How far would you go to get the shot?

I’ve often heard photographers discuss the ethics of altering a photo–debating, say, whether it’s acceptable to use Photoshop to remove a Coke can from a landscape shot. Had they noticed the can before taking the shot, of course, they’d have kicked it out of the frame. These heated discussions of the “purity” of the captured image strike me as a little sterile, especially when great pre-digital masters altered images freely.
So here’s a potentially meatier topic: Would you set up a great shot at the expense of personal injury to others? And to what end?
Photographer Liu Tao has been accused of lying in wait to capture shots of a man wiping out when his bike hit a submerged pothole. He defends himself by noting that his images embarrassed the government into fixing the pothole, and that without the change people would still be getting hurt. Photography can effect social change, but where’s the line between documentarian and participant, and how does one know when to cross it? [Via]

0 thoughts on “How far would you go to get the shot?

  1. What of the steps the photographer takes to show “the truth” in an image? Which of the many interpretations of the “true” meaning is it? on one of the site you referenced shows how simple operations such as cropping, as well as more complex ones such as digital manipulation can subtly or very strongly change the subjective and objective message of an image.

  2. There are two issues here: One is photographic ethics involved in actually capturing an image and the other issue is ethics involved in photographic manipulation. Both are issues that are central to the visual display of information, news, advertising and politics, among many other applications.
    Most photographers at one time or another have positioned things we wanted, or waited for the ideal light or even conspired to have people show up at the right time/place to get our image. There has even been a long raging debate in the photojournalism world of when to intervene in a situation. i.e., do you document the news or become a participant? It is a surprisingly difficult question to answer once you are engaged in certain situations. However, the ethic to do no harm should be part of journalistic integrity. This individual allowed people to enter into a dangerous situation to capitalize on an opportunity to obtain the image he wanted without regard to the potential outcome.
    The other major issue is manipulation of the image after it has been captured and one that all Photoshop users are familiar with. Some time ago, I wrote about news manipulation of images here:
    and there are many other still ongoing controversies such as the recent image on the Whitehouse website that was Photoshopped to make it appear there were more soldiers in the image. Just do an image search for “Bush” and “Whatever it takes” to find the images. Here as in the process of capturing the image, the ethics should be to do no harm and like the previous example of the bicyclist, when the goal is to deceive for advantage, then harm has been done. Of course defining “advantage” is the tough one here.

  3. Can’t we say that Photography is strictly photo’s from camera work and munipulation is Photo-Art? We have all seen amazing Photo-Art and the talent to produce it shouldn’t be thought of as second rate, unless it’s poorly done.
    Passing Photo-Art off as Photography is deceptive. Integrity in the world of Photography isn’t any different than it is in any other trade.
    But again, if you are talented in Photo-Art, stand up and be counted. There’s room for talent. Keep it clean.

  4. Miles,
    It’s actually not quite that easy. Specifically, there are lots of applications where manipulation is in fact important for image interpretation or information extrapolation. Image manipulation may be important to extracting features that are “hidden” within images for forensic purposes, or for scientific applications. Many photographic manipulations are important and indeed critical to interpretation and some may argue that it might even be important and commonly used in photojournalism in that the camera does not “see” the same way as the human retina (which by the way, does not “see” the same way or even as good as other animals).

  5. From the photographer’s point of view, I think editing a shot using Photoshop or any tools is not advisable. Photographers are known because of the way they use their camera to get very good photo’s not for editing a particular Photo.

  6. Since quality between traditional photography and digital photography are as different as night and day, it would seem that the elitist controversy surrounding photo manipulation is just the last bastion of the “anti-computer in art movement” that you touched on in your MathRock blog.
    For me, someone whose knowledge of Art equals his knowledge on the breeding habits of the Anarctic King Penguin (um, nothing), I say leave the kids with their toys and just enjoy the pretty pictures. Art poseurs and connoisseurs alike need to embrace the implementation of new technologies to create works of beauty because such techniques are being used all around us whether we are given knowledge about them or not.
    This reminds me of the issue some have with touching up, renovating, or “bringing out the true colors,” in paintings.

