editorial and commentary combines the Los Angeles Times announcement
of their POLICY VIOLATION and conversations by photo historians
from the Photo History e-mail group. See and compare the images and
then read the e-mail correspondence from photo historians. This will
probably stimulate many discussions in the coming months about digital
images, their authorship and the difference between an artistic rendering
I commend the Los Angeles Times for bringing the issue to the public.
In all fairness, the photographer may have decided to enhance the photo
to better portray the dilemma of the soldier, thereby taking artistic
license to express the dynamics of the situation. The difference between
a docudrama (normally a video term) and photo documentation can be a
very slanted perception.
In 1989 I had been referred to shoot a layout of Arianna Huffington
for Los Angeles Magazine. During my appointment with art director Bill
DeLorme, I noticed a number of portfolios on the floor by his desk.
"How do you choose a photographer," I asked. He replied "I
use referrals, otherwise how do I know if the photographer really shot
all the images in their portfolio." It was my first encounter on
the path of understanding how far a photographer might go to get a job.
Generally, I believe we look for photojournalists to give us an onsite
report, clear evidence of a situation hopefully without additional manipulated
adjustments. In the digital world the ability to emphasize, color enhance
and cut & paste is blurring this line of reality. Jean Ferro, President,
Note On Monday, March
31, the Los Angeles Times published a front-page photograph that had
been altered in violation of Times policy. The primary subject of the
photo was a British soldier directing Iraqi civilians to take cover
from Iraqi fire on the outskirts of Basra. After publication, it was
noticed that several civilians in the background appear twice. The photographer,
Brian Walski, reached by telephone in southern Iraq, acknowledged that
he had used his computer to combine elements of two photographs, taken
moments apart, in order to improve the composition. Times policy forbids
altering the content of news photographs. Because of the violation,
Walski, a Times photographer since 1998, has been dismissed from the
staff. The altered photo, along with the two photos that were used to
produce it, are below:
dialog below is copied from the unedited e-mail exchange with participants
from the PhotoHistory Listserv. The text is copyrighted to WIPI and
the writer and not to be used without written permission.
a message dated 4/2/03 7:43:03 AM, Stephen Perloff writes:
subject: Re: [PhotoHistory] Altered LA Times Photo
quite fascinating. I think this absolutely strict policy is necessary
and there are clear guidelines as to when you can use "photo illustrations"
and how they are credited.
But why would the photographer violate such a clear policy? What are
the pressures - a desire to create art? the prestige of getting the
front page? the competition for news photographers' awards? - that would
lead an accomplished photographer to operate outside the norms?
Stephen Perloff is the editor of The
Photo Review and The Photograph Collector.
a message dated 4/2/03 4:51:19 PM, Rob McElroy writes:
[PhotoHistory] Altered LA Times Photo + the future
It would be helpful if the press would designate whether an image was
made on film or digitally,...>
As Luis pointed out, I don't think that distinction would be very useful
to the reader, although photo historians in the future may be interested.
What I would like to see is a newspaper or magazine with enough guts
to unequivocally proclaim in their masthead that "under no circumstances"
will they EVER alter a spot news or general news photograph, nor will
they ever print false information. If any photograph is published that
has even the least bit of modification (normal dust spotting, contrast
adjustment, and color balancing to match the original scene excepted),
the photograph's caption should say so and be labeled as "Digitally
Enhanced" or "Altered" and the enhancement or alteration should be fully
described. I think the public would welcome such an admission of honesty
and the newspaper would gain high respect and trust. Of course I know
that it is about as likely as discovering Daguerre's original notes
and images that someone rescued from the 1839 fire in his laboratory.
...although I guess we can assume that most of the people in the war
zone use digital equipment these days.
