Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Ethics of Digital Photography

This is my last post from last session's ENG1010 Composition and Language class. If you see any mistakes, be sure to point them out to me so that I can learn and correct them for future readers.



Ever since the advent of digital photography, people have been claiming that digital photographers should be bound by a tighter set of ethics than traditional film photographers. The reasoning behind the call for stricter guidelines is based simply on the media. The perception is that digital media allows for a wider variety of manipulations in much less time than film in the darkroom hence it should be controlled. Do the unique qualities of digital photography warrant a change in the rules? Should digital photographers be held to a more stringent set of ethics?

So what exactly are 'ethics'? Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines ethics as "the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation" ("ethic"). The ethics of photography are situational. The ethics are weighed against the context of the situation. Photojournalists should be held to the highest standards while artists should have little to no restrictions. Every other type of photographer falls somewhere in between.

The media are as different as their editing environments but the same ethical questions arise in both film and digital photography. Should photographs that are destined to be used for journalism, documentaries, or contests be modified? What types of changes should or should not be made? How much post-processing is too much? While it is often easier and less time consuming to edit digital images than it is to make film manipulations in the darkroom, the same
types of manipulations can be made to both media and therefore, the ethics of digital photography should be the same as those for film photography.

The ethics of digital photography begins at the camera. "The fundamental fact that we usually forget is that when we take a picture we do not make a perfectly object recording of reality. What we make is an interpretation of reality" (Lodriguss). Cameras capture a different version of reality than we see with the naked eye. Lenses introduce alterations: the perspective is shifted, objects can appear closer together or further apart, and other distortions can appear. Apertures introduce changes in focus: small apertures give larger areas of focus while larger apertures result in smaller depth of field. Shutter speed can freeze time or exaggerate how long an event lasted (Henshall). Film introduces grain and digital sensors introduce noise both of which limit the detail that can be made out in the final picture. All photographs are altered versions of reality as soon as they are taken, no matter how careful the photographer has been in capturing the image. The ethics of using a camera for its intended purpose, to capture a moment in time, has not being called into question so why should digital photography have this stigma about it?


A posed photograph is an altered version of reality before the shutter is ever activated. Does that mean that photographers, who position the subjects of their photos, are unethical? Perhaps or perhaps not, the ethics of staged photos depends entirely on the context in which they were taken. A staged photograph that is purportedly of a newsworthy event destined for the newspaper is unethical while one for a family portrait is not. The authenticity and ethics of Robert Capa's "Falling Soldier" (above) from 1936 is still being debated because it is unclear whether or not it was staged (Marsh).

Paul Burwell points out that, "Photo manipulation has been happening since the medium was invented in the 1800's. One of the most famous images of US President Lincoln is actually a composite of Lincoln's head pasted onto John Calhoun's body". Was this an ethical edit? That all depends on what purpose the photograph was intended to serve. Photographers who get images of someone as they are killed or right before have to be at the right place at the right (wrong) time or collaborate with the person or people responsible for the death. Eddie Adams took such a photo during


the Vietnam war when a Vietcong suspect was executed by a South Vietnamese police officer (above). The Vietcong suspect would not have been executed had Adams and the other journalists not been there. Farah Abdi Warsameh, an AP photographer, captured another similar situation in Somalia when a man who had committed adultery was stoned by a group of Islamist insurgents. Had Warsameh not been the adulterer would still have been stoned but he had to have collaborated with the insurgents. Were these photographs ethical? Yes and no. They both captured the reality of the moment while still being staged (O'Hagan).

It is generally accepted that basic changes for exposure and white balance can be made. Where does the line get drawn though? At what point is it enough? For photojournalists, forensic photographers, documentary photographers and anyone else required to express the truth, the editorial content must be preserved in order for it to be considered "fair and accurate reporting" (NPPA). This means that photos intended for these uses cannot be altered in a way that changes what is being represented. Nothing should be added or taken away from the photo. Cropping should be used sparingly, if at all, as it can alter the content.

Portrait photographers typically limit the scope of their edits. For the most part, people want to be portrayed truthfully. They do not mind having temporary blemishes removed; however, people want to keep their scars, birth marks, moles and yes, even wrinkles because they are a part of their persona. Would it be ethically wrong to remove those features? No, it is not a question of ethics but one of business, knowing what your clients will find acceptable. Now digitally compositing photographs to put people into compromising positions is another story altogether. That is bad business as well as bad ethics.