  7. I produce large format art prints using a digital camera, photoshop, and output to an Epson 9800. The ethics of levels of manipulation through the whole process facinate me. I have little technical knowledge of photography -the auto setting on the EOS20 usually captures precisely what I need. Because my prints are large format I work in bright sunlight to optimise definition and use minimal cropping to maintain this definition in the enlarged prints. But I will correct verticals and horizontals -didn’t the traditional field photographer used to do that on site? Most of the bells and whistles of PS filter manipulation tend to obscure what I want to convey, so I use minimal ‘enhancement’. Even though I control the printer it is merely to oversee the quality of the outcome. But my management of the whole process, from aiming the lens to framing the print is to ensure the outcome matches my original vision, and hopefully conveys something of the dynamic and magic that inspired me.
    Whether you call my work – photography (which embarrases me cause I only aim and press a button): photo-art, (though the manipulation seems so minimal to warrant it) or art, which conveniently will stretch to encompass whatever I want -I shall carry on in the same vein regardless.
    catch my work on and tell me which pigeon hole to put it in!
    Lewis Carroll (‘Hiawatha’s Photography’) wrote this for me!
    “In an age of imitation
    I can claim no special merit
    for this slight attempt at doing
    what is known to be so easy……..”

  8. Hey John…I received this email from a friend in Idaho awhile back and thought it fit well with this discussion. If it doesn’t…sorry for the interuption.
    Subject: Moral question
    This test only has one question, but it’s a very important one. By giving an honest answer, you will discover where you stand morally. The test features an unlikely, completely fictional situation in which you will have to make a decision. Remember that your answer needs to be honest, yet spontaneous. Please scroll down slowly and give due consideration to each line.
    You are in Florida, Miami to be specific. There is chaos all around you caused by a hurricane with severe flooding. This is a flood of biblical proportions. You are a photojournalist working for a major newspaper, and you’re caught in the middle of this epic disaster. The situation is nearly hopeless. You’re trying to shoot career-making photos. There are houses and people swirling around you, some disappearing under the water. Nature is unleashing all of its destructive fury.
    Suddenly you see a man in the water. He is fighting for his life, trying not to be taken down with the debris. You move closer. Somehow the man looks familiar. You suddenly realize who it is. It’s George W. Bush. At the same time you notice that the
    raging waters are about to take him under forever. You have two options–you can save the life of George W. Bush, or you can shoot a dramatic Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, documenting the death of one of the world’s most powerful politicians.
    Here’s the question, and please give an honest answer: Would you select high-contrast color film, or would you go with the classic simplicity of black and white?
    [Heh heh–I think it’s completely on-topic, Russell. ;-)]

  9. It all depends on what the purpose of the photo is. Is it art? Recreation? Political satire? Manipulate away!
    Is it news? Then it had better show what the camera was pointed at. We all know that readers are sophisticated enough to know that a telephoto lens will compress an image, or that a wide angle lens will distort the perspective compared to a person standing at the scene and looking at it.
    It’s the intent of the photographer that counts. The reason photojournalists must not alter images (remove coke cans, telephone poles, add people, objects, etc.) is that once the credibility of a photographer is in question, it is lost forever.
    Any photo is a distortion. But like I said, people who look at photos these days are pretty sophsiticated. They understand intuitively, if not in any way they can articulate, that three dimensions are compressed into two.
    A camera is faithful in the way it writes images onto film/sensors. What it sees, it reveals accurately based on the limits of optics and film/chip sensitivity. It’s quite obvious the photographer has only chosen a part of the real world to capture in the image. (You mean the photo doesn’t show the whole scene from every angle? No duh!)
    So it’s a canard to tell a photographer that they aren’t showing “reality.” No kidding. Do you tell the whole and complete truth to such a degree that the objective truth is told in minute detail every time you open your mouth?
    No? Well then, if you don’t, are you a liar?
    No! So why tell photojournalists that through their photography they can’t possibly convey some degree of the truth? Everyone on the planet understands that whenever someone “tells the truth” that it’s limited to their abilitly to concieve it, let alone convey it.
    “Cameras don’t tell the objective truth!” That’s the usual claim “artists” will make to journalists to denigrate the objective of being accurate in what reportorial photographs convey. One again, the appropriate response is, “No duh.”
    As the wise man once said: “The camera never lies, but photographers often do.”
    Photojournalists use the representative strenth of their medium (as opposed to painting or drawing) to report the news. Would you ask any less of a writer? Or is it okay for writers to make things up about the real world to make it “prettier?”
    When Cliff Edom, the founder of the first photojournalism program in the world at the Univeristy of Missouri coined the phrase “Show truth with a camera,” we all knew what he meant. And that tradition lives to this day because people understand what that means. Anyone who claims it’s not possible does not understand the meaning of the word truth in this context, or is not honest enough to admit it to even themselves.

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