I would venture to guess that 95% of the images captured by photojournalists
involved in the current conflict -- are made on digital cameras. Sadly,
only a very small minority of photographers are probably using film,
although some distant day in the future the film images may prove to
be a valuable asset to history, as most photographers discard their
uninteresting digital files. The uninteresting digital file of today
may become the "smoking gun" of tomorrow, but only if someone saves
it; currently a hotly debated issue and one that will be difficult for
historians and archivists to wrestle with in the future. An original
film negative doesn't really have to be copied or changed in any way,
for it to be viable in 100 or 200 years. Even if the color has changed
or faded, technology will be able to rescue it.
The current digital storage technologies will all be replaced in the
future (yes, I said ALL), requiring digital image repositories to constantly
change their storage medium, from now through eternity. This may become
an insurmountable task as the number of digital images captured in the
world grows exponentially. If your family photos are all stored in today's
digital format, how will your great great grandchildren be able to appreciate
(see) them, unless some diligent family member in each of your successive
generations -- takes on the responsibility of transferring the digital
data to the storage and retrieval medium popular during his or her generation;
a looming question without a satisfactory solution yet.
A film negative will survive, a digital file may not.
We, as photo historians, should seriously address this issue -- so that
future generations looking back on the 21st century will have just as
rich a heritage to look back upon, as we do today looking back at the
19th and 20th century. The important and famous images of our time will
all certainly survive; it's the images of everyday life, taken by everyday
people, that I worry about.
Photo historian and photojournalist
a message dated 4/2/03 7:28:59 PM, Bill Becker writes:
Re: [PhotoHistory] Altered LA Times Photo -- Manipulation vs. "Reality"
This is a very slippery slope... but considering that at least one career
is on the line it might be worth considering just what constitutes journalism
and when the line is crossed into manipulation.
Without getting too esoteric, it seems to me that the act of taking a
photograph with the intent of telling a story or compressing information
about a scene into "reportage" is fundamentally different from capturing
unvarnished reality. Pointing the camera in a particular direction, waiting
for the light to fall a certain way and for a person to move into a certain
position are all matters beyond recording exactly what the eye sees the
moment one first glimpses a scene.
I would suggest that being a reporter (or a photojournalist or a television
journalist) requires having a viewpoint -- and, in the pursuit of journalistic
integrity, privately acknowledging one's particular beliefs and feelings
in order to strive for balance and accuracy.
In the case of the L.A. Times photograph, what if the photographer had
not melded two exposures, but instead had used a long lens and chosen
a perspective that made the soldier appear even larger in the frame, looming
over the civilians, and making it look like the gun was pointed directly
at the man with the children? I suspect from the angles shown this would
have been possible. It would have sent a particular message without resorting
to montage, and might have been even further removed from "reality" than
the melded image because of its implicit message.
When I worked in television news, we had firm rules against "staging"
a story. But what constitutes "staging"? What if we asked a person to
stand in another place for a better composition during an interview? What
if the cut-away questions (interview questions repeated later for the
camera so the reporter could be seen onscreen while asking them) did not
match the tone or words of the questions originally asked? What if an
interviewee answered a question with a sentence 45 seconds long, and we
asked them to rephrase it in a much more concise fashion?
When photography was born it was viewed as the ultimate truth-telling
machine -- the daguerreotype was a magical mirror that would remember
what it was reflecting. But then as now, there can be no perfect means
of capturing reality. Humans have to be involved somewhere, and that means
choices -- a viewpoint, a perspective, and more.
It is easy for publishers and network executives to mandate: no computer
manipulation of images, no staging of stories. It is quite another thing
to judge when the line between reporting and manipulating has been crossed.
That requires an understanding of intent and an evaluation of impact.
Bill Becker, Director, American Museum of Photography
a message dated 4/3/03 8:35:42 AM, Rob McElroy writes:
subject: Re: [PhotoHistory] Altered LA Times Photo -- Manipulation vs.
