By Alejandro Alvarez
We spend hours of every day glued to digital imagery – photo, video, phone, TV. But how real is it all?
That’s the question facing news photographers and editors everywhere. We’re living in an age where viral content runs rampant and the most common question over an image is usually what filter was used for, rather than asking who took it, or where.
In the end, nobody likes to be duped – that much hasn’t changed. We want our news to be accurate and honest, even if we, as consumers, are increasingly leaving that fact-checking to the editors rather than doing it ourselves.
How is the changing world of photography meeting the need to stay ethical? What’s the fine line between keeping a photo truthful, and still quenching that public thirst for beautiful imagery with a deep yet simple message?
They’re difficult questions to answer, and every photographer or editor you ask will probably give you a different take. That said, there’s a still a consensus on what’s right and what’s taboo when dealing with photography.
Shooting in the field: If it’s gone, it’s gone.
Alejandro Alvarez is a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer (note: no relation to the author). In his 20 years of experience as a photojournalist, his rule of thumb is pretty simple: “If you miss it, you miss it.”
In Alvarez’s view, the onus for upholding photo ethics rests as much on the photographer themselves as on the editors who handle it afterwards. “We’re not in the news of telling lies,” Alvarez said, “you report to a newspaper, but you still have to be really careful.”
He cautions against manipulating a shot during and after the fact: don’t cut people out, don’t tell your subject what to do, and be sure you’re getting a good selection of images that tell the story clearly and fairly without even needing to glance at the article itself.
And maybe most importantly, he said, don’t screw up.
As a field photographer for the Inquirer, Alvarez often has to submit captions along with his images to editors back at the office, as well as tweeting photos on the fly. The same ethical standards apply to those tasks as they would for any article – don’t misrepresent the facts, be objective.
Any slip-up and you’ve damaged your own credibility and that of the agency you work for. Big papers, he said, aren’t that forgiving when it comes to breaching objectivity. If there’s ever any doubt about whether a photo you’ve taken is ethical, communicate with the editors and let them make the decision. After all, that’s what they’re there for.
Still, there’s a huge merit to having a team of dedicated, responsible photographers covering a story, Alvarez said.
Photojournalists have faced the brunt of industry-wide job cuts, with the rise of social media and cheaper cameras largely to blame. Many of the nation’s major newspapers have already cut loose their photography departments.
But that overabundance of cameras gives professional photography a new imperative. Per Alvarez, in the future, "we’ll have to deal with all the lies.”
“If there is a ‘conspiracy,’” Alvarez said, “it’s that we’ll believe all the lies.” Social media, he explained, has over-saturated our minds with imagery, robbing from many of us the ability to question what we take in. According to Alvarez, that’s the single biggest issue facing photography.
Examples are already everywhere. Go on social media within minutes of any breaking news story, and you’re bound to be bombarded by dozens of images – a number of which are likely inaccurate or even completely fake. Yet they inevitably spread like wildfire, sometimes earning more views that what actually transpired.
The ethics of editing: RAW or not?
Alvarez says that a crucial step to counter fake imagery is to have trustworthy photographers on the ground – after all, having a member of the team on-location is more conducive to the truth than relying on editors behind computer screens taking in submissions from untrained, unfamiliar eyes.
Of course, there are two steps to producing any photo: actually taking it, and post-processing. A photo’s news value can be degraded just as much by editing as through the way it was taken – perhaps, even more.
The ethical issues surrounding photo editing are boundless, since there are a billion different ways a photo can be manipulated thanks to better editing software.
One of the most controversial practices in photojournalism, however, has more to do with the nature of the photo itself. Enter: the RAW file format.
Think of it this way: an overwhelming majority of images you see online are in JPG format. It's a run-of-the-mill, commonly accepted file type that any gizmo is capable of displaying.
But in order for an image file to be so commonly displayable, it has be to be squeezed down so it doesn’t take centuries to load on your screen. Sadly, that also means a lot of quality loss – passable for Instagram or Twitter, sure, but unacceptable for broadcast or print.
Consumer cameras, your phone included, only produce JPG photos since they can be shared to anybody with no added effort. But higher-end cameras such as DSLRs can also shoot images in another format called RAW.
In a nutshell, they’re higher quality, much larger, and save extra information about lighting from the camera. That all allows for a wider editing capability and a better end product, which makes RAW the preferred shooting format for many photographers.
But a broader range of possible edits makes some photo editors a little uneasy. Some organizations, most recently Reuters, have outright banned their photographers from submitting photos originally shot in RAW out of a fear more edits means less news value.
It’s up for debate whether the uprising against RAW is a step in the right direction for photo ethics, or will just further constrict an already tightly-bound news photo field.
Richard Koci Hernandez, a UC-Berkeley media professor who worked as a photojournalist at the San Jose Mercury News for 15 years, says agencies like Reuters are making the right move.
“I think they have a responsibility to uphold the highest ethical standards in photojournalism,” Hernandez said, “and anything that they can do to help maintain the integrity of photographic truth is a step in the right direction.”
According to Hernandez, though both JPG and RAW are susceptible to being altered, the extra data packaged in a RAW file “certainly does leave more latitude for fakery or manipulation.”
Like Alvarez, however, Hernandez sees the mantle of truth resting in the hands of the photographer.
“Photographic truth doesn’t reside in the camera, or in an app, but in the heart and mind of the image-maker,” Hernandez said. “Let’s not point fingers at technology. It’s not Photoshop or Instagram ‘filters’ that create photographic lies, but the photographer.”
From the moment a journalist presses down the shutter, he said, edits are already being made – the shutter speed used, aperture size, choice of subject. It’s a journalist’s foremost responsibility to convey the news credibly and accurately rather than taking the liberties of an artist.
Or as Hernandez put it: “Our higher purpose is to be the purveyors of the most reasonable visual truth.”