TOPICS > Arts > journalism

What happens when Photoshop goes too far?

July 26, 2015 at 2:47 PM EDT
A New York exhibit chronicles prominent cases of images altered by journalists and asks: If seeing is believing, how often are you, the viewer or reader, being misled? Saskia de Melker reports.
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SASKIA DE MELKER: ​When you don’t like those people or objects in the background, you just remove them.

Using a filter, after the snap, to make a regular photo look vintage, is as easy as a mouse click. So is removing a light post that seems to be shooting out of someone’s head by using photoshop.

But in the world of photojournalism, these alterations are the subject of intense debate. And using photo­shop can land you in hot water. Like it did for The Economist when it removed people from this beach photo of President Obama.

Or for an Orthodox Israeli newspaper when it cut out the female leaders in this photo.

MICHAEL KAMBER: ​People do that all the time on their Facebook page. That’s fine. We’re the professionals. We have to maintain standards and ethics. We have to make sure that these photos are an accurate representation.

SASKIA DE MELKER: ​Photographer Michael Kamber has covered conflicts around the world for the New York Times. His latest project, though, is curating an exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center called “Altered Images”, which explores news and documentary photos that have been manipulated.

MICHAEL KAMBER: ​The more we looked, the more we found, especially lately, especially in the digital age. It was actually hard to bring it down to these 40 photos.

SASKIA DE MELKER: ​The exhibit spans photojournalism history and includes examples of staging: directing subjects like the boy in this image.

Or misleading captions: this man was not a sniper.

And yes, photoshopping: John Kerry was never at this anti­Vietnam rally with Jane Fonda.

One of the first cases of controversial digital photo manipulation occurred in 1982 with the Great

Pyramids of Egypt.

MICHAEL KAMBER:​ National Geographic took a horizontal photo and wanted to put it on a vertical cover. And they moved the pyramids closer together. That was something that really got people’s attention.

MICHAEL KAMBER: ​Another really egregious example of manipulation is the Los Angeles

Times photo from 2003, where a photographer took two photos. They were both quite dramatic. There was a British soldier in the photo and there was an Iraqi civilian. In one photo he liked the way the soldier looked. And in the other photo he liked the way the civilian looked. So he decided to just combine the two photos in Photoshop. And it was actually printed all over the world.

SASKIA DE MELKER: ​When the inconsistencies were noticed, the photographer lost his job.

Photo manipulation is as old as photography itself. Take this photo of President Lincoln. It’s actually Lincoln’s head on Senator John Calhoun’s body.

Or this portrait of General Ulysses Grant. It layers three separate images from different times and locations.

Even before photography went digital, the media altered photos. In this famous image of the

Kent State massacre, the fence behind the grieving teenage girl was removed.

SASKIA DE MELKER: ​In 1994, Time magazine ignited a firestorm for making football hero O.J.

Simpson, then accused of murdering his wife, look darker and blacker than he really was.

Newsweek didn’t.

In 2006, the Reuters news agency yanked a photo of the Israeli­bombed Beirut skyline after it learned the photographer used photoshop to clone and darken the smoke to make the damage look worse.

Two years ago, the Associated Press fired the photographer who edited out a video camera seen in the foreground of the image of this soldier.

MICHAEL KAMBER: ​Once we start removing things from photos then pretty much everything is on the table for negotiation. We can’t be negotiating this. We can’t be negotiating what is inside the frame. It has to be what was actually there when you took the photo.

SASKIA DE MELKER: ​Still, in this year’s coveted World Press Photo Contest, 20 percent of the finalists were disqualified for significant alterations to their photos.

BRUCE SHAPIRO: ​You’ve got technology, and a public that knows it’s there, which creates all kind of room for doubt.

SASKIA DE MELKER: ​Columbia Journalism School Professor Bruce Shapiro says the internet magnifies the consequences of manipulated images.

BRUCE SHAPIRO: ​Powerful images of current events, of controversies, of abuses have been an important driver of social change and public policy. If the public, if the news consuming, image consuming, picture drenched public loses confidence in the ability of photographers to tell the truth in a fundamental way, then the game is up.

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