Photo editing has been around since the invention of photography. Now that digital photography has taken flight, with rapid development of new software and hardware at lower prices, digital editing and manipulation of photos are gaining ground rapidly and ‘fake’ photos are increasingly hard to identify. Where lies the limit between acceptable photo editing and conscious manipulation?
The incessant debate about this subject is not getting any closer to a solution with the advance of electronic tools. Can manipula- tion and photo editing be considered an art form in its own right, or are they permissible means in photojournalism? In photography land, an aesthetic line has been drawn between acceptable and unacceptable editing. However, this line is so fine, that the discussion seems to focus more often on this divide than on what is really at stake: how far can a photographer go in editing a photo, especially a news photo, without undermining his photographic integrity?
Print or Edit
This question is easier to ask than to answer. To find the answer, we must examine what we understand ‘photo editing’ to be. If a photographer uses a conventional dark room to print photos, he will adjust his material with the aim of optimising the printing of photos. This is generally accepted as a stage in the photographic process and therefore does not qualify as ‘editing’ or manipulation, which then occurs after this phase. But digital photography does not require a dark room, instead it uses image-editing software. This makes it even more difficult to draw the line between printing and editing. A striking example is the one of top photographer Patrick Schneider. Three of Schneider’s photos won awards in the competition for best American news photo. Later it became known that Schneider had used Photoshop to darken the edges and background of the three photos to enhance their effect. The jury did not tolerate this and took his awards away. On the other hand, there are numerous media that regularly use photo editing, even on their covers. For example, American magazines TIME and Newsweek like com- peting with each other when it comes to substantially edited covers. On one TIME cover, O.J. Simpson was darkened, and on another the photo editor had cut and measu- red endlessly to fit in three Egyptian pyramids. Recently Newsweek pasted the head of a smiling Martha Stewart on the body of a model. In most cases of photojournalism the advice is: do not use photo editing. Of course cropping is allowed, but even this is often under discussion because certain truths may be cut out of a photo.
Some ethicists even go as far as saying that every pose before a camera is more or less a manipulation of the truth and therefore cannot be part of pure photojournalism or documentary photography. It seems we have to keep searching for the thin line running along the spectrum of photo alteration. That thin line lies somewhere between an accep- table representation of the truth and an irresponsible disturbance of this truth.
In art, everything goes
In art photography, it’s a completely different matter. Contemporary art photographers can no longer bypass editing techniques and a number of them even owe their reason for existing to it. At the moment there is so much software and hardware available to manipulate or edit a photo, that many art photographers consider it as a new impulse to art photography. The ethical issues are considered less and less in this field, also because the public is becoming increasingly aware of the use of editing and manipulation techniques. In fact, it is widely appreciated. In art photography there are no limits to photo editing and the possibilities are endless. And as this GUP testifies, the greatest talents and leading art photographers do not exactly loathe a little use of Photoshop.
In photojournalism it all revolves around trust, while in art photography it is a matter of artistic expression. What is truth in photography? Or alternatively: what is pure photography? To conclude, a minor consolation for the paranoid control freaks among us: there is software in development that allows you to see if a photo has been edited or not. That must be a comforting thought...