photojournalist stripped of award
August 30, 2003 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Press photographer stripped of award; accused of overly darkening some portions in the digital editing process. Nothing was added or moved. Explains N.C. Press Photographers Assoc. president Chuck Liddy: You might say, "Gosh, I don't like the way this background looks I can get rid of this with a couple of keystrokes". No contortions in the darkroom with your hands and a dodging wand. No making ten or fifteen prints over a two hour period to get that print just right. Nope, just go and use the lasso tool, yank those levels to the max and VIOLA! the background disappears. Burning has always been an acceptable action. Burning to "de-emphasize" a background is something all of us do. But deleting the background by using some of the powerful tools Photoshop offers is totally unacceptable and violates the ethics code we adhere to. Schneider, the photographer, responds in an NPR interview (scroll down to audio link). In this allegedly unethical photo, Schneider says he corrected for overexposure. Is this a backlash against digital manipulation, which rankles the old school because it is simply too easy?
posted by found missing (29 comments total)
Also, why is cropping completely ethical, even though it certainly can and does alter the content and meaning of a photograph, yet digitally changing colors and background shading (even in a way that is consistent with the original scene) is unethical?
posted by found missing at 9:48 AM on August 30, 2003

Is this a backlash against digital manipulation, which rankles the old school because it is simply too easy?

I don't think this is even really in question, since the pres says as much in his statement above - burning in the darkroom is fine because it takes two hours, but on the computer is unacceptable because - voila!, basically.

it's their award, so their rules, but it is a little funny.
posted by mdn at 9:52 AM on August 30, 2003

Because hay will be scare this winter,

An ad for Jeeper Creepers2?

They're taking back the award because they can, and because if he can do this, HE'S A WITCH!!! A WITCH!!!
posted by Busithoth at 10:07 AM on August 30, 2003

There are other awards you can get for digital media. This is an award for photography. If someone who was a better photographer took the same picture at it came out better, he would deserve the award.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:15 AM on August 30, 2003

That's a pretty harsh judgment if you ask me. Last time I checked, photography was ultimately about capturing a scene in as creative a way as possible, not "manual dexterity in the darkroom". There was no deliberate effort to deceive here that I am aware of, no more so than there is with traditional dodging and burning techniques used in the darkroom. It sounds like the judges are fearful of the fact that the darkroom is approaching the end of it's useful life and feel that they are going to lose the skills that they grew up with. That's a shame granted, I love spending time in the darkroom and will be building one in my cellar in the coming months. But the fact is within 10 years, it will be redundant as a way of outputting the images captured on your camera.
The real problem is going to be where people do dramatically alter their pictures, we've seen plenty of examples here on MeFi, the airbrushing thread a few weeks ago and the war photographer that merged two different photos into one a couple of months back. And if you go over to you'll see plenty of arguments arising because people don't believe that the image ever saw the inside of a camera and was completely CG.
posted by chill at 10:24 AM on August 30, 2003

I should also say, the photos in this thread I posted this morning have had digital post production work done on them, but that doesn't alter the fact that they are photographs and that they are still beautiful.
posted by chill at 10:34 AM on August 30, 2003

So wait a second? Its okay to use burning but nothing else? Isn't that a double standard? They're judging the guy on a slippery slope, he went "too far" in his manipulation of the photos.

My guess is the judge's nephew was supposed to win and this is how they'll make it happen.
posted by fenriq at 10:35 AM on August 30, 2003

I caught a bit of this interview yesterday. The photographer said that he'd misjudged the exposure, and you could see details in the farmer, instead of flat silhouette. So he (apparently) changed the levels.

I do a lot of scenic photography (for my own enjoyment). I've not yet gone to digital due to money issues. One difference between film and digital, before the darkroom, is that with a digital camera, you don't have anywhere near the wide range of different films available. I've started to take into account the characteristics of the film I"m using, or, conversely, select film depending on what I'm going to be photographing. Since this variety of effects is not available to digital "film", I believe digital photography should be given more latitude with after-effects.

In addition, the whole "it takes longer to dodge and burn in the darkroom" point is moot - is the photographer supposed to somehow convert his digital images to film, just so he can spend the "proper" amount of time in the darkroom?
posted by notsnot at 10:37 AM on August 30, 2003

There are easy ways to do this with a filter when you first take the picture too. And as far as I know no one gets bent out of shape when a photographer uses a polarizer to cut the glare from water to see the fish and plants below even though you wouldn't see anything but glare if you were standing next to him sans polarized sunglasses.

