A Stanford University CS201 Project

by Frederick Vallaeys

April 15, 1998

Search Results for "photo manipulation ethics" on:





Search for books about the ethics of photo manipulations at Barnes & Noble

Ethical Issues Concerning Digital Photography

ethics and photography


Photography today is no longer what it used to be. Traditional photography was usually a good reflection of reality. The photographic medium did not lend itself well to realistic manipulations of the facts. However, with the advent of photo-editing software and digital photography, photos can now be distorted in such a way that the casual viewer can't detect these changes. This has raised some very interesting questions about ethics.

This project contains 3 main sections:



Examples of Manipulated Photos

Changing Reality in Trivial Ways

Ethical problems arises when photos are manipulated in ways that trick the public into believing that they are seeing something which is not real. Examples of this type of deception include:

  • Time's cover with OJ's skin darkened (June 27, 1994);

  • National Geographic's cover of the pyramids;

  • Ford's advertisement in which a black person was changed into a white person;

  • a photo of Bill Clinton together with Ronald Reagan... published before the two ever met;

  • A lesser known example is that of a Texas Monthly cover in which Senator Anne Richards (Texas) is portrayed on a Harley Davidson bike;

These are all examples of manipulations that could easily be considered unethical. The National Geographic, as a premier authority on geography, should not have distorted a picture of an important monument just because the change makes it look better as a cover.

Time magazine and Ford did not mean to be racist when they manipulated their pictures, yet racism is a sensitive issue, making it a dangerous area to fool around with. Ford changed its ad for use in a country where there are almost no black people and they thought this change would make the ad more appealing to their target audience. Time manipulated its cover photo because the OJ mug-shot that they had was not of high enough quality to go on the cover without any manipulation.

Changing Reality in Nontrivial Ways

Another example of a digitally manipulated news photo can be seen here. A pole which was distracting attention away from the subject was removed. While the manipulation makes the picture more appealing, it does not change the essence of the story that the photo is telling. While this is not as objectionable as other manipulations, the viewer should still be informed that the photo was manipulated to look better.

Graphical Examples

President Bush and Margaret Thatcher were having a normal conversation, but image manipulation made it look as if they had an argument or as if they were whispering.

This picture comes from a web-page that contains several examples of how pictures have been manipulated in the past to change stories or to make someone look more attractive than they are in reality. Go there



Technology Making Photo Manipulations Possible

A brief history of digital photo manipulations (from Pixelphoto.com )

The history of digital photography started with the advent of drum scanners, a system in which "the original image was taped to a transparent cylinder which was spun in the path of an extremely narrow beam of light. The signal from the light sensitive Photo Multiplier Tube that received the light beam was electronically processed and used to expose the separation film which was
attached to another cylinder spinning on the other end of the same drive shaft inside the scanner."

This process of using a drum scanner was taken one step further by the "Scitex company [who] took the signal from the photo multiplier tube and stored it in a computer where the image could be manipulated before being output onto separation film. These machines were tremendously expensive and hideously complex." This technique was developed in the mid 1970's.

"Around this time Apple arranged the marriage of the desktop computer, the laser printer, and the Postscript language. This was the birth of desktop publishing. Initially this only really effected typesetting, but soon grew to encompass page layout and composition.

As desktop computers became much more powerful and much less expensive it began to be possible to use them for imaging applications.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch....Skywalker Ranch that is; George Lucas sold a software application he’d had developed for the production of Star Wars. This specialized program was redeveloped and repackaged for the commercial market and was called... Photoshop.

As the price of all this technology has collapsed from a high of several hundreds of thousands of dollars down to a few tens of thousands of dollars these amazingly powerful tools have become available to designers, illustrators, and photographers. This has resulted in a substantial blurring of roles and shifting of responsibilities."

The modern technologies used for manipulating photos include scanners, digital cameras and storage devices that can hold a vast amount of these photos in their digital form. These technologies are explained more in-depth.

Widespread Availability of Photo Manipulation Services

While professionals have the equipment and skills to manipulate photos using a computer, this technique is accessible to virtually everyone. There exist commercial services that specialize in digitally changing photos by cutting out certain "unwanted" people or by taking a person and placing them in a new environment. Go to this service-bureau.

Apple Computers has an excellent page that explains the possibilities of digital photography for the average computer user.



Codes of Ethics and Digital Photo Manipulations

While digitally manipulated photos are a legitimate form of art, journalists have a duty to portray reality. This is pretty much the general feeling of both the press and the public.

An excellent and very comprehensive code of ethics for journalists can be found at the web page of the Society of Professional Journalists. With regards to photo manipulations the SPJ says: "Although photographic enhancement for purely reproduction purposes is a traditional and accepted practice, any more extensive photographic manipulations, whether rendered digitally or by hand, must be identified as such and should not alter the content or meaning of the moments they depict."

Guidelines to test whether it would be ethical to print a manipulated image without informing the public are given here.

A proposed solution to the problem of how to identify manipulated pictures is offered by the National Union of Journalists. They offer this solution: "All NUJ publications adopt a "not a camera" symbol, placed discreetly but clearly within the image area, when they run manipulated images." They also propose to distinguish between 3 different types of photos: genuine photos; retouched photos; and composites.

unmanip1.gif (902 bytes)manip1.gif (1847 bytes)      



The ethics of digital photo manipulations are complicated because it is not always easy to differentiate between good journalism and good reporting of reality. Take for instance the example of an airplane crash site where no photographers and no cameras were present. The following day, newspapers ran photo illustrations with the story of the crash. While these photos were made on the computer using elements from existing pictures, they did give a good portrayal of the crash site as described by the survivors. Was it ethical in this case to run this photo on the front-page, even when saying that it was a composite?

For an extended discussion of this issue between several professionals, read the article: "Little photoshop of horrors: the ethics of manipulating journalistic imagery." [(v49 n6) Start Page: p24(25) ISSN: 0032-8510] It can be purchased from NLSearch.com. The article is not so much trying to offer solutions as it is trying to clarify the point that this issue has many nuances and can not be treated as a black and white issue. Read some interesting thoughts that are in this article.

Copyright 1998 - Frederick Vallaeys
All Rights Reserved
Last Modified April 15, 1998