Posts Tagged alteration

Cognitive Dissonance and Photojournalism

Deb and Vince Atencio, of Denver, wait to enter one of seven free films offered Saturday, May 18, 2002, in honor of the grand opening of the Madstone art cinema complex in Denver. Combined with the Denver Film Society's new Starz Encore Film Center and a chain of art cinemas scattered through the city's venerable old movie houses, Denver now boasts a significant number of foreign and art film screens.

© Kevin Moloney

This is one of those terms you’ve heard before, but might not have ever gotten to fully understand. It is what it sounds like — thoughts out of tune. More particularly, it is the feeling we get when our thoughts, beliefs and morals clash with our actions. It’s that uncomfortable feeling we have after we buy something we really couldn’t afford, or do something we know we shouldn’t do.

As adaptable beings we dispatch that feeling with justifications. “I really need that new [insert toy name here] even though I ain’t got the cash, and here’s why…” Aesop had a good fable that fit this too. A fox sees some grapes hanging too high to reach. After trying to get them and failing, he struts off arguing to himself that they must not have been worth eating. It’s where the old “sour grapes” saying comes from. We are also prone to justify away the dissonance we would otherwise feel when we take a shortcut we know we should not take.

Dramatic light and color are wonderful when we find them…                  © Kevin Moloney

Dramatic light and color are wonderful when we find them… © Kevin Moloney

In journalism justifications like that pop up frequently to argue why something considered unethical should be seen as okay “under the circumstances.” You’ve heard them: “magazines are different from newspapers” or “the cover is an advertisement” to explain away a breach of journalism ethics. Our ethics should determine our actions, of course. But there seems to be an unending stream of ways journalists justify letting their actions determine their ethics. Neither market forces, ease nor style should trump ethics in the images we produce or how we use them. If we act like we are delivering truthful information, then we must follow through on that promise.

It happens among photojournalists more often than we might think. We pay a lot of attention to the egregious breaches of our ethics: major alterations, serious cases of reenactment or direction of what would appear to be a spontaneous moment. But as professionals who document reality we need to stay aware of how we might let convenience, competition, drive for a style or a wish for the approval of an editor or producer affect our work. This can come down to many of the mundane tasks we perform in our work, including — to pick only one example — things like toning an image.

There’s a difference between choosing a moment of perfect light and color that actually existed and fixing dull light to make it more dramatic in a photo. We like dramatic images. They attract reader interest, appeal to editors and feel satisfying to us. But isn’t the satisfaction and pride much stronger when we took the time and energy to seek out the light and color rather than pumping it up with software tools? And isn’t it simply more honest?

Our talent — the one that separates us from all the other flavors of photographer — is that we capture reality quickly and delicately and without influence. It is an incredible skill that takes great attention and effort to develop. We take pride in our ability to think and act quickly and to know the story as we are seeing it happen. We slice telling moments out of the unstoppable flow of time, and when we miss, we miss.

…but when the light is flat and color anemic, we must just watch more closely for the moment rather than inventing light that wasn't there. © Kevin Moloney

…but when the light is flat and color anemic, we must just watch more closely for the moment rather than inventing light that wasn’t there. © Kevin Moloney

Photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson said, is “…an immediate sketch, done with intuition, and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it, it’s the next picture. Life is very fluid, and, well, sometimes the picture has disappeared and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, ‘oh, please smile again, do that gesture again.’ Life is once, forever.”

Having made all that effort to catch the decisive moment without any before- or after-the-fact fixing, why would we let any overrated sense of market pressure discredit that work? Look again at Cartier-Bresson’s images in which the moment and geometry are so perfect that trivial stylistics like color and contrast don’t matter at all.

And if we look, flat light has its advantages, such as providing layer upon layer of detail. © Kevin Moloney

And if we look, flat light has its advantages, such as providing layer upon layer of detail. © Kevin Moloney

I am not making an excuse to shroud dull images in a cloak of ethics. Our challenge is to find the impressive image in any circumstance — no matter how colorless or flat in light — without needing to embellish it after the fact. We do that by skillfully getting to the right place at the right time to capture true storytelling images and minimizing our influence on a scene.

If any of our actions need a justification to exempt them from our core ethical standards, then those actions need to be reconsidered. It is our ethics that must determine our actions, not the converse.

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For an entertaining and disturbing look at cognitive dissonance at work in the cable TV world, have a listen to radio producer Rebecca Hertz’ piece on how process trumped ethics in the production of a reality TV show, for NPR’s Snap Judgement. In the show segment she compares the experience of the producers and participants to the Stanford Prison Experiment of the 1970s.

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Excuses, excuses.

Economist

President Obama on the magazine cover and in the original photograph with Charlotte Randolph, president of a Louisiana parish, and Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard. Right image © Larry Downing/Reuters (hotlinked from nytimes.com)

I was unhappy to see today that Britain’s venerable Economist joined the ranks of other foolish magazines that unacceptably alter cover images.

Its June 19 cover features an image of Barack Obama in front of an offshore oil rig, looking as upset as Obama seems capable of looking. It’s a strong metaphor that fits their “Obama v BP” headline.