Contests, awards and news reporting really need to come out with very clear guidelines of what is allowed. has pretty clear guidelines that are still open to interpretation. I don't know if it is possible to do better. These guidelines are not strict enough for hard news coverage as they still allow staged scenes.
posted by Mitheral at 10:37 AM on August 30, 2003

To me, this guy clearly got caught on the wrong side of a rapidly moving line--like most folks here, I'm convinced these issues are going to become academic in just a few years.

One thing that does occur to me, though, is a mechanism to track and embed an authenticated trail of the edits that are made to an image in the file format itself, or to at least have a file format that would capture and perpetuate an authenticated "baseline" copy of the original image throughout later edited versions of the same image file.

Granted, that would expand the filesize, but that criterion tends to get geometrically less relevant over time, anyway. Greater obstacles would be "authenticated" cameras that would store images with some encoded key right away, and software that would understand and perpetuate the file format, but neither one of those is insuperable.

You wouldn't bother with this for the vast majority of personal images, but for professional newsrooms, or any other context where "authenticity" is held to be such a critical factor, it might provide a useful way to address such issues. You could even provide for viewers, in a digital environment, to examine the original shot as a standard feature of displaying online newspaper/magazine photos.
posted by LairBob at 10:44 AM on August 30, 2003

LairBob, I was just thinking what if cameras digitally signed each image? It would be quite possible to fake the signature if you have physical access to the camera, but if there was some tamper-resistant seal on the camera, and the signature was unique to each camera... then the newsroom could tell if the photographer did something.

There's the problem of taking a photo of a photo, but at least the photographer couldn't just alter something in photoshop in the field.
posted by bobo123 at 11:23 AM on August 30, 2003

Why did they care, darkroom is dead and I think that's good. Anybody and his gfx program cam make and destroy any image given enough time and motivation (see the famous iraq oh happy joy salvation is here pictures and countless others). I'd rather hear people protest for the bull we read and hear all the day trough radio and tv , but I suppose criticizing an image for "not being true" is better than nothing.
posted by elpapacito at 11:54 AM on August 30, 2003

This seems like a judgement call and without being privy to the originals it's hard to know. For example, in the linked photo, the appeal of the photograph is the silhouetted man with the dramatic setting/rising sun. That's what makes it a good picture.

As far as we know, it was taken at an uphill perspective in the middle of the afternoon. No doubt the results are wonderful, but this is a photojournalism award, not an art show.
posted by cedar at 12:14 PM on August 30, 2003

Bobo, I don't think it's a matter of whether an image has been changed at all, or not. There seems to be a presumption that some measure of manipulation has always been acceptable. It's just that the "acceptable" level of manipulation is clearly very subjective, and getting blurrier all the time.

Embedding a (presumably) authentic baseline would allow us to dodge the question of defining the single "most appropriate" level of revision for any given context, which is the only reasonable system, I think. If there was a trustable format to always cross-check a later version against the original shot, then any interested audience--whether it's a photo editor, a contest judge, or a critical reader--could easily judge for themselves the amount of manipulation that had been done, and form their own, evidence-based opinion on how to respond to a given image and its history.

Sure, someone who was intent on explicitly circumventing these guidelines could do so, with a fair amount of effort, but that's not what most of these situations seem to be. For the most part, a photographer has exercised their own discretion on an allowable level of manipulation, some gatekeeper has accepted those revised images without understanding up front the amount of manipulation that took place, and then the organization backtracks in indignation and shock when they found out what they've accepted. I think photographers should have a free hand to use as much or as little manipulation as they choose, and that any audience that cares how much there was, after the fact, can easily check before they feel they've been misled.
posted by LairBob at 12:24 PM on August 30, 2003

I used to work on a picture desk, and we had terrible problems with primadonna photographers not trusting our digital imagers and fiddling with pictures in the field. Black borders, off-balance colours on their uncalibrated screens, god DAMN it was annoying.

That was off-topic, wasn't it? I hate that competition's decision too, for what it's worth.
posted by bonaldi at 12:38 PM on August 30, 2003

Well I love the darkroom and will always use it. Digital images will constantly have to be transferred to the next available technology so they can be archived, but if you have something on film and you have a light source you will always be able to see the image no matter how old it is.

