A Stanford university CS 201 Project

by Frederick Vallaeys

April 15, 1998

An Excerpt From Visual Communication Quarterly's article: "Photography or photofiction: an ethical protocol for the digital age."



Photographic credibility is based not on a reader's conviction that photography equals reality; rather, the viewer will believe that a photograph is true as long as "the evidence it presents corresponds in some strong sense to reality."(12) Simply put, the viewer expects the objects in an editorial photograph to be no more or less than the objects the photographer saw through the viewfinder. The Viewfinder Test does not prevent the use of traditional processing and editing techniques, nor does it deny the interpretative nature of the photographic image. It does, however, forbid the use of digital manipulation (or other means) to add or remove material objects from an editorial photograph, or to rearrange or substantially alter such objects within it.


The credibility of an editorial photograph requires adherence to a photographic process that the viewer knows and understands. Standard techniques-choice of f/stop, exposure, paper selection, the use of fish-eye or long lenses or special films - pose no threat to credibility because consumers know, for example, that a fish-eye is a "special effect," and that reality is not black and white. Post-exposure processing also poses no threat, so long as it is not misleading. For example, consumers already know, or would not be shocked to learn, that photos are routinely cropped. Similarly, there's at least a vague awareness of air-brushing. Most consumers, we suspect, know or would not be shocked to learn that images of fashion models are often touched up to remove so-called "imperfections."(13) But when the technique is outside the bounds of accepted photojournalistic practices for editorial photographs, the Photojournalist's Process Test is violated.

Professionals offer various rationales for materially manipulating editorial photographs, but in our view, any manipulation that deviates from the norms of photojournalistic practice as understood by consumers distances images from their referents, and thereby fails the Photojournalist's Process Test.


In the days before digital imaging, sloppy cutouts of celebrities frequently graced the covers of supermarket tabloids. Such images lacked credibility and seldom misled readers because of their technical artlessness. In a way, their lack of visual coherence sometimes protected the credibility of legitimate photography in the pre-digital world, when creating seemingly coherent composites was difficult, equipment intensive, and labor intensive.

But now with minimum skill and effort, a nearly seamless "photograph" can be concocted on the desktop at home. When the level of technical credibility no longer tips off viewers as to a material alteration, a failure to disclose it risks a loss of public confidence.


Is the photograph plausible?(14) Or, is its fictional content immediately obvious? When Spy magazine's cover gave us a pregnant Bruce Willis, the implausibility of the photographic image was apparent.(15) However, a Spy cover on which actress Daryl Hannah appeared to be wearing a skirt, coat and hat similar to the outfit worn by Jackie-Kennedy on the day President Kennedy was assassinated was less obviously a photo composition.(16) Signals in the first image told readers that it had no referent outside the frame of the photo, while the second image lacked, at
least at first glance, the clear signal that it was implausible. Similarly, in our view Time's O.J. Simpson cover contained no clear signal of implausibility.

Several kinds of editorial photography have room for photofiction, whether subtle or drastic, shocking or funny, or concocted with darkroom
techniques, airbrushing, or software. However, such manipulation entails responsibilities.


When the fiction is not immediately obvious, we must inform readers of it in a manner appropriate to the context. If our photofiction is not immediately obvious (it fails the "Pregnant Bruce Willis" Test of implausibility) and accounts for a substantial portion of the image's meaning, it requires a disclosure sufficiently prominent to mislead no one. After the digital removal of actor Don Johnson's handgun and holster from a 1985 Rolling Stone cover,(17) a sentence fragment in the credit line would have sufficed. "Composite photo" or "computer-enhanced image" or "digital alteration by Foto Fantasy" would be adequate and hardly a burden on publications already crediting photographers and often people
responsible for hair, makeup, fashion and so on. New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program has proposed a system of icons to identify both altered and unaltered photos; the American Society of Media Photographers supports the plan.(18)

Sometimes fine print or a small icon is insufficient. New York Newsday's Harding/Kerrigan composite appeared to show the skaters side by side on the ice at last. Unlike the Rolling Stone cover, whose fictional content was a detail, here the fiction was the essence of the image. The photo might also be described as visual speculation - here's how the skaters might look when and if they meet. But would we tolerate a newspaper headline announcing "Clinton Admits Guilt In Paula Jones Case!" accompanied by a fine-print disclaimer that it was mere speculation about what might occur?(19)

The future tense of Newsday's subhead "Tonya, Nancy To Meet At Practice" is a clue that the meeting had yet to occur, and the caption notes that the rivals "appear to skate together in this New York Newsday composite." Good. But the much larger "Fire on Ice" headline suggests that the meeting had already occurred, and that it was exciting, even confrontational. The example raises another aspect of identifying or labeling photo fiction: No one purchased the Don Johnson Rolling Stone because its cover photo had been altered, but we think it's fair to say that
Newsday's front-page composite provided the issue's chief selling point,
compounding its potential for misleading readers.

When to Apply These Tests:

  • Use the Viewfinder Test and the Photojournalist's Process Test when determining photofiction;
  • Use the "Pregnant Bruce Willis Test" when distinguishing obvious from nonobvious photofiction;
  • Use the Technical Credibility Test and the Essence of the Image Test to establish the appropriate level of disclosure for photofiction.

    Citation Information:
    (v50 n1) Start Page: pS8(5) ISSN: 0199-2422
    Photography or photofiction: an ethical protocol for the digital age.
    (Visual Communication Quarterly)