When does a photograph become dishonest?

The answer to the question, when does a photograph become dishonest, seems obvious. Unless it’s not. And that’s the tricky part.

Several people have mentioned this lately so I thought I’d start down a path on the subject here. Honesty in photography is an issue that has been around for decades and will never go away but it’s only an issue in the purist of journalistic environments. Which makes sense, I guess.

It’s easy to look back in horror or disapproval at the fact that Matthew Brady moved bodies and rifles to make better compositions or that W. Eugene Smith added elements to a photo of Albert Schweitzer and changed the dynamic range of photos in the darkroom in ways that wouldn’t be permitted in World Press Photo’s competition today.

Applying today’s standards to images of the past is a mistake, in the same way that anthropologists fail when assessing one society using the standards and mores of another society.

The first step down this path is trying to agree about what is honest, or even if that can be the goal. Honesty, accuracy, truthfulness and other terms are sides of a dice that we roll every time we approach a subject. What might be honest to one person won’t be to another.

This shows up in a lot of ways. The most clear I’ve been around was while working in a Republican White House, where the notion of truth meant something specific. Perspectives on world events were nearly opposite of those formed in most newsrooms, at least those I’ve worked in.  The administration generally perceived The New York Times’ coverage as wrong and generally thought The Washington Times’ coverage was right and preferred Fox News over CNN and MSNBC. That throws out the notion that news is objective and shows that truth is not a universally definable measure. It’s easier to know whether something lies than it is to know whether it portrays a truth - in part because there are almost always many types and degrees of truth - though even lies have many facets. WMD.

Is it possible to set standards that everyone agrees to, that would make it clear whether a given practice is honest, truthful, accurate? Probably not. And even it were possible, knowing whether a given photograph meets the standard is hard to detect.

It’s easy to write rules: The photographer may not alter the image in any way by moving, replacing, slicing or dicing parts of an image. The photographer may not apply borders, may not adjust toning in a way that changes the scene from it’s original representation. May not this, may not that ...

It’s not so easy to gauge whether those rules have been followed. Anyone can alter elements in a photo in a way that can’t easily be detected. So you can get away with altering images – moving a Pepsi can or pyramids or missile launches or soldiers. No wait, people didn’t get away with those. Speaking of pyramids, did you know the Geographic altered at least three cover images. More water was added to a cover photo of a man wading through Indian flooding, more hat was added to an eastern European military officer’s hat. But those were more than a couple decades ago.

Rules are clearly nothing more than a guideline, a way to reject an image if it’s determined to break the specific aspects of the rules, the interpretation of which varies widely. Rules generally only work in a contest environment. Even contests vary widely in their wording of do’s and don’ts.

The publishing realm is even more divergent in interpretting what is acceptable. Do you suppose Weekly World News and People Magazine have the same rules about altering images? 

Dartmouth’s research in detecting altered images could help in a contest environment or if a publishing environment applied the filter. Otherwise, we’re left not knowing for sure whether a given image was altered.

That leaves the notion of accurately representing a scene, not altering the tones or color range or shadow density or highlights beyond a certain point. Variables such as type of camera, lens and film/digital and black and white or color alone produce wildly variable representations of the same scene. And there are more variations of these being used now than ever. Add the differences in how humans perceive color and light and how capable different photographers are in perceiving and representing scenes and there’s little doubt that accuracy is a gooey notion.

This is all a bit like people saying they can’t define pornography but they know it when they see it. We can’t make a ruler by which we can measure honesty. The best we can hope for is that photographers set out with good intentions, that the people in charge of setting standards are wise and well informed and that the public understands the nuances of all of this. All of these conditions are likely to happen soon after we learn how to make wine from water.

So here we are, stuck in the continual vortex of agreeing to disagree about what is and is not acceptable.

In answer to the opening question, photographs are not dishonest, people who intentionally misrepresent situations to compensate for their own shortcomings are dishonest.

I love photographers

What kind of picture taker are you?