But I'm a Photography major and the head of my dept. says the darkroom is dead and that he will never set foot in one again. I tend to agree with the thinking that it's too easy to use Photoshop. It takes a lot of know how to pick the right film for the circumstance as well and choosing the right exposure and shutter speed to get the best image, but if you can then very little darkroom manipulation is necessary.
posted by bas67 at 12:49 PM on August 30, 2003

I'm not sure what you mean by "too easy to use Photoshop" as long as the end result is the same. What I'm hearing is the age-old lament of labor being automated, taking it out of the hands of craftsmen, etc. Well, when you're producing commodities (and news photographs are a commodity, however artistic a given photo may be), from the point of view of the distributor and the consumer, whoever produces good results the fastest, wins.
posted by RylandDotNet at 1:17 PM on August 30, 2003

Anything that can be done with technology, can be undone with technology.
posted by cinderful at 1:27 PM on August 30, 2003

SELF-LINK (I work at Poynter Online), but here's an article from last Monday about this very matter, from a journalist's perspective. Kenny Irby put the original images and the submitted pictures into a Flash slideshow for comparison.

I'm pretty surprised, from the comments so far, that MeFites are criticizing an action that upholds the values of transparency and accuracy in journalism. I might agree that the second and third pictures are merely questionable, not offensive to me, but in the first picture, the background has been completely eliminated, which is clearly not OK. If people begin to question when they look at a photograph that they're seeing an accurate representation of a scene, how will they trust anything else they find in a newspaper?

Everyone quoted about the matter has said absolutely nothing denying the tremendous value and benefits of Photoshop, and everyone acknowledges that dodging and burning is both acceptable in measured doses and vastly predates the digital age, but the assumption here seems to have been that this was some sort of smoke-filled room, old guard vs. new guard, backlash against technology decision. Why is that?
posted by grrarrgh00 at 1:46 PM on August 30, 2003

Good addtion to the conversation, grrarrgh00. Comparing the image in question with the original, I personally think the original is better. I think the version with the background removed looks like a picture with the background removed -- I wouldn't have trusted it to be a real-life setting.

I agree with the judges that the photog went too far in removing the background. The changes in the other two shots would have been simple, if time-consuming, to do in the lab. Removing the background in the first image would have required a very carefully cut mask in order to burn such a complex shape, and I doubt the results would be presentable. This isn't a case of fear of technology, it's a case of using technology to do something that would have been near-impossible to do manually and passing it off as unmanipulated.
posted by me3dia at 2:15 PM on August 30, 2003

grrarrgh00 - There's no question in my mind that removing the background over steps the boundary when it comes to presenting a journalistic photograph for consideration. I was under the impression from the original articles that it was simply a case of dodge/burn type techniques that had been used.
...the assumption here seems to have been that this was some sort of smoke-filled room, old guard vs. new guard, backlash against technology decision. Why is that?
Because of the words of NCPPA president Chuck Liddy that were quoted in the NPR interview perhaps, in which he implied that the use of Photoshop is just too easy compared to the techniques that would be used in the darkroom.
posted by chill at 3:46 PM on August 30, 2003

this whole issue is a tempest in a teapot.
how bad could it get?

posted by quonsar at 3:58 PM on August 30, 2003

Thank you for the link, grrarrgh00. Reading the initial link bothered me a bit until I had a chance to see the actual manipulation that was done. It's bad enough that the photographer burned the background out of the first shot, but he did it so sloppily that he lopped the ear off one of his subjects. The other two shots were not really improved, either. Better is the enemy of good.
posted by MegoSteve at 4:07 PM on August 30, 2003

quonsar, where did you get that image? I'd like to find a larger version of it. Hilarious!
posted by razorwriter at 4:14 PM on August 30, 2003

That was In-A-Gadda-Da-Oswald by George Mahlberg... it was featured in Wired magazine back in '97.
posted by bobo123 at 4:54 PM on August 30, 2003

Note the Dead Kennedys logo on the wall. A touch of genius.
posted by kindall at 5:27 PM on August 30, 2003

"too easy to use Photoshop"? How can you say a thing like that? Please submit your answer in Egyptian hieroglyphs graven in stone tablets.
posted by clevershark at 8:08 PM on August 30, 2003

I'm a strong believer that the content of photos should not be edited when they are published as journalism. The act of choosing a context for a photo, taking the picture, cropping it, adding a caption or a headline -- all of this reqiures subjective acts of judgement. Adjusting the levels and contrast to maybe look a bit better seems pretty reasonable. But getting rid of the background completely is irresponsible.

Here's the thing, though: Schneider appears to have acted ethically when he submitted his photos for publication. He then appears to have altered the pics before he entered them in the contest. (See the Poynter slideshow.

So he's trying to win a photojournalism prize for pictures that don't match up with his actual photojournalism. Whah?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 1:30 AM on August 31, 2003

I'd like to preemptively plead guilty for the geisha photo near the top of my blog right now. The desire to contrast white makeup against the black of night caused me to "relax my ethics" and burn out the insignificant details in the background, with Fireworks.
posted by planetkyoto at 2:10 AM on August 31, 2003

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