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Photo Manipulation: Where Should We Draw the Line?

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Submitted By momma502
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The ever popular debate about photo manipulation is known to all photographers; amateurs and experts alike. Does this process enhance images or distort the truth? Photo manipulation has been around about as long as photography. There are examples that date back to as early as 1860. With the digital age, photo manipulation has taken huge leaps. You can see examples of digital manipulation in almost everything in today’s digital age, from advertisements to high end photo galleries. It is second nature. So second nature that we do not even think about some aspects of it and how it has changed and is continuing to change the world of photography.
Is the subtle alterations to color balance or contrast considered photo manipulation?” That depends. Are you trying to change a mood, or trying to deceive the viewer in any way? Or are you making an artistic illusion? Does it matter which you are doing? Therein lays the debate: Photo Manipulations; is this a new dilemma and where do we draw the line?
So what exactly is photo manipulation? According to photo manipulation is the application of image editing techniques to photographs in order to create an illusion or deception (in contrast to mere enhancement or correction), through analog or digital means. (reference) So what exactly is photo editing? defines edit as a means to revise, correct, or improve… (reference), so that would mean revise, correct, or improve a photo.
Photo manipulation can span from basic technical retouching (adjusting colors, contrast, white balance, sharpness, removing elements such as temporary flaws on skin) to creative retouching. Creative retouching is used more in art and commercial use or advertisements; the most prominent being image-compositing. This is the use of multiple images to create one photo. A lot of photographers use this type of manipulation when it would be technically to difficult to shoot on location. This is used in most advertisements today. Photographs today are taken everywhere by everyone it seems; from the amateur photographer using a point-and-shoot, a Smartphone, webcams, to the professionals using the top of the line cameras; digital and film. With the digital age and the use of computers, the term photo editing encompasses everything that can be done to a photo, whether in a darkroom or on the computer. So is all photo editing photo manipulation?
Photo manipulation by definition is to edit a photo to create an illusion or deception. Therefore, photo manipulation is much more than just subtle alterations to color balance, contrast, or white balance. It may include changing a head onto a different body, removing people or things completely from an image, or changing a sign’s text. Today’s photo editing software can apply effects to an image to change the entire resemblance of the photo (or photos if compositing).
The origins of photo manipulation go back to retouching with inks, paints, double exposures, stitching multiple photos/negatives together in the darkroom, and scratching Polaroids before the dawn of the computer and software such as Photoshop. The earliest manipulated photo that I know of at this time is from the 1860’s; a photo of Abraham Lincoln’s head stitched to the body of John C. Calhoun in a standing position. William J. Mitchell provides more historical detail in The Reconfigured Eye (1992):
After Lincoln was assassinated, new pictures of the dead president were created by pasting his head, from a famous Mathew Brady photograph (the one engraved on the five-dollar bill), onto an appropriately statesmanlike full-length portrait of Calhoun…Lincoln’s head had to be mirrored in order to make it fit; the deception was discovered when somebody noticed that the late president’s highly recognizable mole was on the wrong side.”
Kevin Connor, one of the creators of Photoshop, and Henry Farid, a digital image forensic scientist, created a timeline entitled “Photo Tampering throughout History” for their website showing some of the more notable photo manipulations since 1860.
Photo manipulation dates back to the origins of photography itself. The idea that a photo has an appearance of being true or real is a social mechanism, or phenomenon created and developed by society; an idea constructed through cultural and social practices. The practice of photo manipulation has been used regularly to deceive and or persuade viewers, to improve storytelling and self expression.
Dating back to the Civil War we have examples of photographs published as engravings based on more than one negative. A perfect example is of the image used in many history books of General Ulysses S. Grant in front of his troops at City Point, Virginia during the Civil War. The print found in the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division was proven by researchers at the Library of Congress that the print is a composite of three separate prints; the head of Grant taken from a portrait, the horse and body of Major General Alexander M. McCook, and the background of Confederate prisoners captured at the battle of Fisher’s Hill, Virginia.
Other techniques were used before the dawn of computers and photo editing software. Composographic was a technique used by Bernarr Macfadden in his tabloid the New York Graphic. He literally cut and pasted together images of current celebrities and staged images created in his in-house studio. The images represented events that were inconvenient to photograph on site; like Rudolph Valentino’s unsuccessful surgery, his funeral, and notably on March 17, 1927, a full-page image of Valentino meeting Enrico Caruso in heaven.(reference)
Stalin was known to routinely air-brush his enemies from photographs. In 1930, Stalin had a commissar removed from the original after a falling out. In the 1930’s, John Heartfield used a photo manipulation technique known as photomontage to critique Nazi propaganda. Hipgnosis, a British art design group that specialized in creating cover art for albums of notable rock musicians and bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zepppelin, used more modern styles and techniques of digital photomontage as early as the late 1960s. (reference)
