Ethical fowls

March 1, 2013 

It's been quite the week in photojournalism ethics, following some feverish toning debates, the kerfuffle over Paolo Pellegrin's work in Rochester, N.Y.,, and a rescinded White House News Photographers Association award for The Washington Post's Tracy Woodward. The AP even put out a Facebook status update about a Manu Brabo photo from Syria that they removed after figuring out it had been rotated 180 degrees:

A photo showing displaced Syrian children reflected in a puddle, used as our cover picture earlier today, was transmitted upside down and has been withdrawn by the AP.

Ethics discussions are maddeningly gray, and you can easily argue that toning is an aesthetic call or that the AP should have just rotated the image back so it looks like the reflection in a puddle that it is.

One area without wiggle room is digitally adding, moving or removing parts of a photo. Famous recent examples include Allan Detrich's leg removal (among others), Brian Walski's composite image in Iraq and Adnan Hajj's hackjob adding smoke to an already dramatic look at Beirut's skyline.

While some are very high-profile news stories, a look at Detrich's dalliances shows that he crossed the line on pedestrian images of run-of-the-mill situations. And while Tracy Woodward's recent transgression certainly features a strong moment, removing the referee, especially when an unaltered version had already been published, really makes you wonder how somebody gets to the point where violating one of the basic tenets of photojournalism appears so easy.

I was thinking about this while shooting some slow-news-day feature shots of Jose Vargas while he hunted for goodies alongside some ducks in Columbia Park:

I had plenty of time to think as I slowly made my way around to keep the grounded flock between Vargas and me, hoping his approach would spook them into frame-filling flight while trying to keep either clean or interesting backgrounds:

It never quite worked out, but the frame I ended up making had a nice progression of flight in the foreground:

And though I wish that duck on the left was a bit closer, the thought of digitally moving it didn't cross my mind until I set out to narcissistically relate an international debate to my mundane corner of the photojournalism world. Doing so, along with removing an annoying bright spot, took less than five minutes for a passable job:

What I was thinking of is something I consider an even bigger ethical foul: manipulating the situation for your photograph. I did a whole lot of muttering under my breath from 100 feet away that he should walk toward me, but I would never tell somebody to do something. I don't even consider running photos if I think the subjects were acting for my benefit or if I feel I overly impacted the situation.

Of course, just being there on quick daily assignments means I have likely affected the situation somewhat, but I do my best to tread lightly and let things unfold as they might have if I wasn't there.

It would have taken a lot less waiting to just throw something at the ducks to make them fly or to set it up with Vargas to startle them on my mark, but it would have been a scummy, unethical move. The fact that I'm using such a trite example to illustrate this boundary should show how seriously I, and I hope every, photojournalist take these ethics.

The scary thing is that these types of problems are much harder to find. There isn't an original moment to compare the manipulated one with and staging photographs used to be a necessity. But if high-performing photojournalists are willing to cross the line in such black-and-white areas of digital manipulation when the chances of getting caught are so great, it's unsettling to wonder how many shooters in more desperate situations are willing to wade into grayer territory.

Speaking of scary...

Time's Lightbox featured Sara Naomi Lewkovicz's powerful look at domestic violence. I linked to her work a few weeks back, but it's definitely worth another look.

The Image, Deconstructed has a nice feature on Andrew Burton's coverage of Christmas in Breezy Point after Hurricane Sandy.

PDN's 30 is out, highlighting the magazine's choice of "new and emerging photographers to watch."

And check out David Guttenfelder's Instagram for a peek inside North Korea.

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