The problem is that there were two other people in the original Reuters image. And in seeing the whole frame Obama is not looking down in dismay. He’s gazing at cleanup materials at his feet or bending an ear to parish president Charlotte Randolph. The context for the downward gaze was entirely removed.

The criticism over the last two days has been justifiable, and the response from the editor in command as unjustifiable. Economist deputy editor Emma Duncan told the New York Times:

“I was editing the paper the week we ran the image of President Obama with the oil rig in the background. Yes, Charlotte Randolph was edited out of the image (Admiral Allen was removed by the crop). We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers.


“We often edit the photos we use on our covers, for one of two reasons. Sometimes — as with a cover we ran on March 27 on U.S. health care, with Mr. Obama with a bandage round his head — it’s an obvious joke. Sometimes — as with an image of President Chavez on May 15 on which we darkened the background, or with our “It’s time” cover endorsing Mr. Obama, from which the background was removed altogether — it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead.


“I asked for Ms. Randolph to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story. ‘The damage beyond the spill’ referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America.”

If I could bring her into my classes and ask her to comment on the alteration decision, I doubt she would survive long under questioning from students. I, like most of my colleagues, hope to train students beyond the simplistic “you just don’t do that” argument. Critical thinking is a key to good journalistic judgment, and rarely does the easy answer hold up.

Let’s look critically at Duncan’s reasoning.

1. “We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers.”

First, intent is not evident to a reader. Her lack of intent to make a political point is irrelevant. You lose any argument that a decision is apolitical as soon as an alteration is made, because why else would you alter history?

Second, a puzzled reader is a simple thing to overcome. As Wilson Hicks, the venerable editor of Life Magazine noted, it is the combination of words and pictures that most effectively communicates. Few if any journalism pictures can stand alone without a caption. More puzzling than a mysterious extra person is the choice to put a deceptive picture on the cover of one of journalism’s most esteemed publications. Why would she want to erode reader trust by changing what was before the camera?

2. “We often edit the photos we use on our covers, for one of two reasons. Sometimes — as with a cover we ran on March 27 on U.S. health care, with Mr. Obama with a bandage round his head — it’s an obvious joke.”

“Obvious” is the key there. Digital alterations of news images is a hot-button issue because as journalists we seek to not deceive readers. I frankly have no trouble with heavy-handed art made from news images in news publications as long as it is patently obvious to the average reader that the image has been rethought, combined with others or torqued beyond question. I have not seen that March 27 cover, but I would guess it is pretty clearly a digital mashup. But this June 19 case is certainly not so. They made this woman disappear in a way that Stalin would envy.

How many of you image-savvy professionals out there would have spotted this as an alteration? Would you flip several pages deep to hunt for the six-point credit that reads, “Photo Illustration by…”?

And if the average person did, would s/he think that the term “photo illustration” was anything more that a couple redundant words before someone’s name? (Having not seen the magazine yet I have no idea if they credited the image in this cryptic way).

It’s OK to be plainly, playfully obvious I think. But this was certainly not a transparent change.

3. “Sometimes — as with an image of President Chavez on May 15 on which we darkened the background, or with our “It’s time” cover endorsing Mr. Obama, from which the background was removed altogether — it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead.”

I think they did intend to bring out the central character here, and I can sympathize with that hope. I am sure their ideal cover involves a clear, simple graphic statement that acts as a metaphor or confirmation of lead story. Having seen neither the Chavez nor Obama Health Care covers, I can’t judge whether they were obvious enough for me. But removal of anything from an image is misleading and can be even if the image is only cropped. There was context behind both those heads, and perhaps even context cropped by the photographer as s/he shot the images. Cut-out images need to be as transparent as any other. Even if those two other examples were as clear as I’d hope, this June 19 image is not.

Here are some questions I’d ask a class:

How many images have been made of Obama? Of the Gulf oil spill? Of Obama at the Gulf oil spill? Is this really the only image out there that makes this point? Isn’t a better answer — one that would maintain the critical trust of the readers — to find a different image?

If all that is impossible and you feel the only image available would not work without being altered, then why not go all out? Why cop out with the simple removal of a person who was there giving context to that image when you could find a perfect Obama, a perfect flaming oil rig and make something infinitely more artful and obvious?

Caricature-like montage illustrations are a cop-out in my book too, but if there’s any place they work it might be magazine covers or opinion pages, so it’s a reasonable choice here — certainly better than this deceptive alteration.

This is an excellent example of why we should not alter journalistic images. Intent to deceive or not, the entire story has changed from the original to the final alteration.

4. “I asked for Ms. Randolph to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story. ‘The damage beyond the spill’ referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America.”

Then why is this the one and only image that could be used? Why was this frame so important that it needed to be deceptively altered? For me the resulting image says only that Obama is disgusted with the spill somehow. And that isn’t the true message of the original frame. The original Reuters picture says Obama discusses cleanup efforts with local and national officials. So this altered image lies. And if the story is about the damage to business in America, then this image is a total failure. No hint of that message is there.

Like every similar case I see, the excuses are simply excuses. When a publication decides to make an alteration to a news or documentary image it all comes down to laziness. They didn’t take the research time, the creative effort or the thought to find the honest solution. And the resulting justifications (of which there are hundreds) are simply poor justifications.

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