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R for Retouched

It’s on the verge of a precipice and let’s face it, it will be hard to prevent it. No, not the photo industry; Ethics and photography. More and more we are seeing examples of photographers being caught altering their images.

The issue is really affecting photojournalism and sports photography. Commercial shooters, Wedding “documentators”,  Celebrity photographers, and snapshooters have been doing all along with no real consequences. Sure, some aristocratic publication might find it awful that such celebrity had had her body airbrushed for this cover. They forget that celebrity photography is also a part of commercial photography. Celebrities are in the business of selling their image and photographers are there to help them.   We don’t mind when pictures of fruits or cars are heavily retouched, so why do we care when it is celebrities?

The world of photojournalism, however, is another story. Because of our cultural background, we tend to grant our sense of vision with the highest level of trust. That is, between something touched, heard, smelled, or seen, it is the latter that we trust the most.

Why? Because we have been raised with the conviction that our eyes don’t lie. That if we see it, then it’s true. “Show me” is probably the most used term to categorically punctuate an argument. So has been the realm of photojournalism: Truly describe a moment in time and space. Or so we thought.

The history of photojournalism is riddled with examples of fakes, altered images, and other unethical use of photographs. Or were they? And who decides what is ethical? Where do these rules come from?

Eugene Smith was notorious for spending long hours in his darkroom working on his prints? Does it make any of his coverage lesser? Certainly not. Some others have cropped, enhanced, shadowed, or even damaged their negative. After all, Robert Capa’s famous images of the D-Day landing might not have looked like that if they hadn’t been damaged. They look real enough.

So where is the limit, and who decides? With technology making it so much easier to profoundly alter images, deleting or adding items, changing the source of the lighting, and so on, how can we, viewers, stay protected? How can we be guaranteed that what we are seeing is the truth?

The short answer: we can’t. It is commendable that Reuters, along with Adobe, is working on trying to make altered files easily identifiable, but let’s face it, it will never fully work. No, the answer is where it’s always been. With the photographer and with the photo editor. If any of these two are ready to lie then there is no protection. If they adhere to their own work ethic then no lies will pass.

So, as our news coverage is becoming more and more crowdsourced and as editing barriers are falling, being replaced by automation, it is inevitable that our images will become less and less credible. I am still amazed, for example, that the Iranian government did not use Twitter for its own advantage by posting images by fake users showing a different story. next time, certainly.

The way to preserve ethics and photojournalism is to have brands. Like we trust the New York Times for the veracity of its information, we could do the same for photographers and photo agencies.  A certain credit will certify a certain ethic. If photographers decide that their work needs heavy photoshop, fine, but they should say it out loud. There is no problem with retouching an image, only in lying and trying to let it pass as an original.

If the IPTC consortium would be smart, they would add a requirement to a field that would have an “R” for “retouched”. Make it easy for people to mark an image as altered. After that, it’s up to the editors and viewers to decide.

Realistically, we will see more and more lying images abound. It’s going to be up to the viewers to be smarter and question what they see. It will also be to the photographers to brand themselves as instruments of truth. But then again, that is really nothing new.

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