Plan: Manipulating Photographs: Can You Trust Photographs?

Subject: Secondary Media Studies (English, Journalism, Social Studies, Writing, and Technology)

Objective: In this lesson students will understand the power of photography, understand the role of ethics in photojournalism, and become informed consumers of news photography.

Materials: PBS video, access to the Internet, and software such as PhotoShop or Kai’s Power Goo.


1. List several examples of photographs that caused change throughout the 20th century.

2. Explain the power of photographs as agents of change.

3. List several examples of photographs where photographers deliberately changed the image.

4. Analyze the motivation behind these changes.

5. Experiment with manipulating photographs.

6. Justify occasions when manipulation would be acceptable and when it would not.

7. Create guidelines to determine a photograph’s credibility.

8. Develop students’ interest in the topic with a preliminary journal activity. Have students write about a special photograph they remember. Why do they remember it? What emotions does it evoke? Share responses.

9. Distribute three or four photos and ask students to vote on whether the images are completely accurate. Ask how they know. Discuss.

10. Watch the PBC broadcast: "American Photography: A Century of Images."

11. Reflecting on the video, students should select examples of photographs where the photographer deliberately changed the image or created an artificial scene to photograph. This could be done in small groups, individual lists, or whole class discussion.

Samples might include the following:

Episode 1: the montage on various photo postcards

[IN 06:45:03]NARRATION: "Around the turn of the century, a small change in postal regulations created a whole new way to share photographs - the picture postcard."]

[OUT 09:30:00 LUCSANTE: "So fortunately because of personal sentimental associations these great slices of social history have been preserved."]

Episode 1: Edward Curtis’ photographs of Native Americans

[IN 14:39:20 NARRATION: "In the early part of the century, Edward Curtis published a 20-volume set of photographs documenting the lives of Native Americans. Most people’s idea of what Indians look like comes from Curtis’s photographs."]

[OUT 16:53:10 RAYNA GREEN: "And I want those pictures. I want the reality. I want the past as it was rather than as someone dreamed it into being."]

Episode 1: examples from Stieglitz’ photo secessionist movement

[IN 16:57:13 SLATE: "Mr. Stieglitz, you won't insist that a photograph can possibly be a work of art? Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC."]

[OUT 19:50:20 MERRY FORESTA: "his hands-on process brought photography back to the older traditions of handmade art, and sort of satisfied that question at least for the moment that photography was made by a machine. No, it clearly wasn’t. It needed human intervention in order to really become art."]

Episode 1: the World War I photos that did not show any dead soldiers

[ IN 28:45:23 NARRATION: "In 1917, the United States entered World War One. The war did have its enthusiastic supporters, but much of the country remained to be convinced. A large percentage of the population was isolationist, and believed that it was senseless for Americans to die in this distant European conflict."]

[OUT 32:55:21 NARRATION: "The pictures showed the truth — that modern warfare was anything but glorious."]

Episode 1: the "composograph" images used by the Evening Graphics newspaper


[OUT 39:10:08 HAROLD EVANS: "And the simple, single word on that front page was DEAD, exclamation mark. Well, that’s news."]

Episode 2: the class could discuss the Life Magazine photos and whether they were manipulated portrayals of the middle class representing the ideals of their advertisers.

[IN 09:55:28 NARRATOR: "On November 23, 1936, a new magazine appeared on news stands. Publisher Henry Luce gave Americans something they had never seen before -- a glossy, large-format news magazine which used photographs to tell its stories. Never one to think small, Luce called the magazine quite simply, Life."]

[OUT 13:42:29 JERRY DELLA FEMINA: "I can’t remember what I ate this afternoon. I can remember what I saw in Life Magazine. "]

Episode 3: the OJ Simpson covers

[IN 36:02:21 VICKI GOLDBERG: "When, photography was invented, it was thought to be an equivalent to truth. It was truth with a capital T."]

[OUT 38:46:23 HAL BUELL: "We have enough trouble maintaining credibility without having pictures that look like this side by side."]

12. Analyze the motivation behind each manipulation and its consequences. (What’s happening in the picture? Think of how the image was changed. What was the photographer trying to say?)

13. At this point, students should go to the PBS web site to "Try digital manipulation." Students should have the opportunity to alter photographs and see how "truth" changes. Discuss their "creations." How easy is it to change a photograph? Student should read "Digital Photography" Feature.

14. For individual practice, students should find an example of a photograph that they think has been manipulated. (Often these will be in advertisements. However, teachers will want to insure that some news photos are also included and may want to have some samples for students to choose from. Some examples are the O.J. Simpson images on Time and Newsweek, or the spelling bee photos in which the name of the sponsor, Daily News, was edited out of the photograph in a competitor’s paper. Teachers should explore the web sites listed under Extension Activities for possible sources of photographs if needed.)

Students should identify

    • Who does the photo show?
    • What is happening in the photo?
    • Where did the action take place?
    • When did the action happen?
    • How can you tell if the photo is a news photo?
    • Why is the photo of interest?
    • What evidence is there that the photo has been manipulated?
    • For what purpose was it changed?
    • Describe the impact of the photo.

Students should present their analyses to the class.

15. Discuss the question whether it’s ever acceptable to manipulate photos?

16. Examine the Code of Ethics of the National Press Photographers Association.(One online source is http://csep.iit.edu/codes/media.html ) Discuss.

17. Conclude the lesson by developing some guidelines to help determine the credibility of a photo. Possibilities include establishing the reliability of the source (tabloid newspapers vs. a more respected news source), checking the news in a variety of sources (Does a similar photograph appear in each source?), following a story over time. Consider also the purpose of the photo itself. Is it newsworthy? Has the subject been presented fairly? Is it accurate?

Assessment Suggestion: Teachers should informally assess students’ understanding throughout the discussions. For more formal assessment, check the individual assignment. Did the student choose an appropriate photo? Give a clear explanation of its message? Give a plausible motivation for manipulation? Present a thoughtful analysis of the photo’s impact?

Extension Activities:

1. Go to Newseum.org. (http://www.newseum.org/now_showing/index.htm) See their current exhibit on manipulation of photography under Communism in the Soviet Union, entitled "The Commissar Vanishes."

2. Go to the American Memory collection of Civil War photography at the Library of Congress web site: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwphome.html Look at the Civil War photography of Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady. Click on the link entitled "Does the camera ever lie?"

3. The American Memory collection has many great photographs that could be used for extension activities with this lesson.

National Standards: taken from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning

Standards are available at


Standard: Analyzes advantages and disadvantages of widespread use and reliance of technology in the workplace and in society as a whole

Standard: Demonstrates knowledge of current changes in information technologies and the effect those changes have on the workplace and society

Standard: Demonstrates and advocates for legal and ethical behaviors among peers, family, and community regarding the use of technology and information, and discusses consequences of misuse

Standard: Researches and evaluates the accuracy, relevance, appropriateness, comprehensiveness, and bias of electronic information sources concerning real-world problems

Life Skills

Standard: Identifies techniques used to slant information in subtle ways

Standard: Compares and contrasts the credibility of differing accounts of the same event

Biographical notes

A teacher with 25 years experience, Becky Sipos currently teaches journalism at McLean High School in the Fairfax County Public School District in Virginia. She teaches Journalism 1,2, 3,and 4, plus three AP Journalism classes and advises the school newspaper, the Highlander. She serves as the Virginia State Director for the Journalism Education Association and the treasurer for the Virginia Association of Journalism Teachers and Advisers. She has been recognized as Teacher of the Year by the McLean chapter of AAUW, Educator of the Year by Phi Delta Kappa, and most recently, the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund selected her as a Distinguished Adviser.