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Ethics of photojournalism

From: Creative Inspirations: Rick Smolan, Photographer

Video: Ethics of photojournalism

(Music plays.) Female Speaker: A picture may no longer be worth a thousand words. These days the picture that the camera takes may well not be the picture that we end up seeing in newspapers and magazines. Technology makes it difficult, maybe even impossible to tell what's real and what's not. Male Speaker: I think that every time there is a new technology like this, there are a lot of ethical questions which have to be answered. I think the first thing that happens is that the artist, the creative people, wow, Russell and his company have invented Photoshop. Let's play with it. Let's see what's going to happen and examples of that were the cover of A Day in the Life of America where we move somebody on a horse. This was a beautiful picture but the horse was actually further down that same hill. So we slid the horse up the hill.

Ethics of photojournalism

(Music plays.) Female Speaker: A picture may no longer be worth a thousand words. These days the picture that the camera takes may well not be the picture that we end up seeing in newspapers and magazines. Technology makes it difficult, maybe even impossible to tell what's real and what's not. Male Speaker: I think that every time there is a new technology like this, there are a lot of ethical questions which have to be answered. I think the first thing that happens is that the artist, the creative people, wow, Russell and his company have invented Photoshop. Let's play with it. Let's see what's going to happen and examples of that were the cover of A Day in the Life of America where we move somebody on a horse. This was a beautiful picture but the horse was actually further down that same hill. So we slid the horse up the hill.

I don't know if that's ethically correct or not. I do know as a book publisher, when I'm trying to capture someone's attention in a bookstore, I'm trying to make the image very graphic, very quickly. Rick Smolan: It's easy to say the technology makes you more likely to doubt the reality of the photographs. But way before Photoshop, the New York Times had an entire retouching department that would retouch lots and lots of the photographs. I remember once years ago, the New York Times ran a story critical of a book that I had done called A Day in the Life of America because the cover of the book was a picture by Frans Lanting of a man on a horse going up the hill and there was a moon up here and he unfortunately shot it as a horizontal picture and we wanted to use it as a cover. We basically had a Sightech machine and for thousand of dollars, and we slid the guy up the hill and compressed it. So now the guy is going up the hill and the tree was here and we covered all the dead space in between.

So New York Times does this article criticizing this book of photojournalism and how dare they have manipulated the cover of the book. That's outrageous. We didn't care. It was great publicity for the book. But about six months later I was doing research on something and I went to the New York Times archives and there was a picture I had seen, of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, in a window with his hands down, reaching down to the crowd and there were like thousands of hands reaching up towards him. Just a fantastic picture. And so I wanted the picture for a prototype of a little thing I was trying to do and they actually stored the pictures in tubes at the New York Times.

I went down to their archives. The woman gives me the tube. I open it up and pulled the picture out and I look at this picture that I had seen in the New York Times. And next to Khomeini were two guys that had been retouched out. Must have been his translator or an aide. So they had erased two people from the picture to make this wonderful powerful shot. But the New York Times. And when I asked, they said, "Oh we've had retouching departments since the 20s." So here is the paper of record regularly manipulating the photographs because it looked better. I mean today they would never do such a thing. I mean they actually have tighter rules today with Photoshop than they did back in the days before Photoshop. There is a wonderful quote I think that's attributed to Ansel Adams. I think it is Ansel Adams who said, the negative is like a score of music and the print is the performance.

So I think this is wonderful. It's exactly right. If you look at the Moonrise over Hernandez, picture of the moon rising and the little horses in the fog. He printed that picture totally differently throughout his life. Sometimes it was very dark and sort of murky and you can just see the horse and other times it was very bright. I think that digital photography gives you even more of ability to do that. You probably see the colors blue differently than I do. It used to be that Fujichrome look totally different than Ektachrome and looked different than Kodachrome. Well, what was the right color? I mean which one of those was real? None of them were real. They were all representations of what was there.

So I don't have any problem with getting scratches off of or removing dust or changing the contrast or if it's all purple in here because it's florescent. I don't have a problem bringing it back to daylight because my eyes are bringing it back. I don't see it was all purple in it. But I do have a problem with people erasing parts of a picture, adding new things to the picture because then it's a photo composite. As long as you say it's a photo composite, it's okay. It's when you misrepresent the picture that I think that you will have a problem. So I really think it's about ethics; it's not about technology. I think journalists, I think people that call themselves photo journalists are kind of not sworn, because they don't swear at anything, but there is sort of a code of honor which is that you don't manipulate the photograph. Now if I had a telephoto lens, I can make you appear to be close to the car behind you.

And that's okay. Nobody minds that. Or I could crouch and get rid of the tree that's coming out of your head right now. That's okay. But I can't do it afterwards in the dark room. I can't make the tree disappear. I can't get rid of the telephone lines behind you ethically. Some people will say that wasn't part of the picture. It was just distracting in the background. So I mean this conversation is going endlessly with photographers. I don't know what the right answer is, but I know that in the world of journalism, it's just something that you don't do.

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Creative Inspirations: Rick Smolan, Photographer

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