Excuse me, could you move those pyramids over there where the light is better?

There’s a troubling trend going on among photojournalists, and it has to do with using a little too much of the functionality in the digital darkroom of everyone’s choice, Adobe Photoshop.

Photoshop is the program where photographers weave digital magic around their photographs, but the people who provide images to the mainstream, legitimate news media are not supposed to tinker with what’s in the image. It’s so easy to manipulate digital photos that the name of this software program is often used as a verb, as in “I broke up with that girlfriend, so I Photoshopped her out of the picture.”

Today we learned that a freelance photographer for Reuters was fired for adding a few more plumes of smoke to a scene of Beirut under attack.

Reuters, you will remember, is the wire service that refuses to use the word “terrorist” to describe people who strap explosives to their bodies and detonate them around civilians. As a matter of style, Reuters will only call them “insurgents.”

The Reuters caption for these two pictures reads: “Reuters on Sunday withdrew an image of smoke rising from burning buildings after an Israeli air strike on the suburbs of Beirut on August 5, 2006 after evidence emerged that it had been manipulated to show more smoke. The manipulated image is shown on the left. The unaltered image, shown on the right, has since run. Reuters has told the photographer, freelance Adnan Hajj, that the agency will not use any more of his pictures.”

The photographer claimed that working in a low light environment made it hard for him to realize what changes he was making to the photo. Come on, it’s a completely different tool in PhotoShop to change brightness and contrast. Surely he would know he was using the cloning tool…

Manipulation of images is nothing new. It began when photography did. The problem is the images today can be more convincing than ever.
In 1982, National Geographic was discovered using expensive (at the time) computerized retouching equipment to artfully squeeze the Great Pyramids of Giza a little bit closer together so that the horizontal photo could be used on the vertical magazine’s cover. They also later admitted to making a man’s hat just a bit taller for the same reason. They took a real reputation hit on that one.

You’d think that would have been enough for NG to swear off fakery, but apparently not. Steve Kapsinow reports on the Graphic Design Forum that a National Geographic publication has been caught again, this time buying this PhotoShop composite as if it were a real photo.

A few weeks ago, the Charlotte Observer fired a photographer for adjusting the color too much in a dramatic photograph of a fireman against a brilliant orange sky. The problem is the original photograph didn’t have a brilliant orange sky, it was a muddy brown.

The photographer, Patrick Schneider, was in trouble for his PhotoShop prowess a few years ago. He got suspended for alterations he made to some photographs.

You don’t have to have a lot of expertise to do something that will fool people.

Look at this crude effort of mine. I like to tell people the reason Ari Fleischer left the White House was because I decided not to renew his license to use my face.

Paul Martin Lester, a professor on the communications faculty at the University of California at Fullerton, wrote a book about ethics in photojournalism in 1991. It’s now available on the web and should be required reading for photojournalists.

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