Photo Manipulation; Is it Ethical?

In “Can You Believe Your Eyes in the Digital World,” I found it very interesting how Professor Farid discussed the thorough analysis he uses to discover touch ups and manipulations in photographs. I didn’t realize photos were ever a composite of more than one. I thought that generally, the only changes were minimal airbrushing.The article continues to talk about photographer Brian Walski who had composited two photos from a scene from Basra. I remember hearing about this when it happened and being unable to understand how any journalist with integrity would even think to do such a thing. I think it’s unacceptable for journalists to doctor photos because they are supposed to be informing the public of the truth. If it’s merely cleaning up the background of a shot and not altering the message, I don’t have as strong of objections. I expect nothing less from gossip magazines but well-respected magazines and newspapers are lying to the public if they print inauthentic photos. If the picture is making a statement and is more like a piece of art rather than trying to imitate reality, it is acceptable. Although, a message indicating that it was doctored should be upfront and clear, not hidden away in the back index of the magazine.

In the article “Every Picture Can Tell a Lie,” it says, “people look to photographs as quasi-objective representations of firsthand data, as a form of verification or proof.” People can’t trust what they read or hear anymore so they turn to what they can see, but the truth in that is quickly changing. The article states, “when untidy or unappealing objects are cleaned up or removed, the essence of that photo also quickly disappears.” I agree with this statement in a sense but think it really depends on the case. If the main subject of the image is doctored, than yes, it’s not as natural or real, but if its peripheral things or background noise that is irrelevant to the photo’s theme, I think it’s acceptable unless it’s a scholarly source and inferring the photo is a real snapshot of a moment in history. Though, the more I read this article, the more my mind changes whether or not doctoring in any way is acceptable. “The photo is no longer a glimpse of the scene. It is now an illustration: an interpretation with selective facts, categorized in a particular way, with some details highlighted, many others simply obliterated.” I still think if there’s a photo of a beautiful child and there something on the ground behind her that totally irrelevant to the scene and not the main focal point, it’s okay to omit it. I agree with the idea that photo manipulation has the potential to “even further undermine news consumers’ confidence in the media.” If the media start using photo manipulations too frequently and people find out, people could stop believing everyone and everything. If there’s a manipulated photo in the newspaper, who’s to say the public should believe the columnists? They might be bending the truth too. It’s a very thin line to tread and I think generally, serious news sources should avoid the practice of manipulation.  I was happy to hear about Ritchin’s proposal of a crossed out camera lens icon if a photo is altered. I think this would be a great solution. To me, it’s about transparency. In a way it can be compared to the calorie count on restaurant foods. It’s about being smart as a viewer and having the ability to really appreciate a picture when it is a hundred real. Also, as a calorie count may deter a producer from loading foods with unhealthy fats, having a mandatory manipulation icon on a photo may also deter photographers from altering their photos in the first place.

The examples of photo manipulation throughout history are extremely surprising and disconcerting. The fact that the portrait of Lincoln is someone else’s body is altering history. That one image is the way many people picture of think about Abraham Lincoln.

The photo of Mathew Brady with General Francis P Blair could have really caused problems if someone used this photo as evidence that Francis Blair participated in whatever meeting the original photo was from.


I don’t think you should be able to doctor a photo and win the Pulitzer and that’s exactly what John Filo did. For me, Pulitzer Prize winning photos represent a photographer’s unique ability to capture an amazing moment in history. Even though I think the photo looks better without the fence post, I don’t think it was ethical to alter it.

I don’t think National Geographic should ever manipulate it’s photos since the information it provides about the world and other cultures is the closest thing many of the viewers will ever see to the real places being depicted.

The Wisconsin photo where a black student was added in to show diversity reminded me  of a banner my high school placed in front of the main building the summer after I graduated. The original picture was of my 50 person graduating class, but the section shown on the banner was only white girls. In my class, there was only one African-American girl, one Indian girl and one girl from Mexico and they were all photoshopped in the part of the picture  they were not originally in. People took this to mean a few different things. Either the school was misrepresenting the actual makeup and trying to make a false case that it was diverse, or, the school was showing diversity was important to it and didn’t want to be represented as a bunch of white girls.

I think it was especially wrong to combine a picture of Julia Roberts in the July 2003 Redbook cover and have the caption be “The real Julia.”

The picture of Fonda and Kerry together is totally unacceptable. They were not even at the same rally and this can send mixed messages. This is totally changing the truth, not a slight alter, but a complete overhaul. I am curious to know if Senator Kerry had anything to do with the composite.

The ‘05 Newsweek cover of Martha Stewart showing her on a model’s body and the headline  “She’s skinnier and healthier,” is totally unacceptable as it is saying one thing and depicting another. Hypocrisy fills the pages of magazines that manipulate photos to try to emphasize a point. I am shocked how many doctored images are from Newsweek or Time, since wouldn’t ever expect credible news sources to blatantly do that.

The April 2005 cover of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie also shocked me. Although I said earlier one should expect nothing more than doctored photos in gossip magazines, I really believed this photo was real. It could have ruined a family. This is damaging in so many ways.

The ‘06 case of photo evidence in stem cell research being doctored is frightening. This could change science. This makes me particularly glad there are people who can detect manipulation.

The July 2008 Fox news show that altered pictures of New York Times journalists only further disgusts me, although I think Fox News doctors just about all information.

In conclusion, there is a definite problem with photo tampering. It was scary to see how many known examples of photo manipulation exist and to wonder about those pictures that still falsely pose as authentic. The examples show photo manipulation can hurt science, relationships, people’s perceptions about themselves, body image and society, and the way people envision historical figures, ideas about other cultures and much, much more. It was refreshing to hear most news sources have policies about doctoring images and that swift action is usually taken if journalists are found to doctor images. I think that there should be specific journalistic guidelines though about what is acceptable. Something universal would be helpful, maybe an AP rule about photo manipulation. I also like Ritchin’s proposal to put an icon on any doctored photo. This would educate viewers and act as a deterrent for the media to change images or footage. Also, the public has to let magazines know they won’t stand for it. People have to tell companies that they don’t want to see a celebrity with her waist airbrushed down to a stick. In a way, the public is letting it happen by continuing to buy magazines without questioning the ethics behind the practice.

Pictures and information taken from


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