There have been many controversial photo manipulations in journalism. One of the more notable images was on the cover of National Geographic where the editors manipulated the Egyptian pyramids closer together so they would fit on the cover. After the arrest of O.J. Simpson; a celebrity and athlete, two prominent U.S. news magazines featured his image on the cover. In the case of Time Magazine, the image was altered to appear darker and more blurry. Aude Oliva commented during a panel discussion on ethics and image manipulation (Carlson et al., 2006) that the psychological effect of this manipulation is to make Simpson appear more sinister. Therefore, the social action would be to accuse Simpson of the murder for which he was later tried. There are many more examples in which either the photographers or the photo editor manipulated, with different techniques, images to embellish their story and or to persuade the viewer in a direction of their choice.
These manipulations triggered a debate regarding the appropriateness of photo manipulation in journalism. Are these images that have been manipulated depicting something that did not exist? Are they trying to present them as fact? Ethical use of digital editing in photojournalism is a very hot topic. In the United States, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) has set a Code of Ethics promoting accuracy of published images, advising that photographers “do not manipulate images […] that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.”
Photoshop is software used to manipulate photos in many ways. This software is where the terminology or slang “Photoshopping” came from, whether using this particular software or another. Photoshopping is now connotated as a term of abuse. “That picture was Photoshopped” has become a shorthand way of saying it is untrustworthy. What you are seeing really isn’t really real. Adobe Systems, the publisher of Adobe Photoshop, discourages the use of “photoshop” as a verb, concerned that it may undermine the company’s trademark. Practically every photo you see in a magazine is photoshopped in some way. Historically magazine photos were manipulated with tricks of lighting and exposure, today, with many retouching software’s like Photoshop. Using these techniques, magazines and photographers alike, are being accused of promoting or inciting a distorted and unrealistic image of self; mostly in younger girls. Glamour photography is one specific industry that heavily uses photo manipulation. This has become a huge concern considering many people look up to celebrities and wants to try to emulate their looks.
Negative responses to photo manipulation have been triggered from both viewers and celebrities. Some celebrities refuse to have their photos retouched in support of The American Medical Association. According to the NY Daily News ( , the AMA has taken a stand against the Photoshopping of images since “such alterations can contribute to unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image – especially among impressionable children and adolescents.” The AMA has adopted a new policy that encourages ad agencies to work with agencies devoted to child and adolescent health to develop guidelines for ads. Their goal is to discourage the altering of photos that promote impossible-to-achieve expectations of body image and proportions.
Some of these celebrity supporters are Keira Knightley,k brad Pitt, Andy Roddick, Kim Kardashian, and Jessica Simpson. Britney Spears released “un-airbrushed” images o f herself next to the digitally altered ones to “highlight the pressure exerted on women to look perfect”. ("Britney Spears bravely agrees to release un-airbrushed images of herself next to the digitally-altered versions". Daily Mail. April 13, 2010. Retrieved 23 March 2012.) I feel that “photoshopping” an image for artistic purposes is fine. Some manipulation in situations like Wedding photography, Senior Pictures, and Family and Baby shoots is fine. Smooth the teenage acne away, fix the fly-away hair in the wedding photo, desaturate the color of an image except for a certain area or color; these are all types of manipulation that I feel is okay. You are not changing the image in away to deceive anyone. It is just artistic touches to an already beautiful image.
When photographers start to manipulate images to the point of the model not looking like their true self; losing fifteen to thirty pounds, or putting political figures in scenes that they really are not in to make the public believe they were, or changing a scene to make it look more dramatic for a news story; this is when I feel photo manipulation should have boundaries. If a photographer is telling a factual story with their image, they should not be allowed to manipulate the image. This is when photography, with no manipulations, should tell a thousand words.
As with so many ethical and philosophical discussions, the real issue comes down to intent. When photo editors; whether editors at a magazine or a newspaper, change the look of the people or environment in an image, are they trying to deceive the viewer, or make an artistic image or illusion? For magazine editors, sometimes it can be for an illusion and sometimes it is to deceive. When they are manipulating an image to the point of the viewer knowing without a shadow of a doubt that the image could not be true, they have created an illusion. When a photo editor removes the age lines on a face of a model or famous celebrity, or uses the “liquidation” technique to remove fifteen to thirty pounds from the same, that is plain deception. This gives the viewer the idea that you can actually look like that at that particular age, or by doing these particular exercises.
None of these techniques should be used in journalism in my opinion. So we are now to the question; where do we draw the line? And who should be responsible for drawing those lines?

Mitchell, W. J. (1992) The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era. The MIT
Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

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