by Robert Trippett
The moment a photojournalist releases the shutter a sacred threshold is crossed. The instant after the shutter blinks open and closed, whether for a thousandth of a second to freeze the impact of a baseball bat on a ball, or for several hours to soak up the faint glow of a passing comet, the door also shuts for a photojournalist to manipulate that captured representation of reality. Any technical choices made before that moment are generally accepted as tools for achieving the photographer’s vision. Any digital post processing beyond generally accepted darkroom techniques are considered a prohibited manipulation of that sacrosanct moment of exposure.
Adobe PhotoShop is a powerful and insidiously seductive tool, offering control of a photograph to the level of individual pixels. We have all heard the career-ending horror stories about photojournalists who have selfdestructed using PhotoShop to flagrantly alter their photographs. Others may just fudge the line a little as they attempt to enhance their images. The latest PhotoShop flame out was a Reuters’ freelance photographer who manipulated a photo he took of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In an attempt to delineate this murky line between vision and manipulation I thought it might be useful to pose a few simple questions:
—Would it be dishonest to punch up PhotoShop’s Saturation slider to create a more spectacular sunset photo, or is that only legitimate using a polarizing filter?
—Was it right for old timers to darken the sky area of their photos with the “Hand of God” darkroom technique? Would it pass muster if that identical look was accomplished in camera with a gradient filter, or on a computer using PhotoShop’s Lasso, Feather, and Curve tools?
—Does a photojournalist photographing a day-in-the-life story of the President violate their access if color files are converted to grayscale for a grittier documentary look, or should that be banned along with the colorization of old black and white movies?
—Is it grounds for impeachment to use Gaussian Blur to give an ethereal out-of-focus glow to the crowd surrounding a presidential candidate, or would that effect only follow protocol if a toy camera with a gauzy plastic lens was used? —Is it an outrage to apply PhotoShop’s Levels so that protesters appear as silhouettes, or is that only legitimate if the camera is set to underexpose the original demonstration scene?
—Is a photographer off balance if PhotoShop is used to correct the parallax lines in a wide angle shot of a tall building, or is that only permissible using the tilt and shift of a view camera?
—Do news photographers lose their bearing if they crop a vertical photo out of a horizontal composition, or use a digital level to correct an inadvertently tilted horizon?
—When the file size of an image is increased using bicubic interpolation, is that merely correcting for a camera’s limitations, or does that subtle transformation of pixels turn an accurate document into a false artifact? —Is a panoramic landscape created in a Widelux camera any more authentic than one digitally stitched together from separate photographs?
—If a flash creates a demonic red stare in a subject’s eyes, is a photographer closer to the truth if they desaturate and darken the pupils, or would that be the work of the devil?
—If a photojournalist forgets to change the white balance from tungsten to daylight should the Photo Police tell them to freeze when they reach for the neutral gray eyedropper?
—Is it a journalistic aberration to digitally correct a lens’chromatic aberrations? —If a photographer’s “vision thing” entails dragging the shutter with a flash to create “eye candy,” is that decision any more valid than applying PhotoShop’s Motion Blur?
—Consider a photographer who uses a very long time exposure of a candle light march past the White House to create a gossamer river of golden light: charlatan, or journalist with a poetic flair?
—Does a photojournalist lose their inner focus if they digitally sharpen past the correction needed for an anti-aliasing filter? Has the hackneyed photojournalist motto “f8 and Be There!” morphed into “Unsharp Mask and Be There!”?
—Who was the greater sinner: LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith who, though his credo was “let truth be the prejudice,” had no compunction about using his darkroom wizardry to sandwich together two photos taken on different continents to add drama to a portrait of Albert Schweitzer; or L.A. Times photojournalist Brian Walski who used the PhotoShop wizard in his laptop to digitally combine elements of two photos taken seconds apart of a British soldier and Iraqi civilians outside Basra to create a more dramatic composition?
—Should photojournalists have known that they were all sunk when, at the dawn of the digital photo age, a picture desk jockey did not read the caption carefully and with a few quick key strokes “corrected” the color of a swimming pool that had been dyed red by protesters?
Clearly a photograph can be easily manipulated at any point in the process. Photojournalists must carefully measure their intent, both aesthetic and journalistic, making the choices that lead to clarity and not distortion or superficial showmanship. That intent, ethically calibrated, is the fulcrum that begins to resolve some of these thorny dilemmas, counterbalancing the mantra to create something “different” with the more imperative calling to convey what is true.
The illusion of verisimilitude—the believability of the moment captured—that is the rock foundation that photojournalists stand on, even if in reality that rock is made up of infinitely malleable zeros and ones. Ultimately photojournalists should strive to temper their desire to produce an image that jumps off the printed page with the debt of honesty owed to the subject, a responsibility due both before and after the inviolable instant the shutter is released. Perhaps the only advisable way to navigate the slippery slope of digital manipulation is to approach the moment of exposure, not as a sacred threshold but rather as you would a weathered and bullet-riddled road sign that warns: “PROCEED WITH EXTREME CAUTION!”
Finally, for the true acetic who discovers in dismay that the dust spot in the sky, which was cloned away with a sweet chunk of skyblue pixels, was actually an out of focus bird in flight, the absolution for that sin is one Hail Mary. Just be ready to fire up PhotoShop and get out the digital level, because invariably a Hail Mary photo will have a horizon that is slightly askew.
Robert Trippett is a freelance photojournalist for World Picture News.