When is Photoshop unethical?

Showing reality through a picture is generally accepted as photography’s main purpose.

But popular and easy-to-use image editing software is calling that reality into question.

Last month, Culture Secretary James Purnell was unable to make it on time to a photo-shoot with other MPs to promote a new development at a hospital in Tameside.

His spokesman has said that instead of ‘letting anyone down’ the MP gave his consent for the hospital to doctor the image so it looked like he was actually there.

As Mr Purnell did eventually turn up, software was used to add his pose to the original image, giving the impression he was present and accounted for – when, in fact, he wasn’t.

The Photoshop guru at the hospital remains unknown but if that person, and others who use the software without declaring it, did come forward, then they may face legal bother.

Such is the verdict of Roger Sinclair, legal consultant at Egos Ltd, a contract, commercial and media law specialist.

He told FreelanceUK: “If you use photo editing software to produce a piece of art, [then that’s] fine.

“But if you're using it to make material changes to a picture which you are using to report an event, and to make it seem something different to what it in fact was, then there's a technical term for that which you'd better get to grips with: it's a 'lie'.”

Mr Sinclair said a news photojournalist who uses Photoshop without declaring its use is tantamount to a “journalist who invents material facts underlying a story.”

He warned: “If you think it won't harm your reputation to become known for producing lies, then go ahead.

“[But]…if someone else suffers loss as a result of your lie, they may be sufficiently motivated to try and make legal history, with you at the other end of it.”

The principles that bind ethical journalists are almost the same ones that photographers should adhere to, if of course avoiding legal bother is preferred.

Although under revision, the NUJ’s Code of Conduct currently states some clear guidelines for photographers keen to keep ethical with the likes of Photoshop.

Clause 6 of the code states that a journalist (or photographer):“Obtains material by honest, straightforward and open means, with the exception of investigations that are both overwhelmingly in the public interest and which involve evidence that cannot be obtained by straightforward means.”

And Clause 2 adds that the ethical journalist – or photographer - “Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair.”

For John Toner, freelance organiser at the National Union of Journalists, using Photoshop responsibly “is not about 'best practice' in editing”.

Instead, "it’s about informing the public when an image has been manipulated and how it has been manipulated."

He advised that this can be achieved by spelling out in a footnote or similar that amendments have been made to the photo displayed.

"If an image has been manipulated the caption should state this. There should be no attempt made to pass something off as a fact when it is a fiction."

He added:"The James Purnell pictures would be a case in point. If he was not present when the picture was taken, it is unethical to make it appear that he was."

It should be noted, however, that minor amends to images are made everyday in national, local and online newsrooms, such as stretching to fit a page or extending the legs of a glamour model.

Writing in his book Journolists, the veteran journalist Cedric Pulford explained: “We don’t need to deny ourselves the advantages of the [digital image editing] technology, but there is a quantum gap between tweaking two figures closer to remove the empty space between them and removing someone from a group shot.

“Producing a leggier model may not matter because we are dealing in fantasy; to ‘tidy up’ people in news [pictures]…is a distortion if real life. We all have to decide how far down this road we are willing to go.”

Adobe, the makers of Photoshop, failed to immediately respond to a request for guidance on using its software.


Nov 28, 2007
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