and create a best practices report on photojournalism and photo manipulation (it’s due to be completed this fall, but wasn’t yet available at press time).

Campbell says that news and documentary organizations have built some consensus about what is not acceptable. “Material alteration to the image by including or excluding a certain item” seems to be a standard everyone can agree on, as illustrated by the story of Narciso Contreras, an accomplished conflict photographer who, while working for the Associated Press, used software to remove a colleague’s video camera from a photo of a Syrian opposition fighter in the midst of battle. When he brought the incident to the AP’s attention, the newswire severed ties with Contreras, saying it will remove his work from its publicly available photo archives, including photos from Syria that, along with the work of other photographers, helped net the AP a 2013 Pulitzer Prize. The story is heartbreaking—Contreras is a hard-working and talented photographer who was probably operating under extreme duress—but in the end his case was not controversial. There is a bright line around adding or removing content, and Contreras very clearly crossed it.

American Photography

American Photography

Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR

When it comes to the subtler edges of post-processing, however, one finds strikingly little agreement across the industry. Campbell says that looking to the darkroom era for guidance provides little clarity. “People often say they accept changes in line with what would have previously been done in the darkroom, but that thinking is flawed,” he says. You can do anything you want in the darkroom, and people did. It can hardly be the basis for what’s acceptable and what isn’t.”

Indeed, analog malfeasance was common. “There was an old trick in the newspaper days for photographing golfers,” says Australian Ashley Gilbertson, a photojournalist with the VII agency. “You could never get the golf ball right in the front of your lens, so it looked like the golfer was smacking the ball toward you. I remember hearing stories back home about photographers using a 20-cent coin as a burning tool to make it look like the ball was coming into frame.” Even absent that level of creative shenanigans in the darkroom, Gilbertson never understood the attitude that “everything’s OK as long as you do it in camera,” he says. “That means cross-processing film and light leaks are all OK, but playing with saturation in Photoshop isn’t.” Indeed, Gilbertson says he used a much heavier hand in his darkroom days, dodging and burning significantly to create drama in his photographs. Now, however, “I have a much softer touch because our industry has come under much more scrutiny than ever before.”

Every photographer we spoke with for this piece referenced the dangers of eroding the public’s trust in documentary images. Stanley Greene, a photojournalist and one of the founders of the NOOR collective, put it clearly, saying that photo manipulation takes photojournalists “down a dark road,” and that “we are the messengers, we are the seekers of the truths, we must be the ones that show the light in the darkest corners of the world. When viewers can no longer trust the picture or the photographer taking it, we are nothing but tricksters.”

Fred Ritchin, a professor of photography and imaging at New York University and author of several journalism books on the future of imaging, says this controversy makes today a “difficult and very painful time to be a photojournalist,” and that the lack of standards across different publications has the potential to create an environment in which “people may not take seriously certain events or things going on around the world.” He continues, “If you walk into a bookstore and ask for nonfiction or fiction, you know what the difference is and what you’ll get. But at this point we don’t really know what’s a fiction photo or a nonfiction photo.”

Blaming Photoshop for the fact that photojournalism is viewed with a suspicious eye is to create a double standard, says award-winning conflict photographer and VII cofounder Ron Haviv. It also reveals a naïve and misplaced distrust. “When I shot slide film, I chose film and filters based on the look I wanted to present in the final product,” he says. “The tradition of photojournalism has always taken into account aesthetic value, whether we do it with a computer or with film choices or in the darkroom. I might choose a certain film stock because I want punchy, cartoonlike colors. But if I do it on a computer it’s seen as going too far.”

I’m not lying to you, but it’s not objective. I’m asking the viewer to trust me that this is a fair representation of reality.

But Haviv argues that the strong awareness of Photoshop among the general public is a good thing. “The audience is in on it now,” he says. “No one had any idea what photographers did in the darkroom. Now people are trying to find the cutoff point of what is and is not acceptable, though it’s a false pursuit. People talk about objectivity and photojournalism. But there’s nothing objective about photography. I’m not lying to you, but it’s not objective. I’m asking the viewer to trust me that this is a fair representation of reality.”

Digital photojournalism does have one ace up its sleeve: data. Every digital photo leaves a trail when it passes through a camera or is processed by a piece of software—it’s one of the defining differences between analog and digital photojournalism. It’s now incumbent on photographers to make sure they can precisely document the process they went through to arrive at the final version of any photo they want to be considered documentary. Campbell notes that precise nomenclature is also very important when designating what has been done to a file. “Manipulation,” he says, “refers to moving actual pixels (with the exception of removing sensor dust), while ‘processing’ is everything done to turn data into an image. Verification, of course, is key to understanding whether any of these techniques has been applied in the first place.”