Hi Bill, et al., "Wm. B. Becker" wrote:
< ....it seems to me that the act of taking
a photograph with the intent of telling a story or compressing information
about a scene into "reportage" is fundamentally different from capturing
True, but I'm not sure what you meant by "unvarnished reality," after
reading your comments. When you are employed as a photojournalist, I
take issue with ANY manipulation of the image after the moment the shutter
button is pressed. You should not add or subtract ANYTHING from the
photograph. Your job is to seek out and accurately document the visual
truth of a given situation, portraying the scene and subject -- in a
manner that is honest, respectful, compositionally interesting, hopefully
visually compelling, and most importantly -- with a result that will
not mislead the viewer.
< Pointing the camera in a particular direction,
waiting for the light to fall a certain way and for a person to move
into a certain position are all matters beyond recording exactly what
the eye sees the moment one first glimpses a scene.
"Recording exactly what the eye sees the moment
one first glimpses a scene" has very little to do with the working methods
of photojournalists (who make still photographs) and I'm not sure why
you are using that comparison. Is that what you meant by "unvarnished
Videojournalists, on the other hand, shoot mostly
unmanipulated and "unvarnished reality," as they only have to choose
their vantage point and decide when to start and stop the camera. I'm
not minimizing the job of the videojournalist, only pointing out that
the videojournalist does not have to select the "one" definitive moment
that tells the story; he can record the entire event from his chosen
vantage point. A still photographer has a greater responsibility. He
must "decide" (a choice) which moments to record and how to record them
in a compelling manner; while always maintaining the integrity of truthfulness.
.<...what if the photographer had not melded
two exposures, but instead had used a long lens and chosen a perspective
that made the soldier appear even larger in the frame, looming over
the civilians, and making it look like the gun was pointed directly
at the man with the children?...It would have sent a particular message
without resorting to montage, and might have been even further removed
from "reality" than the melded image because of its implicit message.
In your example, the photographer would be consciously "manipulating
the scene" (using his telephoto lens and calculated vantage point) in
order to mislead the viewer. This is dishonest, unethical, and as much
of a lie as the composite image we are talking about here. On the other
hand, using a telephoto lens from far away (which optically compresses
the apparent distance between objects) is like looking through binoculars
(monocular to be precise) and the public is accustomed to what that
perspective change looks like. Looking at a telephoto image of the same
scene, the public can decide for themselves if they think the soldier
is actually pointing his gun at the man or not. The interpretation is
left up to the viewer; a key point in this discussion.
< When I worked in television news, we had
firm rules against "staging" a story. But what constitutes "staging"?
What if we asked a person to stand > in another place for a better composition
during an interview?
This is a topic all unto itself. A "set-up" or "staged" shot is just
that -- a set-up. It is what it is -- and if it's not obvious to the
viewer that a still photograph (or video story) has been set up, it
should be required that it is explained in the photograph's caption
(or video's introduction). Set-up shots are a "portrayal" of a truth
and hopefully an honest one.
<When photography was born it was viewed as
the ultimate truth-telling machine -- the daguerreotype was a magical
mirror that would remember what it was reflecting.
The daguerreotype may well prove to be the ultimate truth-telling machine,
as it far less likely to have been manipulated, except for the occasional
< But then as now, there can be no perfect
means of capturing reality.
Perfect, no -- but close, hopefully. Manipulation and composites erode
the trust we have in photography's ability to tell the truth and photojournalists
NEED to be held to a higher standard, otherwise we won't be able to
believe or trust anything we see on the printed page or that appears
on our screens.
Here is something I have been thinking about that relates to this topic.
Fast forward 100 years into the future. You are a scholar and historian
looking back on the beginning of the 21st century and you want to research
a topic or event. You want to be able to rely-on accurate, well-documented,
trustworthy research material (as all scholars do), as well as view
original photographs that document the topic or event accurately. What
images from our era will be the most trustworthy? Digital images or
original film images? I dare say, the 22nd century will probably trust
an original film image over anything digital. Technology, 100 years
from now, will be able to verify (with reasonable certainty) if an original
film image has been manipulated -- but a digital image file will probably
always be suspect. Just some food for thought.
Photo historian and photojournalist
photographer Brian Walski was named the California Press Association Photographer
of the Year 2001.