So there I was, browsing a New York Times photo slideshow about custom-built, slightly absurd doghouses… when something in one photo caught my eye:
Do you see it?
The first thing I noticed was the scale of the doghouse. It dwarfs that dog.
Then I noticed the dog appeared to be floating and had no shadow. Then I saw that the dog was lit from a light source that was not cast onto the doghouse. Then I knew it: The dog had been Photoshopped into the photo.
(And, it appears, the various foliage in front of the doghouse was Photoshopped, too.)
After confirming with my editor Eileen that I wasn’t crazy and seeing things, I tweeted it out — and got a lot of responses:
I’ll elaborate more on my own thoughts about this, and hopefully that can be a starting point for any discussion.
As a recent Missouri photojournalism graduate, I have sat through enough lectures about ethics — and even given two “ethics in photojournalism” presentations to high school students — to know that my Photoshopping anything in or out of a photo is the fastest way for me to get fired. Photojournalists aren’t in this business to make gorgeous, perfect pictures (although, it’s nice when we’re able to). Our job is to show truth. Even if we have to stage that “truth” sometimes — in a studio or anywhere — it’s still a “real picture.” Granted, it’s a “real picture” that we need to identify as a “photo illustration” or a similar term in our captions, but every single object, person, lighting element, whatever, that was in our frame when we held down the shutter button was actually there. And was real. Not something that we added in after the picture was made.
Photojournalists and photo editors have to hold themselves to pretty stringent ethics guidelines. If we fail to do so, we give the public a pretty damning reason not to trust our pictures anymore.
Now for this silly doghouse photo.
Yes, it’s a photo of a doghouse. No, it’s not breaking news — or even news. Yes, it appears to be a submitted photo, not one taken by a New York Times staff photographer or anyone claiming to be a photojournalist. But those same stringent ethics guidelines to which we hold ourselves must also apply to the photos we publish. The New York Times has never claimed to be a catalog or purely advertising space; it’s a newspaper of record, and whoever processed this photo and put it into a slideshow should have known better.
A news organization’s editors need to be able to stand completely behind all decisions they make, and that includes ridiculous photos of even more ridiculous doghouses. Does The New York Times stand behind that obviously false, obviously altered photo? I sure hope not.
The photo department here at The York Daily Record/Sunday News has also received similarly Photoshopped photos as submissions. We publish a lot of community news, so it’s natural that we receive a lot of group photos sent in by various organizations. Because humans are humans, sometimes certain people can’t be available when their group photo was taken — so, the photo is taken, those certain people are Photoshopped in and the organization emails us the photo.
We don’t use those photos. What kind of an honest news organization would we be, if we didn’t hold all photos that we publish to the same stringent ethics guidelines?
One ethics policy should apply to all photos. Period.
UPDATE: 12:25 p.m., 6/29/12 —
Thanks to a tweet from Adam Penenburg, we now have a copy of a 2009 email sent to New York Times freelance photographers regarding digitally manipulated photos. Here’s an excerpt:
Images in our pages, in the paper or on the Web, that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions).
In some sections, and in magazines, where a photograph is used to serve the same purposes as a commissioned drawing or painting – as an illustration of an idea or situation or as a demonstration of how a device works, etc. – it must always be clearly labeled as a photo illustration. This does not apply to portraits or still-lifes (photos of food, shoes, etc.), but it does apply to other kinds of shots in which we have artificially arranged people or things, as well as to collages, montages, and photographs that have been digitally altered.
Well, a few things are certain: The doghouse photo was digitally altered. It is not an image that should be classified as a “photo illustration.” It’s a fairly photorealistic photo/rendering that is identified as a “model picture.”
So, what’s The Times to do?
Adam also tweeted that the New York Times ethics policy includes statements about digitally altered photos and “doesn’t give model shots a pass.” I’ve conducted a few text searches, but have found nothing specific in either this company ethics policy or this “ethical journalism” handbook (PDF) from 2004.
If anyone knows of a more specific New York Times ethics copy floating around in cyberspace, give me a holler and I’ll take a look.
UPDATE: 1 p.m., 6/29/12 —
Another round of thanks to Adam, who found the New York Times ethics policy’s section on integrity, which I missed in my searches. Here we go:
Photography and Images. Images in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions). Adjustments of color or gray scale should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction, analogous to the “burning” and “dodging” that formerly took place in darkroom processing of images. Pictures of news situations must not be posed. In the cases of collages, montages, portraits, fashion or home design illustrations, fanciful contrived situations and demonstrations of how a device is used, our intervention should be unmistakable to the reader, and unmistakably free of intent to deceive. Captions and credits should further acknowledge our intervention if the slightest doubt is possible. The design director, a masthead editor or the news desk should be consulted on doubtful cases or proposals for exceptions.
There we have it. With the official ethics policy statement at hand, let’s take another look at this doghouse situation:
Seems to me somebody made a goof in letting that picture slip through.
Again, it’s just a doghouse photo. As Andy pointed out to me on Facebook, it’s not as if this is “a trend that they were doing, rather than — most likely — something that was slapped together because they wanted more of an online component.”
But as I pointed out to Andy, “They could’ve easily done without that photo. There are plenty of other silly doghouses in that slideshow. So, why include an obviously false photo? They could have/should have just left it out or requested an unaltered photo, and we’d be none the wiser.”
That’s still a statement I stand by.