Barnard College's Monthly Magazine
By Ayélet Pearl
When we look back at the photographs chronicling our past, we generally remember the context in which they were taken: Our emotions at the time, surrounding events, perhaps even our relationship status– none of which are captured in the photograph itself. Since we are often unable to distinguish our memo- ries from what the photograph actually shows, we forget that there is a significant gap be- tween what is captured on the digital screen and the full reality of the moment it reflects.
Our failure to recognize this chasm between reality and its visual documentation be- comes dangerous when we assume that photographs in the news tell the whole story. We approach written articles cautiously, aware of the bias inherent in decontextualized quotes, in stories that drip with the personal opinions of the reporter, and in the very process of selecting which stories to feature. We wrongfully suspend this caution, how- ever, when viewing the photographs that accompany these stories. Biased reporters can distort, misquote, and spin; but how can a photograph be anything but accurate? Our lack of awareness makes photojournalism bias a potentially greater threat of misinformation than distorted writing. Photojournalism bias must first be understood in order for us to address its dangers. There are four categories into which we can divide the ways that im- ages are skewed to present biased photographs.
“Miscaptioning” refers to factual inaccuracies in captions accompanying photographs. “The caption is… where it’s easy to mislead a reader,” warned AP photographer Ben Cur- tis in an interview with film director Errol Morris, who is currently exploring the idea of “photography as a weapon.” In one such instance, Michael Schennum, a half-white, half-Chinese man protested his inclusion on the cover of TIME Magazine in an image supposedly showing Latinos. “If the caption misidentifies the subjects, the location or the events,” cautioned photographer and artist Diane Covert, “the meaning of the photo- graph changes completely.” A particularly egregious example of this occurred in Septem- ber of 2000 when the New York Times, the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal all published a photograph of an Israeli soldier alongside a bloody young man who was incorrectly identified in the caption as a Palestinian on the Temple Mount. It was not until the father of Tuvia Grossman, a Jewish student from Chicago beaten by a Palestinian mob, identified his child as the bloody man in the photograph that both his identity and the location of the photograph were corrected.
Digital manipulation of photos, a violation of the National Press Photographers Association’s (NPPA) Code of Ethics, is the second manifes- tation of photojournalism bias and has particu- larly devastating consequences. As Ms. Covert explains, “The public seeks drama … there is a lot of competition [among photojournalists] to produce the images that appear in the media.” Often, one photograph becomes the defining image of a conflict, and “photographers are des- perate to get that one, ‘perfect’ shot.”
The pressure on photographers is hardly new. Fourandsix, a software company that has devel- oped programs to “determine image authentic- ity,” has chronicled some interesting and un- expected historical examples of manipulation, some dating as far back as the Civil War. The classic photograph of the regal Abraham Lin- coln? A composite of President Lincoln’s head on John Calhoun’s body.
More recently, Pulitzer Prize finalist Allan Detrich resigned in the midst of a scandal in- volving nearly a hundred doctored photos. In one, a basketball was superimposed on a shot of two players jumping dramatically in the air—an alteration with little detrimental effect on the objectivity of viewers, but misleading nonetheless. In a more infamous case, Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj cloned smoke pillars in a photograph taken of the aftermath of an IDF airstrike on Beirut. Reuters subsequently “killed” the photo, but the implication of the photograph created a false conception of the strike that could not be undone. LA Times pho- tographer Brian Walski was fired after combin- ing two separate photographs he had captured in Basra, with the altered photograph showing a soldier who appeared to be pointing a gun at an Iraqi father and infant. In reality, the British solider featured in the photographs was indicat- ing to the surrounding civilians to take cover. LA Times Director of Photography Colin Craw- ford called the action “totally unacceptable” and recognized that “he [Walski] violated our trust with our readers.”
Photographs are occasionally manipulated by photo editors. TIME Magazine received back- lash for enhancing a photograph of O.J. Simp- son in which the lower color saturation made Mr. Simpson look darker and more menacing. The changes were made even more obvious by the unfortunate presentation of the TIME cover alongside Newsweek’s unaltered image on news- stands. In another scenario, Fox News presented digitally altered photographs of two critical New York Times reporters on television, their faces manipulated to appear more sinister.
Photographs running on the front page— which sometimes provide a viewer’s only per- spective on the story—present particular prob- lems. Former deputy managing editor at the Boston Globe, Michael Larkin, notes “When an image reflects ‘a crucial moment in a course of events,’ editors make the decision to publish it,” reads the tagline of an article he published explaining his decision to run an emotionally charged photograph of an infant accidentally killed in an Israeli airstrike. Dick Rogers of the San Francisco Chronicle explains, “editors focus on the immediate decisions. What’s the best pic- ture for tomorrow’s cover?” It is the obsession with presenting the dramatic picture—and not necessarily the most accurate—that leads to claims of bias.
Much less obvious is the fourth category: The crucial role of the photographer. The photog- rapher is aware of the distance between viewers and the situation and is tasked with translating the reality he or she witnesses into an honest tes- timony to the viewers.
The presence of a photographer, by default, creates a new situation. Have you ever smiled for a camera? Counted to three and jumped with friends on the click of the shutter? Once a cam- era is present, reality is altered. Your smile be- comes a specific and calculated pose; the jump is precisely orchestrated.
Political actors take advantage of this, and cameras are the stage on which they perform. The images in the news that we assume are precise snapshots of reality, often turn out to be carefully orchestrated events coordinated to send a particular message. Ms. Covert describes how “subjects stage news images, exactly as they would be staged for a play or a movie.” A photo- graph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner was captured on a public street; the execution was originally supposed to take place indoors, but was moved outside in or- der to be captured on film. Rescue workers em- bedded in regional conflicts have been known to show dead bodies to cameras rather than evacu- ate them as quickly as possible. “Miraculously surviving,” meticulously clean, children’s toys are placed atop the rubble of bombed buildings. More harmlessly, President Obama has reen- acted his presidential addresses to still cameras after the actual presentation, a tradition that has long been standard procedure.
Photographers, too, take part in the staging, trying to capture that perfect image. Crimean War photographer Roger Fenton was purported to have moved cannonballs from a ditch onto the road for dramatic effect. Gioacchino Altobelli is famous for his photograph of a reenactment of Italian troops storming Porto Pia, staged a day after the actual attack.
Ruben Salvadori, an Italian photojournalist, notes the constant need of the photographer to “seek drama where there is none.” Mr. Salva- dori’s recent project juxtaposes the dramatically violent images we see in the media with the full context of the scene: the subjects in the photo- graphs surrounded by tens of crouched photog- raphers with sophisticated cameras and flashes. This second image reflects the new reality of the changed situation brought about by the presence of the photographers.
The obstacles to an accurate photograph are heightened by the temptations to add drama, to reflect personal bias, to emphasize the photo- graph’s importance, or to choose the irrelevant, but more aesthetic picture.
Significant work is being done on the pho- tographic and editing end to prevent the dis- semination of these errors before they reach the audience. NPPA’s Code of Ethics lays some groundwork for honest photographic report- ing. Many photojournalists are standing strong in the fight to capture and relay accurate infor- mation, and editors are carefully coordinating with photographers to make sure all informa- tion received is accurate. On the technological front, Reuters has been working with Adobe and Cannon to develop software that would track changes made to digital images.
The real work, however, falls on us as recipi- ents of the news and viewers of these images. As Mr. Farid warned, “[we] don’t remember, ‘It’s a fake’ … [we] remember the picture.” We should question the picture, judge the picture, but we should not rely on the picture. Just as we have learned to doubt what we hear and we read, let us begin to doubt what we see.