Friday, April 13, 2007

Just like reality, only 'better'

Late last week, a Toledo, Ohio newspaper called The Blade suspended one of its staff photographers after they discovered that he had digitally altered a photograph printed in their paper.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1998 (for a photo series on children who escaped abusive parents), Detrich didn't wait around to serve his suspension. The day after it began, he quit.

Detrich didn't sound too shaken by the whole incident. According to an Associated Press report, he already had plans for his own business and was going to quit anyway. Detrich added, "'I'm going to enjoy my life with my family...I'll be glad I'm out of the news business.'"

On the surface, the circumstances surrounding the incident and the immediate fall-out seem fairly minor. For one thing, Detrich told The Blade's editors that he altered a photograph of a college baseball team for his own personal files. He then sent it to The Blade by accident.

According to the AP, "the photo showed Bluffton University players kneeling March 30 at their first game after a bus crash killed five players in Atlanta. Photos of the team in other Ohio newspapers showed the legs of someone standing in the background, but the legs did not appear in The Blade photo even though it was taken from a similar angle."

The Blade has a clear policy never to alter photographs, and after discovering what Detrich had done, The Blade began reviewing other photos taken by Detrich and published in their paper. So with one little mistake, even one without a trace of malice, everything Detrich's ever done is now tainted, if not in the eyes of his audience, then certainly in the eyes of those who care about his reputation and those who closely scrutinize his work. The Associated Press dramatically displayed this when they took away access to 50 of Detrich's photographs kept in their own archives.

What's a bit disconcerting is how mundane the alteration really was. Without seeing the photograph and talking with Detrich, I can't honestly judge the aesthetic reasoning behind Detrich's actions. On paper at least, it sounds minimal, so much that 15 years ago, you wonder if Detrich would've gone through the time and trouble to painstakingly airbrush and print the same photo all over again just to achieve the same result. Digital technology has made alterations so easy, it's made any alteration a lot more tempting.

Such practices are already accepted in Hollywood. Pop in a 'making of' DVD from "The Lord of the Rings," and you'll see Peter Jackson go through every frame of these films, altering individual elements like the light around someone's eyes or the hue of a tree branch. Ten years ago, micromanaging each frame of a motion picture would've been quixotic and excessive, but once the tools became available, it didn't take long for filmmakers to exploit them in this manner. Granted, these are works of art and entertainment, not journalism, but they show how easy and limitless digital alterations can be, so much that it may create enough temptation to challenge anyone's sense of journalistic ethics.

Last August, Reuters severed all ties with a photographer who manipulated a photograph of burning buildings in Lebanon. He probably would've gotten away with it had he done a decent job; anyone well-versed in Photoshop can easily tell what tools he used and how he applied them. In fact, you don't need any multimedia skills, you just need a decent eye: the photographer basically duplicated (or 'cloned') certain details within the smoke over and over again.

Question is, how many photographers do get away with it?


At Saturday, April 14, 2007, Blogger EJW said...

I've always struggled with the concept of altering photos. Here at Medill in our photo workshop we were told it was okay to manipulate a photo for aesthetic reasons. You can lighten it if its too dark, etc. But where do you draw the line? For news photos, I agree that you should not be cropping things out of the photo--it's supposed to reflect reality.


Post a Comment

<< Home