As Sandra Gavard points out, regardless of the media in which they are represented (magazines, TV, internet, etc), models are manipulated after a photo shoot, "picture editors and art directors casually manipulate skin tone, eradicate wrinkles and blemishes, change eye color, scrape off excesses fat, and erase even basically human characteristics such as pores or bags under the eyes. Today, after a photo shoot, fashion photographers often retire to their computers and rearrange their pictures. Faces can become wrinkle free, hair more lustrous, irises more brilliant, eye whites whiter. Eyes may move, ears may shrink, mouths may widen, and necks and legs may lengthen. Models might find that they have miraculously lost weight in various places... and gained it in others. Electronic surgery is far cheaper, quicker, and less painful than the real thing." These editors and directors see their work as art but the problem is that the public generally see it as reality. "Although the editors claim that there is a clear difference between a photograph and a photo-illustration, it is apparently still doubtful that the difference is that obvious for the lay public" (Gavard).

Photographers working in most of the other specialties usually have no qualms about altering the reality in their photographs. Their work is considered art and can safely exist outside of reality and ethics. Each photographer has their own set of rules that they follow. Scott Kelby, Photoshop guru and president of NAPP, will remove elements of a photo, duplicate elements of a photo but will not add anything to it. He has no qualms about changing the colors of elements in a photo to make it look better. He will take multiple photos of a scene exposing for foreground in one and sky in another so that they can be combined. He wants to make people "look as good in print ... as they do when I met them in person" even if that means using "each and every Photoshop retouching trick" (Kelby). Ansel Adams, a photographer renowned for his black and white landscape photography, was not opposed to removing things from his photos such as the clouds in Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 or even the big white "LP" from Winter Sunrise, The Sierra Nevada From Lone Pine, California. Brower recalls the event, "I remember the print of Lone Pine on Adams's table. I have a vague recollection that the photographer was less than proud of having excised the "LP." My father recalls otherwise -- that Adams simply thought the town's initials messed up his picture and he wanted them out of there."


It does not matter if the pictures were captured on film, CompactFlash (CF), Secure Digital (SD) card or other digital capture device. It does not matter that it is quicker or easier to edit photographs digitally. What does matter is that each situation is bound by the intent and usage of the photograph being taken. An image for use in a newspaper story should convey the truth of the scene. A portrait destined for use in a biography should express how the subject looked when seen in person. A photograph of an animal in the wild that will appear in a nature documentary should show the reality of the situation being captured. Artists will be artists; they will do whatever it takes to show their own version of reality.

None of the situations change based on how the images are captured nor do they change based on whether the photographs are developed in a darkroom or on a computer. The unique qualities of digital photography do not warrant a change in the rules. Digital photographers should not be bound to a more restrictive set of ethics. The ethics and ethical situations are exactly the same for digital and film photography.

Works Cited

Brower, Kenneth. "Photography in the Age of Falsification." The Atlantic Online. The Atlantic Monthly Group, May 1998. Web. 27 Mar. 2010. <http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/98may/photo.htm>.

Burwell, Paul. "The Ethics of Digital Photo Manipulation." WildShots. WildShots, 12 Aug. 2009. Web. 20 Mar. 2010. <http://www.paulburwell.com/blog/2009/08/the-ethics-of-digital-photo-manipulation/>.

"ethics." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster Online, 2010. Web. 24 Mar. 2010. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ethics>.

Gavard, Sandra. "Maybe She's Born With It... Maybe It's Photoshop: Image Manipulation and the Simulation of Women." 100dr4. Sandra Gavard, 1997. Web. 27 Mar. 2010. <http://sandra.oundjian.com/content/levin.htm>.

Henshall, John. "Beware False Reality." Electronic Photo-Imaging at the EPIcenter. EPIcentre, 1998. Web. 22 Mar. 2010. <http://www.epi-centre.com/reports/9802bcs.html>.

Kelby, Scott. "My Photo Editing "Code of Ethics"." Scott Kelby's Photoshop Insider. Kelby Media Group, 29 Oct 2007. Web. 21 Mar 2010. <http://www.scottkelby.com/blog/2007/archives/693>.

Lodriguss, Jerry. "The Ethics of Digital Manipulation." Catching the Light. Jerry Lodriguss, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2010. <http://www.astropix.com/HTML/J_DIGIT/ETHICS.HTM>.

Marsh, Bill. "Faked Photographs: Look, and Then Look Again." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 30 Aug. 2009. Web. 23 Mar. 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/weekinreview/23marsh.html?_r=1>.

NPPA Board of Directors. "Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics." National Press Photographers Association. NPPA, 1991. Web. 27 Mar. 2010. <http://www.nppa.org/professional_development/business_practices/digitalethics.html>.

O'Hagan, Sean. "Viewer or Voyeur? The Morality of Reportage Photography." guardian.co.uk. Guardian News and Media Limited, 8 Mar. 2010. Web. 23 Mar. 2010. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/mar/08/world-press-photo-sean-ohagan>.



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