Image manipulation, trust and the news


General Photography

Remember this? What fun we had! But all joking aside, there is are a couple of important lessons to be learned here: First, people will occasionally manipulate images. And second, if you look carefully (or use computer software that looks for repeated - aka cloned - image patterns) you can spot these manipulations. But these obvious cases aside, there have been a lot of discussions - and various scandals - about image manipulation in the context of what we call the news lately, and it just occurred to me that instead of telling people what not to do I better come up with a suggestion what to do. (more; updated)

In earlier posts (here is one), I dismissed the various proposals and/or procedures to deal with the problem of image manipulation, in large part because they are simply ill-defined. To ask for an image not to be “manipulated beyond accepted darkroom techniques such as modest burning and dodging” (quoting Fred Ritchin) simply asks for trouble. What exactly is “modest burning and dodging”? Somebody’s “modest burning and dodging” might be way too much for some people and way too little for others.

Also, I think a large part of the problems we see with image manipulation in the media, especially in newspapers, have more to do with people mistrusting the newspapers, and those very newspapers then trying to deflect their credibility deficit onto photographers. It’s mostly people like Jayson Blair or Judith Miller who helped tarnish their former employer’s credibility. Acknowledging that the images can be manipulated in ways that might make them unsuitable for a strict news use, but failing to provide the criteria is no recipe to restore credibility.

So how can this be improved? Well, first of all, we need to realize that first, some people will blatantly manipulate images like the Iranians mentioned above. Those instances will probably be rare; and those obviously are cases that need to be caught. There now exists software to look for tampering, and such software needs to be used in every newsroom.

As a quick aside, it’s actually quite amazing to see how amateurishly many of the various manipulations were. Of course, this could mean that the ones that were well made haven’t been discovered, yet. But still…

In any case, there will be a lot more cases which are not clear-cut, and there needs to be a way to deal with those. Given we’re in the age of the internet, a possible solution is actually very straightforward:

For every photograph in the paper supply the raw image (note that “paper” here increasingly does not mean actual newspapers any longer, we could be talking about electronic versions on websites or in whatever form they will exist on future electronic readers). I’m suggesting that a newspaper provides a link to a completely unPhotoshopped, (camera) raw image (whose size and resolution will match that of the image in the paper) for every photograph they use.

That way, a reader who is concerned about a photography could look at the raw image and then literally see to what extent it has been manipulated. It also means that a newspaper would have to have a raw image for every photo they publish - which makes detecting manipulations like the Iranians ones much easier (they’d probably run both images through software designed to find image manipulations).

There’d be a very simple and clear message: “Yes, feel free to check the source image, we have nothing to hide.” (The “we” here actually includes both the newspaper and the photographer!)

It is very likely that there will be readers writing in, telling the newspaper “Hey, this image here clearly was manipulated too much.” In those cases, the newspaper needs to be prepared to discuss the issue. One could imagine to have a photography ombudsman, for example, a person who will discuss the two photographs somewhere on the newspaper’s website. Given the initial high volume of inquiries that person probably won’t be able to discuss each and every image, probably only those that resulted in most emails. But this would be part of the trust building; and it would help the readers to develop more of a visual literacy concerning images used in the context of the news.

Make no mistake, I can easily see how many photographers would not be very happy with such a procedure. But remember I’m talking about images in the news here, where we’re witnessing a hemorrhaging of trust in images in the news. If we want to get trust back, we need to address the problem.

This procedure can also easily get applied to World Press Photo, for example. As far as I can tell, the only change from how they currently treat photography would be that each photographer would have to send in the raw image(s), and the public should be allowed to see the raw images for each and every of the winners. The tame wolf leaping over some barrier you still wouldn’t catch, but there would be no confusion any longer about the tip of a shoe missing.

Needless to say, the situation gets more complicated once we move from newspapers to magazines that cover news-related stories. Again, there is a long list of scandals of image manipulation scandals, going all the way back to the 1980s.

Outside of newspapers, in the broader context of editorial photography, one could imagine a slightly modified version of my earlier suggestion. There are many cases where someone would not want to show their raw images (incl. all the many cases where it doesn’t really matter whether an image was manipulated or not). Most fine-art photographers working for an editorial job would probably not be happy to expose their process in this way. Which is perfectly understandable.

In these cases, there could be a two-tiered solution: Photos plus links to their raw images, plus photos that come with a link to a page (or disclaimer or whatever you want to call it) that says something to the effect of “This image has been produced by digitally manipulating a camera raw image. While it looks like a photograph of something that was in front of the camera’s lens, it does not show what the naked eye would have seen.” You can probably come up with something smarter, but you get the idea.

So in the first case, you would allow readers to check the editorial decision about the extent of the manipulations (dodging, burning, changing contrasts, cropping etc.). In the second case, you would literally tell the readers “Listen, this image has been manipulated, and if you’re uncomfortable with image manipulations, think of this image as an illustration.”

I am fully aware of the fact that my suggestion does not introduce strict criteria for how much manipulation is “allowed.” This is because I don’t think such criteria can actually be defined in meaningful ways. It is still up to the newspapers/magazines to decide about that. But once the decision is made, the newspapers/magazines also decide whether they want to show the raw images or not. If they do show the raw images, they also show they are happy for everyone to see how much the published image differs from the raw image. And if they don’t show the raw image, they tell their readers that in this day and age, a photo can be a photo even though it differs quite a bit from its raw version.

I do realize that fundamentally, all images are manipulated; but my idea here is to introduce a certain amount of pragmatism into the debate, for which we need a better solution, given the explosion of image-manipulation scandals. So please note that I’m really only talking about newspapers or political magazines here. In the context of fine art, for example, asking to see the raw images (negatives) would be nonsensical. Only in the context of a newspaper (or of a magazine associated with similar topics) does it matter whether there has been generous Photoshopping going on or not.

As I wrote earlier, I’m sure that many photographers will hate this suggestion. And make no mistake, to a certain extent I can understand this. I’m not saying that my suggestion is the magical solution to the ever growing problem of image manipulation in the news. Maybe it is, most likely it isn’t.

Here’s the issue, though: The public mistrusts photography. This is 2010, and our understanding of photography has evolved to a point where it is often at odds with both what is required in a news context and what we naively expect from a photo (unless we’re art critics, of course). In the news context we need to address the trust issue: “How can we convince the public that what we’re doing is not creating or using images that they think are fake?”

Letting the public see with their own eyes is an obvious - and simple! - solution. There might be others, and I’m curious to hear/read what they are.

Update (21 April 2010): Roger Llonch wrote in to tell me that raw files can of course be manipulated or faked, too, noting that I might put too much faith in the raw image. This is an important point, and I actually expected as much. Here’s the thing, though. I do not think that we will be able to rule out each and every fake photo, not with this or any other suggestion. There will be cases where a fake raw file might deceive the viewers. What I’m after are the cases where it’s not about outright fakes, but about cases where the question is “Is this too much Photoshop?” I think there will be many more such cases.

What is more, my suggestion is also about building trust, about news organizations reaching out to their viewers. If there is a case where both a news organization and the viewers will be deceived - some ingenious fake raw image etc. - then, well, it’s very hard to see how such a case will be detectable. But it would be obvious that the news organization is not hiding anything. And who knows, some “amateur” out there somewhere might actually have a very smart piece of software that detects the fraud.