“Professionals are going to need to make their work verifiable,” he says. “And verification may involve image makers having a digital trail for all to see. You should be able to see every Photoshop change, every Lightroom change, as well as geotagging for where the image was taken and who was involved in making it. The more you let readers see how the sausage is produced, the more confidence they have in the sausage. The more verifiable an image is, the more authentic it will be regarded as.”

The question of how to make that information transparent remains. Since as early as 1994, Ritchin has advocated adopting an icon that would run underneath images. For online photos, when clicked it would list all the processing the image had been through.

Still, the debate over how far is too far isn’t going away anytime soon. “At NOOR, we have a code of ethics that we all agree on, a basic tenet being that there’s no adding, no taking out,” says Evelien Kunst, NOOR’s managing director. “But there are nuances that we debate, and even among the NOOR photographers there are different standpoints.” If a 12-person photo collective has trouble agreeing on these distinctions, is there any hope for the rest of us?

In some sense, the enhanced verification of the digital age may, in the end, negate the need for universal answers. In fact, it’s possible that the messy, unclear legacy of digital post-processing is the greatest gift photojournalism has ever received. The struggle for clarity around our documentary images reminds us that no photojournalist has a monopoly on truth, that everyone has a viewpoint and an aesthetic. “Even having no aesthetic is an aesthetic,” Haviv says.

The birth of Photoshop may have marked the death of our photographic innocence, but innocence is overrated. Thirty years ago it was easy to believe that photographs were true representations of reality. But we know now that was never the case. Living in a world where reality is a fluid concept may feel more uncertain, but if we can trust our photojournalists and continue to be able to verify their work, photojournalism may find itself unshackled from its previous constraints and able to explore new avenues of expression. As Gilbertson puts it, “depending on what side of the bed I wake up on, I might think one way of processing a photo is better than another. But the underlying content is what never changes.”

BOUNDARY ISSUES
A survey of some of the guidelines used by various news organizations, from minimalist to maximalist

FROM NATIONAL PRESS PHOTOGRAPHERS ASSOCIATION CODE OF ETHICS
_www.nppa.org/code-of-ethic_s

Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects

EXCERPT FROM THE ASSOCIATED PRESS’S “NEWS VALUES”
www.ap.org/company/news-values

The content of a photograph must not be altered in Photoshop or by any other means. No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph. The faces or identities of individuals must not be obscured by Photoshop or any other editing tool. Only retouching or the use of the cloning tool to eliminate dust on camera sensors and scratches on scanned negatives or scanned prints are acceptable.

Minor adjustments in Photoshop are acceptable. These include cropping, dodging and burning, conversion into grayscale, and normal toning and color adjustments that should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction (analogous to the burning and dodging previously used in darkroom processing of images) and that restore the authentic nature of the photograph. Changes in density, contrast, color and saturation levels that substantially alter the original scene are not acceptable. Backgrounds should not be digitally blurred or eliminated by burning down or by aggressive ton- ing. The removal of “red eye” from photographs is not permissible.

FROM GETTY IMAGES’S EDITORIAL POLICY
www.gettyimages.com/corporate/editorialpolicy.aspx

We believe that photographs are the visual communication of a story and should be held to an equal level of accountability, responsibility and integrity as the written word in journalism. Images illustrate and reflect the events of our world today and therefore have a responsibility to be delivered to the customer with accuracy and impartiality.

FROM REUTERS’S BRIEF GUIDE TO STANDARDS, PHOTOSHOP AND CAPTIONS
www.handbook.reuters.com

Materially altering a picture in Photoshop or any other image editing soft- ware will lead to dismissal. Rules: No additions or deletions to the subject matter of the original image. (thus changing the original content and journalistic integrity of an image) No excessive lightening, darkening or blurring of the image. (thus misleading the viewer by disguising certain elements of an image) No excessive colour manipulation. (thus dramatically changing the original lighting conditions of an image)

Allowed: Cropping, adjustment of Levels to histogram limits, minor colour correction, sharpening at 300%, 0.3, 0, careful use of lasso tool, subtle use of burn tool, sdjustment of highlights and shadows, eye dropper to check/set gray

Not Allowed: Additions or deletions to image, cloning & Healing tool (ex- cept dust), airbrush, brush, paint, selective area sharpening, excessive lighten- ing/darkening, excessive colour tone change, auto levels, blurring, eraser tool, quick mask, in-camera sharpening, in-camera saturation styles.

WORLD PRESS PRESS PHOTO SUBMISSION GUIDELINES
www.worldpressphoto.org

The content of the images must not be altered. Only retouching which con- forms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed.

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